May Stevens American

Not on view

Equal parts activist and artist, May Stevens devoted a great deal of her art to visualizing the political and ethical stakes of the civil rights, anti-war, socialist, and feminist movements. As she said in a September 1975 interview published in Artforum, "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?"[1] Stevens studied in Boston, Paris, and New York, marrying fellow traveler Rudolf Baranik in 1948 and befriending a host of progressive figures, including artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, and critic Lucy Lippard, in the 1960s. She taught at the School of the Visual Arts in New York between 1961 and 1996. Among her many accomplishments, she helped found Artists and Writers Protest Against the Vietnam War in 1967; co-established the critical journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics in 1976; and joined the original group of Guerrilla Girls in 1985. Known primarily as a painter, Stevens’s work combines elements of gestural and hard-edge painting, cutting across the boundaries of Abstract Expressionism and Pop as well.

In 1976, Stevens began the series to which Procession belongs: "Ordinary/Extraordinary" (also the title of an artist book published in 1980). This body of work is devoted to the Marxist author, organizer, and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who was born in Poland in 1871. (The earliest of Stevens’s pieces on Luxemburg—a group of collages—appeared in the inaugural issue of Heresies in 1977.) A passionate advocate for class struggle and an equally ardent anti-war activist, Luxemburg (along with Karl Liebknecht, with whom she founded the Spartacus League, a Marxist revolutionary movement) was arrested and executed by members of the Freikorps, a conservative paramilitary group in Germany, in 1919. Stevens described Luxemburg as her "spiritual mother,"[2] and fittingly, Luxemburg is seen in some of the paintings in "Ordinary/Extraordinary" alongside Stevens’s biological mother, Alice Stevens, who the artist often characterized as having been brutalized by patriarchal society.

For its part, Procession is devoted to Luxemburg alone, more specifically to her funeral, which took place on June 13, 1919, in Berlin and was attended by friends, relatives, and fellow members of Germany’s Communist Party. Conceived as a contemporary history painting, Procession appears to have taken inspiration from a photograph of the actual event [3]. In Stevens’s painting, attendees sprawl from left to right, occupying the entirety of the canvas. Rendered in high contrast colors, with white, black, gray, and brown dominating (a lingering nod to the grainy grisaille of the artist’s early collages on Luxemburg, with their proliferation of photocopies),[4] the figures form an amorphous group that bleeds into the upper register of the painting. Upon first glance, this area reads as a mostly abstract fury of mark-making that evokes the dense cluster of trees seen in the source photograph. In fact, Stevens decided to cap her painting with Luxemburg’s own words, specifically those from the newspaper Die Rote Fahne, where she wrote: "The revolution has been crushed, but it will rise again. And it will say with trumpets blazing, ‘I was. I am. I will be."[5] Speaking to the marriage of form and content in Procession, Stevens drew attention to "the stark contrasts . . . granular, ground in, but quite flowing through—breaking down barriers connecting one form to another—almost like strokes of a strobe light, frozen figures, almost shadows burnt into the earth by an atomic blast."[6] Indeed, thanks to her loose, slashing brushwork, the divisions between individuals in Procession dissolve, rendering their external boundaries and specific features indistinct. The effect is of one mass of anonymized bodies moving—and mourning—in solidarity. As in the photograph, attendees hold aloft a placard bearing a picture of Luxemburg as well as another transcription of Luxemburg’s words, "Ich war, ich bin, ich werde sein" or "I was, I am, I will be." For Stevens, as for many activists in the 1960s and beyond, Luxemburg was indeed alive even in death.

[1] Quoted in Lucy Lippard, "May Stevens, 1924-2019),", December 11, 2019.

[2] Holland Cotter, "May Stevens, Who Turned Art into Activism, is Dead at 95," New York Times, December 30, 2019, p. D8; online version December 26, 2019, updated January 18, 2020.

[3] See photograph

[4] Donald Kuspit, May Stevens: Ordinary, Extraordinary, A Summation, 1977-1984 (Boston: Boston University Art Gallery, 1984), n.p.

[5] Patricia Hills, May Stevens (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2005), p. 76.

[6] Ibid, p. 76.

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