PRINT March 2020



May Stevens, A Life, 1984, acrylic on canvas, 78 × 120". From the series “Ordinary/Extraordinary,” 1976–84. © The Estate of May Stevens.

I MET MAY STEVENS in the fall of 1983, when I enrolled in her survey class, Women in the Arts, at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I had made it through the tedium of the school’s conventionally designed foundation-year curriculum and into the second year of my degree program, when it was finally possible to take the many electives offered by the extraordinary instructors then teaching there. SVA was an early adopter of the adjunct-instructor model, meaning the school offered a representative sampling of the New York art world—for better and for worse. Painting was the dominant practice, and, according to many professors and their syllabi, men were the dominant practitioners. But because the program strove to be a microcosm of the increasingly market-driven downtown art scene (SVA itself was, and is, a for-profit institution), other positions and trajectories were given voices in the curricula. One of those voices belonged to May Stevens, who taught both a painting studio and what would prove to be the historically significant course in which I found myself during the academic year of 1983–84.

Memory is stubborn. We immediately edit out myriad details, entire chunks of experience. Other pieces fall by the wayside with time. At its best, remembering is a collective act. To that end, when asked to write about my recollections of May, I rekindled a dialogue with Andrea Egert, née Rosenthal, a fellow student and close friend who was my intellectual and emotional companion through the mind-altering journey that was Women in the Arts. (Andrea is now a singer-songwriter as well as a psychotherapist; her analytic sensitivities guided the process of thinking back thirty-five years.)

May Stevens, Big Daddy with Hats, 1971, silk screen on paper, 26 × 25 1⁄4". From the series “Big Daddy,” 1967–76. © The Estate of May Stevens.

Together, Andrea and I began to excavate our individual and shared thoughts and piece together moments of that year bit by bit. May’s reading list included Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), with Lucy Lippard’s From the Center (1976) providing the course’s structural spine. Over the two semesters, a staggering roster of feminist art practitioners visited: Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Ana Mendieta, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mimi Smith, Nancy Spero. I’m sure there were others as well. May wanted to pass on to her students the structure of collectivity and a resistance to isolation. She had been integral to the Carnival Knowledge collective and the Heresies collective and journal, and she discussed their formation at length and the role they played in their political moments. It was a heady time, 1983 into 1984, and a crossroads for feminist artistic positions that had emerged in the ’60s and early ’70s, with their grounding in Marxist thought and the interplay between gender and labor, and the more recent formations of feminist thinking and practice, which merged psychoanalysis, media representation, and direct involvement and confrontation with an awareness of the burgeoning art market. The moment seemed to demand a choice: With which feminist stance would you align yourself? May gave us the tools to parse the nodes of a more expansive and inclusive feminist art production and offered connective tissue between potentially oppositional points, something to which I remain deeply indebted.

May gave us the tools to parse the nodes of a more expansive and inclusive feminist art production and offered connective tissue between potentially oppositional points.

May Stevens, Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg, 1976, collage, photostat, acrylic, and ink on paper, 16 1⁄2 × 10". From the series “Ordinary/Extraordinary,” 1976–84. © The Estate of May Stevens.

I recall very well May’s attention to the class, her keen intelligence and engagement, and her candid references to her own personal and political self-transformation. The studio work she was absorbed in during that period hinged on the false dichotomy between the personal and political realms—or, as she suggested in the title of a series that spanned the ’70s and ’80s, the “Ordinary/Extraordinary.” Sometime during our year together, she invited the class to her SoHo loft to view a group of large-scale canvases that focused on her mother, Alice. We had seen Alice before in an earlier part of the series, juxtaposed and conflated with the figure of Rosa Luxemburg, but in the works we saw that day, she was alone, as far as I can remember. Her mother’s hands were central, gesticulating repetitively across the paintings; May explained to the group that her mother now had dementia. After the visit, May and I rode down in the elevator alone together. She asked me what I thought of the work I had just seen, and in a flush of youthful awkwardness, I blurted out something that seemed to fall flat, something not at all like what I wanted to say, though I’m not sure I knew what I wanted to say. Language escaped me, silence took over the elevator, and I felt her vague judgment and kindness combined. Only now can I imagine the vulnerability she probably also felt that day, exposing work rife with personal details and political implications to a group of young students; I think the awkwardness was not mine alone.

At the beginning of our recent dialogue, Andrea remarked on one of the final statements in Holland Cotter’s New York Times obituary: “She leaves no immediate survivors.” We both sensed the huge inadequacy of that idea, with the depth of isolation it suggests. Understood within the frame of May’s own chosen mode of collectivity, she leaves, it’s clear, a multitude of immediate survivors—so many people over several generations who have been intimately shaped and altered by her life’s work and vision.

Tom Burr is an artist based in New York.