b. 1924 Quincy, MA – d. 2019 Santa Fe, NM
May Stevens (b. 1924 Quincy, MA - d. 2019 Santa Fe, NM) came to prominence during the 1960s for her politically charged paintings and drawings. She was a founding member of Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics (1976), and an original Guerilla Girl following the feminist group’s founding in 1985. “Political activity does not interfere with my work, it feeds it,” Stevens said. “It feeds it because I don't think of art as this sacred thing that you do in this sacred place that nobody else and no other thing can ever come in. It's part of the world.”
From 1968-1997, Stevens and her husband, artist Rudolf Baranik (1920–1998), maintained studios in New York and exhibited widely. In 1963, Stevens exhibited her first major series, Freedom Riders, in her first solo exhibition at the Roko Gallery in New York City. The series was Stevens’ outraged response to the increasingly violent racism facing African Americans living in the American South. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. contributed a catalogue essay. Other well- known painting series include Big Daddy (1967-76); History Paintings (1974-81); Ordinary Extraordinary / Rosa Luxemburg and Alice Stevens (1976-91); Sea of Words (begun in 1990); and Rivers and Other Bodies of Water, (begun in 2001).
Between 1967 and 1976, Stevens produced her Big Daddy series—a collection of paintings and works on paper that explored racial bigotry, and opposed the Vietnam War. Her graphic pop-esque depictions of a generic, middle-aged white male wearing various uniforms—a butcher, policeman, a soldier, and a hangman—were originally inspired by her own father’s racist views. Stevens created this ignorant male caricature to serve as a visual metaphor for all that she felt was hypocritical and unjust in American patriarchal power dynamics. These images have recently received renewed attention, and two of Stevens’ Big Daddy works are currently on view in the MoMA’s inaugural exhibition. A Big Daddy painting was also included in the exhibition, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and traveling to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Over a period dating from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Stevens produced over seventy works in her Ordinary/Extraordinary series. These include some thirty collages, thirteen drawings, a handful of prints, and approximately fourteen paintings that endeavor to untangle the identity, accomplishments and murder of Rosa Luxemburg, an important Polish-German Marxist activist who co-founded the German Communist Party. Stevens often drew on historical materials to establish a comparison between Luxemburg and Alice Stevens, an American homemaker and May Stevens’ own mother. The parallels drawn between both women in this series aim to highlight the simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary potential of women.
Stevens’ last body of works studied the introspective power of words. Her last two series, Sea of Words, and Rivers and Other Bodies of Water, combined the ubiquitous impact of water and writing as a way to harness and process her grief following the death of her close family members as well as facing her own mortality.
Stevens studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, the Art Students League, and the Académie Julian in Paris. She later taught at the School of Visual Arts, NY from 1961-1996.
Stevens has received numerous awards including 10 MacDowell Colony residencies, a Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award (1990), Guggenheim Fellowship in painting (1986), National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting (1983), Andy Warhol Foundation residency (2001), and the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement by the College Art Association (2001).
Major publications include May Stevens, a monograph by Patricia Hills with introduction by Phyllis Rose (2005); May Stevens Catalog for Big Daddy Series with essay by Lawrence Alloway on the occasion of her solo show at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art (1973); Lucy R. Lippard’s essay, “May Stevens’ Big Daddies,” which appeared in From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976); May Stevens: Ordinary/Extraordinary, A Summation, 1977-1984, edited by Patricia Hills with essays by Donald Kuspit, Lucy Lippard, Moira Roth, and Lisa Tickner (1984); and May Stevens: Images of Women Near and Far published in conjunction with her retrospective at Museum of Fine Arts Boston (1999).
In 1999, Stevens had a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, entitled Images of Women Near and Far 1983-1997, the museum’s first exhibition of its kind for a living female artist. In 2005, she had important traveling solo exhibitions at the Springfield Museum of Art, MO; the Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, DC. In 2023, Stevens was the focus of My Mothers, a solo exhibition at the MassArt Art Museum, MA. Her work has also been included in exhibitions at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX (2022); Jewish Museum, NY (2022); Telfair Museums, GA (2022); SITE Santa Fe, NM (2021); Allentown Art Museum, PA (2020); Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA (2020); Art Students League, NY (2019); Smithsonian American Art Museum, DC (2019); New Britain Museum of American Art, CT (2019); Detroit Institute of Arts, MI (2019); Whitney Museum of American Art, NY (2017); British Museum, UK (2017); and the Brooklyn Museum, NY (2017), among others.
Stevens’s work is in numerous prominent museum collections, including the British Museum, UK; Brooklyn Museum, NY; deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, MA; Hood Museum of Art, NH; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts, MO; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, among others.
Friends and Agitators: Emma Amos, Camille Billops, Vivian Browne, and May Stevens 1965 – 1993
May Stevens – Rosa Luxemburg
May Stevens: Crossing Time
May Stevens: Images of Women Near and Far
May Stevens: Ordinary Extraordinary