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May Stevens in her Soho studio with The Artist’s Studio (After Courbet), 1974. Photo: Joyce Ravid. Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.
May Stevens in her Soho studio with The Artist’s Studio (After Courbet), 1974. Photo: Joyce Ravid. Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

May Stevens (1924–2019)

Artist, activist, teacher, and writer May Stevens—whose protean, psychologically and politically motivated work made crucial contributions to feminist, socialist, and antiracist struggles—has died at age ninety-five.

Born in the working-class Boston suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1924, Stevens studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, the Academie Julian in Paris, and the Art Students League in New York, where she met the Lithuanian American activist Rudolf Baranik. Married in 1948, the couple became a fixture in New York’s leftist art circles, befriending Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, and Lucy Lippard, among others, and were active in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Painted in a gestural, expressionist grisaille, her 1963 gouache Freedom Riders honors the activists who protested Jim Crow by boarding segregated interstate buses in the South. It was shown as the titular work of an exhibition mounted the following year at Roko Gallery on Tenth Street in New York; Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the foreword to the catalogue. Later in the decade, Stevens embraced autobiographical content and a hard-edge, Pop-inflected style in her signal “Big Daddy” series, 1967–76, whose flabby, middle-aged protagonist was based on the artist’s father—a personal symbol of white reactionary masculinity. “The result,” art critic Joachim Neugroschel wrote in a 1971 Artforum review, “is a tough and poignant feminist critique of the patriarchal power structure as allegorized in the recurrent figure of a pompous but sad, dangerously paternalistic figure, usually shown with a porcine bulldog, the two of them in a variety of costumes and poses.” Two works from the series are currently on view in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural reinstallation of its permanent collection.

Stevens remained committed to socialism and women’s liberation throughout the 1970s and ’80s. In 1976, she became a cofounder of the influential journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics. The same year, she began a body of over seventy paintings and works on paper devoted to the life and death of Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, a selection of which is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery in New York through December 21. In 1982, she was one of five US artists to visit Cuba with a delegation of artists led by Ana Mendieta and organized by the Circulo de Cultura Cubana.

The artist has had solo exhibitions at museums including the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and the New Museum in New York. “Images of Women Near and Far,” her 1999 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was that institution’s first major retrospective devoted to a living female artist. Her work has been collected by these and other major US museums, including the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

A dedicated educator—she taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1961 to 1996—and writer, Stevens used words as well as images to agitate for social change. In response to a 1975 Artforum questionnaire on the prospects of painting in that decade, she wrote: “Why is it so hard for art-minded people to understand art as a natural vehicle for political passion, not an adulterant but an irritant, a stimulant, a rich and common source of energy? The obvious answer is that art which the establishment is least able to accept is not the avant-garde (which fights prior art concepts) but the politically effective (which fights establishment myths of patriotism and nationalism, the superiority of one class, sex or race to another).”