By any measure Harold Stevenson (1929-2018) was attractively charismatic. He was as at home in Paris, France where he lived for decades as he was in Idabel, Okla. where the artist was born, grew up and died.
Although interviewed late in life as a New Yorker by the Lower East Side Biography Project, Stevenson disavowed that, insisting he was and always had been an Okie. The University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art will be exhibiting from the artist's 1967-1968 series The Great Society, opening Oct. 4.
Stevenson resided in New York for many years and made his name in the international art world as part of pivotal 1962 exhibition The New Realists in the historic Sidney Janis Gallery. Co-exhibitors included Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Stevenson was the focus of Warhol's first movie titled "Harold" and would later appear in his 1972 pop video "Heat." The Idabel artist's best known work may be "The New Adam," an oversize (8'x39') nude portrait of Hollywood actor Sal Mineo which is now in the Guggenheim Museum's permanent collection.
Stevenson gifted The Great Society's dozens of paintings to OU in 2006. The Fred's director Mark White described how that extraordinary windfall occurred.
"When Eric Lee was director and Mary Jane Rutherford worked at the museum they became close friends of Harold's," White said. "Harold decided that The Great Society should really stay in Oklahoma and OU was the perfect place for that body of work."
Rutherford was life-long friends with Stevenson and his partner Lloyd Tugwell.
Stevenson returned to Idabel in 1967 and painted portraits of the small town's residents for the series which is named after President Lyndon B. Johnson's ambitious set of policy initiatives and programs. As a child Stevenson's mother told him he should be a politician because of he made friends so easily. But the kid was already painting pictures of people back then for five bucks a pop and knew he was destined to be an artist. Late in life Stevenson told interviewer Penny Arcade that he left art school after one semester at OU because he already knew how to be an artist.
"Harold tended to look to friends that he knew when making the paintings in Idabel," White said. "He was looking to capture an intergenerational perspective on life in Southeastern Oklahoma. He painted senior citizens born in the 19th century and toddlers only 3 years old. But all had some kind of personal connection to him. Idabel is a small community and he and his family knew a lot of people there."
White noted that the paintings speak to the power of community. Average individuals comprise the network that we all depend on to bake our bread, keep power lines up and oil changed in our vehicles.
"Harold didn't want to identify anyone in the series, wanting it to be about the USA's social fabric," White said. "He wanted to celebrate that anonymous participant in the American experiment. The Great Society is about the individual that makes the country. Instead of focusing on celebrity, politicians or the powerful, he looks at a slice of rural America."
At 30" x 40" each, the paintings are large and there are 98 of them. Because of the context it makes most sense for them to be exhibited as a group. In addition to this series OU has a sizable holding of other works by Stevenson.
"A close friend of Harold's named Buddy Dugan who lived in California and is now back in Idabel gave us his collection," White said. "Buddy's collection was around 40 paintings and drawings."
Stevenson's story of being an Okie who made it big in New York City and Paris is a fascinating one. He's well-known by art historians specializing in contemporary. White said his work is often thought of in an unusual region somewhere between figural art of the 60s and 70s and pop art, so not easily categorized. He didn't fall fully into either niche.
"He located back to Oklahoma and The Great Society is one of his most ambitious projects," White said. "It's also a fascinating image of his thought and cultural thought in the mid-1960s."