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Stevens, Mayfree

American, 20th century, female.

Born 9 June 1924, in Boston.

Painter. Contemporary art, feminism, political art, civil rights. Figures, people, historical subjects, current events.

May Stevens studied at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 1946 and the Art Students League in New York in 1948. She met the artist Rudolf Baranik at the Art Students League and they were married, had a son, and lived together until Baranik’s death in 1998. The couple also shared a studio in New York until 1997 and then relocated to New Mexico in 1998. Shortly after their marriage, Baranik and Stevens went to Paris and Stevens studied at the Academie Julian. In 1960, Stevens earned her Master of Fine Arts equivalency from the New York Department of Education and taught secondary education to support herself and her family while also maintaining her painting career. Stevens also taught part-time at The School of Visual Arts in New York from 1961 to 1996. In 1972, she co-founded the Heresies Collective, a group of 20 artists and activists whose publication, HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics became an important contribution to the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement.

Stevens has received numerous awards for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in painting (1986), a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting (1983), the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award, Bunting Fellowship (1990), and the College Art Association Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement (2001). In 1999, Stevens became the first living woman artist to have a solo exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Stevens’ work addresses the theme of the abuse of power, whether it be political, sexual, or racial. Her first major series was called Freedom Riders (1963) and depicted, in a Figurative Expressionist style, the mixed racial civil rights activists who rode buses throughout the segregated south beginning in 1961. When these works were first exhibited, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the essay for the exhibition catalogue. A painting from this series was made into a US Postal Service stamp in 2005. In 1965, Stevens was in attendance at the funeral for Malcolm X, and later drew a simple yet poignant portrait of the human rights activist’s head resting in his coffin. The drawing was made from memory three years after the funeral.

Stevens’ seminal political works, which she developed in the late 1960s, blended fine art and illustration by breaking down compositions into simplified figures and outlines within a field of pure coloured backgrounds. This style is best exemplified in her Big Daddy Series (1967–1976), which was May’s personal and direct response to the horrors of the Vietnam War and society’s social ills. In these works, May combined imagery from history, current events, and popular visual archetypes with her own personal imagery. For example, Big Daddy Paper Doll (1971) references the popular and historical paper dolls with a naked and stark white male figure that can be clothed in an executioner’s robe, military regalia, a policeman’s uniform, or the smock of a butcher. On first glance, the figure resembles Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 26th president. However, the machismo character was actually based on a picture of Stevens’ father, whom she noted was an unabashedly nationalistic and racist working-class man. This image of a man, stripped down and reflected as a paper doll, shatters the illusion of the patriarch as a position of power and esteem.

During the late 1970s, Stevens created paintings she hoped would ensure that women artists were given as equal treatment in historical paintings as their male counterparts. SoHo Artists (1978) encapsulates the creative force of the feminist art movement through a composition featuring several of Stevens’ contemporaries including Harmony Hammond, Joyce Kozloff, Marty Pottenger, Louise Bourgeois (who wears one of her sculptures), Miriam Schapiro, Lucy Lippard, and Sarah Charlesworth. These paintings were the visual response to Linda Nochlin’s essential 1971 essay (published in ArtNews) titled ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’

Her recent paintings include seascapes that portray an intimate and spiritual connection between herself and water.

Group Exhibitions

1951, Salon de Jeunes Peintres, Paris

1964, 159th Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy, Philadelphia

1971, The Permanent Collection: Women Artists, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1975, Sons and Others: Women Artists See Men, Queens Museum, New York

1977, Consciousness and Content, Brooklyn Museum, New York

1978, Painting and Sculpture Today, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

1980, Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists, Institute of Contemporary Art, London

1983, Portraits on a Human Scale, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1984, Tradition and Conflict, 1963–1973, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York

1985, Latitudes of Time, City Gallery, New York

1988, Committed to Print, 1960 to Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York

1989, Concrete Utopias, Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf

1990, Contemporary Women: Works on Paper, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

1991, History: Truth or Consequences, San Francisco State University Art Gallery, San Francisco

1993, Return of the Cadavre Equis, The Drawing Center, New York

1995, Sniper’s Nest: Art that Has Lived with Lucy R. Lippard, CCS Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson

1997, Feminine Image, Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor

2000, The End: An Independent Vision of the History of Contemporary Art, Exit Art, New York

2002, In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit (travelled to Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Missouri Historical Society, St Louis; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis; and Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Montgomery)

2002, Insomnia: Landscapes of the Night, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC

2004, Insight Out, The Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe

2006, How American Women Artists Invented Postmodernism: 1970–1975, Mabel Smith Douglas Library, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick (travelled to Monmouth Museum, Lincroft; Noyes Museum, Oceanville; Hunterdon Museum of Art, Clinton; and Morris Museum, Morristown)

2007, Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Originators, The Katzen Museum, American University, Washington, DC

2009, Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820–2009, National Academy, New York

2012, Sinister Pop, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

2013, Rabble-Rousers: Art, Dissent, and Social Commentary, The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington

2014, Witness: Art, Activism, and Civil Rights in the 1960s, Brooklyn Museum, New York

2015, America Is Hard to See, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

2017, American Dream: Pop to the Present (curated by Stephen Coppel), British Museum, London

2017, An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017 (curated by David Breslin, Jennie Goldstein, and Rujeko Hockley with David Kiehl and Margaret Kross), The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Solo Exhibitions

1951, Galerie Huit, Paris

1955, Galerie Moderne, New York

1957, May Stevens, ACA Gallery, New York

1961, Roland de Aenlle Gallery, New York

1963, Freedom Riders: Paintings by May Stevens, Roko Gallery, New York

1968, Ball State University Museum, Muncie

1973, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca

1981, Lerner-Heller Gallery, New York

1985, Ordinary/Extraordinary, A Summation 1977–1984, University of Maryland, College Park (travelled to Frederick S. Wight Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles; Boston University Art Gallery, Boston)

1988, One Plus or Minus One, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York

1989, The Canal and the Garden, Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College, Cambridge

1990, University Art Museum, California State University at Long Beach, Long Beach

1991, Herter Gallery, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

1993, Sea of Words, Colorado University Art Galleries, University of Colorado, Boulder

1994, Existential/Political: Rudolf Baranik and May Stevens, Exit Art, New York

1996, Sea of Words and Related Works, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

1997, Big Daddy: 1968–1976, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

1998, Tic-TacToe, LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe

1999, Images of Women Near and Far 1983–1997 (retrospective), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

2001, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito

2006, The Water Remembers: Paintings and Works on Paper from 1990–2004, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis (travelled to Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC)

2006, Women, Words, and Water: Works on Paper by May Stevens, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

2007, ashes rock snow water: New Paintings and Works on Paper, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

2008, May Stevens: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1968–1975, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

2010, May Stevens: Crossing Time, I.D.E.A. Space at Colorado College, Colorado Springs

2011, One Plus or Minus One, Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Austin (Blanton MA): Honor Roll (1963, oil on canvas)

Brooklyn (Brooklyn Mus.): Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970, acrylic on canvas); Big Daddy Paper Doll (1971, silkscreen on white wove paper)

Cambridge (Harvard AM): Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970, screenprint on off-white wove paper); Big Daddy with Hats (1971, screenprint on off-white wove paper); Untitled (1981, screenprint)

Ithaca (Johnson MA): Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970, screenprint on heavy wove paper); Big Daddy (1970, screenprint on laid paper); Big Daddy X 3 (1973, colour screenprint on wove paper); Hats (1973, screenprint on wove paper); Pax Americana (1973, acrylic on canvas); Artemisia Gentileschi (1980, six-colour lithograph, edition 17/50);

London (British Mus.): Big Daddy with Hats (1971, screenprint on off-white wove paper); Into the Night (2009, screenprint)

New York (Metropolitan MA): Procession (1983, acrylic on canvas); The Band Played On, from Femfolio (2007, digital print with hand lithography and gold dusting); By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1997–1999, two etchings with acrylic hand colouring)

New York (MoMA): The Band Played On, from Femfolio (2007, digital print with hand lithography and gold dusting)

New York (The Whitney Mus. of American Art): Triple Daddy Blue (1968, watercolour, pen and ink and charcoal pencil on paper); Big Daddy Paper Doll (1969, opaque watercolour, pen and ink and graphite on paper); Big Daddy (c. 1970, screenprint); Big Daddy with Hats (1971, screenprint); Dark Flag (1976, acrylic on canvas); Untitled (1982, screenprint); River Run (1994, lithograph)

San Francisco (MoMA): Mysteries and Politics (1978, acrylic on canvas)

Santa Fe (New Mexico MA): Rosa Luxemburg (1977, verifax and collage with script); We Are the Slaves of Slaves: Lucy Parsons (1980, acrylic on verifax)

Washington, DC (National Mus. of Women in the Arts): SoHo Women Artists (1978, acrylic on canvas)

Winston-Salem (Reynolda House Mus. of American Art): Untitled (1982, silkscreen on paper)


  • Schwartz, Barry: New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change, Praeger, New York, 1974.
  • Selz, Peter: Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History, 1890–1980, Abrams Publishers, New York, 1981.
  • Robinson, Hillary (ed.): Visibly Female: Feminism and Art Today, an Anthology, Camden Press, London, 1987.
  • Frascina, Francis: Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999.
  • Cork, Richard: Breaking Down the Barriers: Art in the 1970s, Yale University Press, London, 2003.
  • Hills, Patricia: May Stevens, Pomegranate, Portland, 2005.
  • Larsen, Jessica Hunter: May Stevens: Crossing Time, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, 2010.