10 August 2019

May Stevens's Big Daddy: A Man For Our Time

Against an improbably blue sky Big Daddy sits, with a pug(nacious) dog on his lap; draped in an 'Uncle Sam' outfit, his visage resembles an  unhealthy reincarnation of Teddy Roosevelt.  His transparent military helmet and thick neck inevitably suggest a phallic reference.  Pax Americana painted in 1973 looks, if not contemporary, then eerily prescient.

May Stevens created the Big Daddy series between 1967 and 1976.  She says she got the idea from a painting she had made of her father, in a typical pose, sitting in front of the television in his undershirt. Ralph Stevens worked as a pipe fitter at the Bethlehem steelyards.  She has described her father as being an ordinary working class man who never questioned the government, supported the Vietnam War unconditionally, and held openly racist and ant-Semitic views.

Stevens did not merely caricature her father.  Bald and stocky, Big Daddy represents the toll  manual labor takes on workers.  She has spoken perceptively about his life and aspirations.

"He wanted to be proud.  He worked hard (sloughed off only to the extant that it was, permitted,  in fact required, by his co-workers) and used his wages for his own comforts and for ours, and to enhance his standing in the community and ours.  His sending me to college was the kind of decision that rising in class was worth spending money on.  He didn't expect, of course, that college would make me dress badly (long hair and shirts and jeans) even years after I graduated.   Nor behave badly either (radical politics, peace marches, signing petitions and other intemperate behavior).  he never imagined that lifting me out of his class would produce in me an allegiance to his class that he did not feel.  He had swallowed the dream,  but it's more than a dream because the books and the art that raise you from one class to another, to bourgeois life, are indeed capable of providing a better life - and also the means of critiquing that life."

With a style inspired by Pop Art, Stevens created a  symbol that connected  patriarchal attitudes to American imperialism (the red, white, and blue color scheme borrowed from the flag). Big Daddy  became a vehicle for protest at the hypocrisy and injustice embedded  in personal life as well as in politics. Deliciously, in Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970) the figure is surrounded by cut-outs of outfits as though he were a paper doll, like Barbie, except that his outfits are soldier, police officer, and a butcher in a bloody apron, all latent with  potential violence.  As the images were first shown that became the Big Daddy series, they were derided by mainstream art critics as heavy-handed, even a perversion of Pop Art (!), and with resemblances to the dreaded psychedelia.  Time has clarified Stevens' wide-ranging intentions, keeping her works fresh while other works by her male counterparts now seem dated.

May Stevens (b. 1924) was born in Boston, grew up in Quincy, and now lives in New Mexico.  An earlier series Freedom Riders (1963) was inspired by Daumier's Third Class Railway Carriage (1864).  In 1971 Stevens contributed a memorial volume for the victims of the Attica prison uprising.
To read more about May Stevens...

Image: May Stevens - Pax Americana, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.

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