May Wilson: Grandmother to the Avant-Garde
by John Held, Jr.
In 1995, on the 90th anniversary of her birth, the Baltimore Museum of Art held a May Wilson exhibition commemorating her life as an artist. It was a belated homecoming for this artist who left the area for New York City in her sixties to pursue a dream denied to her for most of her life.
By sheer force of will May Wilson overcame social, economic, and gender barriers in realizing her life work as an artist. Her rise from suburban Baltimore housewife to confidant of avant-garde New York artists is a testament to her tenacity in holding on to a vision impeded by societal expectations.
She grew up in Baltimore with a family struggling to survive. Her mother was a seamstress, and May was forced to interrupt her education to help with the family expenses. She married at the age of twenty and had her first of two children a year later.
In the late forties when her children had grown older, she began taking correspondence courses in drawing, painting, and art history administered by several institutions, including the University of Chicago.
She began teaching her own classes to women friends in the neighborhood. Those classes resulted in her first notices in the Baltimore press. In June 1949, The Sun reported that, “Women Interrupt Art Class to Save Boy 2 1/2 in Pool.” Later in the year the same paper reported, “Housewives Taking Up Painting in Oils.”
These first notes on May Wilson’s artistic life were linked with loaded gender associations. As late as 1961, Baltimore papers were still demeaning her work in such headlines as, “Housewife-Artist Denies Abstraction is Junk…Of Corset Isn’t.
Her earliest shows were juried competitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Peale Museum. In 1952 and 1958, Wilson recieved awards for her submissions to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
At some point in the fifties, Wilson put aside painting to take up assemblage, creating sculpture from discarded objects, many of which were brought to her by friends. She invested little emotional content in these works. Her mixture of objects were based on compositional problems, not associated memories. In the gardens of her home in Towson, Maryland, she was planting flowers based upon Cezanne’s theories of advancing and receding colors. She had been reading Zen and Asian philosophy, and had decided to use only those objects in her assemblages that reached her in ways beyond her direct control.
So too, a letter was delivered to her one day from Ray Johnson, a New York artist becoming well-known in avant-garde circles for using the postal system as a new artistic medium. Introduced to Johnson by her son, a student at Yale University, they began a correspondence that lead to the forging of a personal and artistic bond lasting until her death. Johnson visited her in Maryland on several occasions, adopting her family as his own.
In 1962, Wilson received a letter from Johnson to which was added a request to add and pass on to a third party. In this way the New York Correspondence School of Art was born, and May Wilson became an important link in this movement, which would spread quickly around the world.
Johnson introduced her to scores of artists with underground reputations in the avant-garde. When Robert Watts and George Brecht, two artists later associated with the Fluxus movement, organized a Yam Festival in 1962, May Wilson joined in the festivites through her postal activites. Yam is May spelled backwards, and Watts was not unaware of the connection.
After a separation from her husband, she moved to New York City in 1966, establishing residence near the Chelsea Hotel. Working in late morning and early afternoon on her assemblages, Ridiculous Portraits, and answering her correspondence, she reserved her evenings for a salon, over which she held court with a stream of younger artists, actors, and writers eager to discuss their private lives with her.
John Willenbecher, another of Johnson’s correspondents, and a frequent visitor of May Wilson’s salon, wrote in 1995 that, “I learned about the importance of envelopes from Ray. Or rather from Ray via his kindred spirit, May Wilson. One day not long after I met May and had become an embarassingly regular visitor of her daily floating salon, I learned that she had her own versions of In- and Out-baskets.”
“The In basket was in fact the waste can next to her desk. ‘Oh, I just got a letter from Johnny Dowd!’ or ‘Oh, I just got a letter from Donald Evans’ she would announce, jumping from her rocking chair to retrieve it after a short rummage in the waste can. Those letters may have been thrown away but they had not quite yet become garbage. The Out-basket, on the other hand, was a drawer in her tiny desk filled with envelopes – perhaps half a dozen or more – all open and all addressed to friends with who she kept up contact.”
“Into those envelopes would go any appropriatenesses that came to hand, doubtless including some Ray Johnson please send tos or the latest May Wilson photo-stamp. When they were full off they would go. Ever since the day I found out about May’s envelopes I have kept a drawer in my own desk full of them, waiting to be launched to friends.”
She once said that, “I like being with the young and knowing what they’re thinking. I have trouble relating to those in my age group. They worry about retirement or getting sick. How boring.” Film critic Molly Haskell wrote that, “May Wilson is the heroine of a true story of liberation and a beacon not only to our growing up but to our growing old.”
Her Ridiculous Portraits convey her search to escape the conventional boundaries laid out for her. Well into her sixties she was grimacing, contorting and smirking in a photobooth in Times Square. These photographs were then superimposed on reproductions of old master paintings, and other found collage material, which reflected the “male gaze” of the dominant culture.
Some of these photobooth portraits were sent to a commercial concern in Brooklyn, who made them into photostamps. These stamps were affixed to postcards she sent to her friends. A white index card was first sprayed black with stencils of her own design, to which the stamp was affixed. Wilson was included in the first show of artist postage stamps, Artists’ Stamps and Stamp Images, at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, in 1974. Of the forty-five stamp artists and producers included in this seminal show, only three were woman.
Wilson was active well into her seventies, but at 79 she underwent a double mastectomy hasteneing her decline and forcing her into a nursing home. She died on October 19, 1986.
Her reputation as an artist has increased since her death. In 1990, the Gracie Mansion Gallery, known for its exploration of adventuresome art, held a retrospective of her New York years. The show, held in a bastion of the East Village alternative scene, generated articles labeling her influence on the “punk” scene.
In 1995, her work was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Two works from her “mummy series” had been on display attracting unprecedented attention. The larger showing of her work welcomed home this Baltimore native, who had found her voice and millieu in New York City among the younger avant-garde of her day. Her work continues to attract attention, recently being include in a show of artists’ boxes in New York City, and this current Stamp Art Gallery exhibition.