Artists Projects: One Plus or Minus One (May Stevens)
February 19 – April 3 1988
May Stevens’s socialism and feminism began to coalesce specifically, overtly, obviously, in 1976 with a page-piece, Two Women, produced for the first issue of Heresies magazine, published in 1977. There she juxtaposed for the first time images of Polish/German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), a woman of Jewish descent who devoted her life (and death) to the struggle for socialism, and of her mother, Alice Stevens (1895-1985), a woman of Scottish-Irish heritage who raised a family in the working class suburbs of Boston and then lived out her life in hospitals and nursing homes, “eating the food, waiting for change, forgetting more each day, sliding toward a slimmer consciousness, slipping softly away.” This conjunction of two lives became, a few years later (in 1980), a now classic artist’s book, Ordinary. Extraordinary It is, Stevens explained, “an artist’s book examining and documenting the mark of a political woman and marking the life of a woman whose life would otherwise be unmarked.” The weaving together, not in any harmonious fashion but discontinuously, fragmented, abruptly, of these two women’s lives, both ordinary and extraordinary, occupied Stevens for nearly a decade, resulting in a large body of work which is remarkably diverse, varied and heterogeneous to the extreme.
In Stevens’s latest project, One Plus Or Minus One, Alice Stevens is absent, and Rosa Luxemburg, a leader in the Social Democratic Party, steps into the center, heroically and tragically. Two enormous photographs are placed nearly side by side, billboard-like. In one, captioned “The Second International,” Rosa is a single woman among men, attending the Congress of the Second International in Amsterdam in 1904 as a delegate from Germany and Poland. In the other, labelled “Eden Hotel,” she is absent, “replaced” by a waitress also in the company of men-the murderers of Rosa Luxemburg and her colleague Karl Liebknecht-celebrating the day after the heinous event (January 15, 1919).