Rosa Luxemburg, a 19th-century activist, championed communism in her home country of Poland and throughout Europe. Both an incendiary figure and respected thinker, Luxemburg was highly educated and ambitious, launching newspapers and movements. In 1919, she was captured by the German military, which brutally murdered her and dumped her body in a canal.
Many years later, American painter May Stevens discovered Luxemburg and became haunted by her story. She juxtaposed Luxemburg's life with that of her mother, Alice Stevens, a homemaker who dedicated her life to family, including caring for a severely diabetic son who died at 16.
That's how the two very different women wound up together amid lush surroundings in "Forming the Fifth International": Luxemburg in black and white, arm draped over a park bench, and Alice Stevens in a blur of bleached color, clasping her legs with eyes cast to the ground in a moment of repose.
Serene as it seems, Colorado College I.D.E.A. Space curator Jessica Hunter Larsen says the painting is actually radical: "You just don't see large-scale, monumental images of old women." Especially when one of them led such a quiet, insular life.
But the more you delve into May Stevens' own life and works, the more you see this artist, now 86 years old, is quite radical herself.
"Forming the Fifth International" is part of "Ordinary/Extraordinary," a series of prints and drawings that questions what constitutes an extraordinary or an ordinary woman's life. It can be seen in May Stevens: Crossing Time, a 24-piece retrospective of Stevens' career opening Sept. 7 at the I.D.E.A. Space.
After her brother died, says the Sante Fe, N.M., artist in a phone interview, she tried to care for her mother. Alice had no life outside her home — no friends, hobbies or other activities: "When she lost him, she had nothing."
Her death was slower than that of Luxemburg, but equally grim in its own way. And what happened afterward was even worse.
"Both of these women are lost to history," says Hunter Larsen. "Despite Rosa Luxemburg's incredible contributions, history sort of wrote her out of the books. Women like Alice Stevens were never there to begin with. They were never considered important."
In response, Stevens says, "I wanted to value my mother's life. Value what she tried to do and what many women have and maybe still try to do, which is to take care of the people they have to take care of and who they are responsible for."
Stevens is known as much for her social activism as her art. According to Hunter Larsen, she's been involved in nearly every great social movement of the 20th century and is renowned among feminist artists.
Stevens says "there's hardly a border" between her quest for social justice and her art, a closeness readily apparent in some early works. A few pieces in the show hail from Stevens' "Big Daddy" series, which depict a strange, phallic-shaped man donning a helmet and American flags. Executed in the late '60s and early '70s, the "Big Daddy" works are the earliest pieces in the show, and provoke a complex array of emotions. The figure duplicated in each work is goofy, but sinister with his flushed, crunched-up face and large bald pate. We fear him in his anonymity, and anguish with a powerlessness in his presence.
"Big Daddy" held obvious roots in the Vietnam era, but Stevens is still tackling current issues today. She's bringing a few pieces from her most recent series to Crossing Time, harrowing works that deal with the epidemic of rapes and murders of young women on the border towns between the U.S. and Mexico.
The water's edge
After painting the figures of Alice and Luxemburg up close for several years, Stevens backed away and set the women, now dreamy figures, in boats on undulating bodies of water.
Stevens says the rivers of her works hark back to a river she visited every day of her childhood in Boston, but you can't help but think of Luxemburg meeting her end in that canal.
As her paintings progressed further, the boats floated away and the deep, cool colors of river bottoms dominated the paintings, ostensible stand-ins for Luxemburg and Alice, says Hunter Larsen.
The culmination of this graduation is Stevens' other magnum opus, "Confluence of Two Rivers," a magnificent abstract painting blended of deep, oily blues and watery teals, breaking on a reef of gold. It's an aquatic riverscape with no shore or bearings, a place in a dream.
Upon closer inspection, the gold element, which from afar appears to be a trick of dried paint, is actually a scribbling of thousands of words. The looping script builds a texture on the canvas, endowing the work with an identity — and mystery, since it's illegible.
"I felt [it] enriched the surface and made it a deeper and more resonant kind of experience," says Stevens, who says she's written all her life.
Though carefully chosen, these words are not to be read. Many are in another language altogether — the text in "Confluence" is Lithuanian.
Aesthetically, Hunter Larsen says this element retains some mystery crucial to Stevens' work. Upon further study, the work unfolds into grander and grander narratives, concerning not only the meaning of the words on the canvas, but Stevens herself.
The mastery, however, is within the way Stevens' paintings provoke a fascination whether or not you're new to the piece, or the subject within it. Like Stevens herself, they are open and flexible to viewer experience.
"I really believe in seeing how things echo in each other," Stevens says. "I am very much convinced you don't want to bind yourself up in words or ideas which limit you from understanding other people's words and ideas."