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 May Stevens  (1924 - )

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts      Known for: painting-political and feminist issues

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from Auction House Records.
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Feminist* artist, poet, and writer May Stevens was born in 1924 in Quincy, Massachusetts.  She became a painter of large-scale acrylic canvases that express her view on a variety of social issues, especially those dealing with racism and women's roles in society.  Many of her works have symbolic figures "painted in a kind of brilliant hued, post-Pop realism." (Rubinstein 399).  One of these figures, Big Daddy, is depicted with a bullet, phallic-shaped head and no shirt and is intended to represent imperialism, racism, and sexism.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, her artwork seemed generally perceived by critics as propaganda, which in that era was not popular, and some critics described her symbolic figures demeaningly as caricatures.  However, as women's issues and racial matters came increasingly to the fore of public thinking, her work has gained in popular appeal.

In the 1950s and 1960s, her work involved racial themes and the civil rights movement, including freedom riders and Malcolm X in his casket. In the 1970s, her emphasis moved to feminism, and she often used photographs of her family in the creation of paintings, photo-montages and murals.  In Ordinary/Extraordinary, Stevens contrasts her mother with the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, and this juxtaposition was similar to what she had done in the 1960s with her father and the issues of racism.

Stevens focus on these issues resulted from her childhood with a mother whom she perceived to be highly repressed by poverty and expectations in a male-dominated society.  Her father was a shipyard worker whom she resented because of his bigotry and racism, especially his beliefs in Germanic superiority.

Stevens studied in Boston at the Massachusetts College of Art in 1946 and in New York City at the Art Students League* in 1948.  She married artist Rudolf Baranik, and the couple went to Paris where he was studying on a G.I. Bill.  She studied briefly at the Academy Julian* but quit with the burden of her pregnancy.  However, she continued painting and exhibited her work at the Galerie Huit.  She received favorable reviews, although a frequent theme of critics toward her work was their distaste for political subjects.

Returning to New York City in 1951, she taught for five years at the High School of Music and Art, and then taught in various places such as the School of Visual Arts and Parsons School of Design*, while painting and working on exhibitions.  She also founded the feminist journal, Heresies.

Her first New York City exhibition was in 1955 at the Galerie Moderne, after a show in 1951 in Paris. She also showed at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, and the Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, Germany; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sao Paolo, Brazil; Indochina Arts Project; and the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, among many others.  She received a New York State Council on the Arts Creative Public Service Award in graphics in 1974; a painting grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983; and a painting fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation* in 1986.

May Stevens' works are in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Brooklyn Museum, New York City, among others.

Jules and Nancy Heller, North American Women Artists of the 20th Century
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
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