PRINT March 2020



May Stevens in her studio, New York, 1974. Photo: Joyce Ravid. © The Estate of May Stevens.

IN 1968, I moved to a loft in SoHo around the corner from where May Stevens and her husband, the Lithuanian-born painter Rudolf Baranik, lived with their dog, Sparta. We became friends and political allies. They were way ahead of me, having been deeply committed to the civil-rights movement and, later, active participants of the Angry Arts Week and cofounders of Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam. Rudolf, a self-defined “socialist-formalist,” was the dedicated activist and strategist. May was involved but less active until the feminist art movement hit New York in 1970. Her “political Pop” series “Big Daddy,” 1967–76, about her beloved but bigoted father, combined the issues. And she was an enthusiastic cofounder of Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics. When the first issue was going to press in early 1977, we pasted it up in her walk-up loft on Wooster Street, with Rudolf running in and out and up and down for coffee and supplies. In a later issue of Heresies, she wrote, “A socialist and feminist analysis of culture must be as careful as it is angry—fierce and responsible.” May went on to join the Guerrilla Girls in the mid-1980s.

In early 1977, Leon Golub and Nancy Spero gave me a biography of Rosa Luxemburg to read while I was in the hospital. I passed it on to May, and the socialist hero became her focus, leading to the 1980 artist’s book and feminist classic Ordinary/Extraordinary—the title of which she lent to an impressive series of works about the lives of her own mother and Rosa made over the course of the next decade. In 1984, she and Rudolf assembled a collection of American art to give to Cuba when we went to the Havana Biennial, and they helped organize the transformation of a block of West Broadway into La Verdadera Avenida de las Americas (The Real Avenue of the Americas) as part of “Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America.”

May was a great reader, and a poet and writer with an original voice. She also taught for decades at the School of Visual Arts. Many of her students remained friends for life. She hated pretension. She was inquisitive, outspoken, and sometimes tactless—in which case, Rudolf would say, “That’s not the real May.” She was publicly tough but privately vulnerable, given the tragedies she had survived—her young brother’s death, her mother’s deteriorating mental health, her son Steven’s suicide in 1981. After, his parents wore only black or white.

May was a great reader, and a poet and writer with an original voice.

Having been raised next to a river near the sea, she loved swimming and water. When they visited me in Maine in the summers, Rudolf would row my little dinghy into Sagadahoc Bay, where, years later, May and I deposited some of his ashes. She also loved language, and in the ’90s began painting landscapes with “seas of words” and a woman in a rowboat, inspired by an old photo of filmmaker Joan Braderman’s mother and a little Mexican folk-art piece I had given her of two calaveras in a clay rowboat.

Around 1993, I moved to the village of Galisteo, New Mexico, where fellow Heretic Harmony Hammond was already ensconced. Another Heresies stalwart, Sabra Moore, settled a couple of hours away in Abiquiu, and a few years later, May and Rudolf landed in Eldorado, fifteen minutes north of Galisteo. Rudolf died during a snowstorm in 1998. They had been married for fifty years. May became an honorary member of the Galisteo Gals (Harmony Hammond, Nancy Holt, and myself), and we celebrated birthdays and holidays together for years.

Although May was vain, in her eighties she had friends photograph her in the nude. Around 2012, she began to display signs of confusion, and when she forgot the annual Christmas dinner at my house, she gave me power of attorney. She stopped making her own art as her health deteriorated. Sadly, she spent her last years in the memory ward at Kingston Residence in Santa Fe. When she died on December 9, 2019, we had been friends for more than half a century. May insisted that Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la vida” (Thanks to Life) be played at Rudolf’s memorials. We will do the same at hers. 

Lucy R. Lippard is a cultural critic based in Galisteo, NM, and the author of twenty-five books on contemporary art, place, and local history.