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Harold Stevenson Collection (Great Society)

The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art
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Harold Stevenson Collection (Great Society)

In the spring and summer of 1966, artist Harold Stevenson began an ambitious series of portraits depicting residents of his hometown of Idabel, Oklahoma. Titled The Great Society, the series depicted 100 residents of Idabel and McCurtain County (ninety-seven paintings are extant). Stevenson used large canvases, each measuring 50 ½ x 30 inches, and focused exclusively on their distinctive facial features, giving each portrait a monumental character. The Great Society not only expressed Stevenson’s affection for Idabel and its citizens but also indicated his enthusiasm for the philosophical principles of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political program of the same name. Johnson’s program called for an end to poverty and racial injustice and encouraged Americans to embrace the communal values and optimism deemed necessary for sweeping social and cultural advancement. Johnson’s program emphasized equality as a fundamental and necessary value of American culture, vital to the future development of the country. The average citizen played an essential role in revitalizing American greatness. Stevenson’s The Great Society celebrates the importance of the average American through its depiction of anonymous Oklahomans of varying racial and cultural backgrounds. Stevenson compared the creation of the series to “living in Walt Whitman’s ‘grass,’” a reference to the poet’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and its celebration of both humanity and the American character.

Stevenson’s egalitarian approach was likely influenced by both his upbringing and his artistic training. He was born in Idabel in 1929, and briefly studied at the University of Oklahoma before leaving for New York City in 1949. Largely self-taught, he entered the circle of Alexander Iolas and the Hugo Gallery shortly after his arrival in the city. Iolas introduced him to notable artists and patrons but also to another aspiring artist – Andy Warhol. Warhol would become a close friend and colleague, and both would eventually be seen as challengers to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. Stevenson’s work focused on naturalistic yet simplified depictions of the human body, frequently using a monumental scale and unconventional or unusual perspectives. This approach challenged the critical supremacy of non-objective abstraction in the 1950s, making Stevenson’s work retardataire by some standards and subversive by others.

After a brief time in New York, Stevenson left for Paris where he began to show with Iris Clert, the dealer who had championed Yves Klein and other artists connected to the movement known as Nouveau Realisme. The Nouveau Realists rejected the non-objectivity of abstraction in favor of the mundane realities of everyday life, and Stevenson’s unconventional depiction of the human figure was deemed sufficiently reactionary to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel. Upon his return to the United States in 1960, he frequently exhibited alongside the Pop artists, including the landmark show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, The New Realists.

Stevenson’s fame grew in the 1960s and, in 1966, he received a grant from the Jackson-Iolas Gallery, owned by Brooks Jackson and Iolas, to return to his hometown of Idabel to paint portraits of the local residents. He began in April and over the summer he often painted a portrait a day, focusing exclusively on the face. Despite the attention to the distinctive individuality of each sitter, he refused to identify them by name in the title, as he later explained: “I never intended to identify and name the people who posed for me. I wanted them to be totally anonymous and hopefully possible for the general masses to find something, some spark of humanity, with which ‘everyone’ could find similarities.” The monumental depictions of the faces expressed his desire to create an image of America that was “bigger, far bigger, than life,” and he took to calling his project “our great society,” in reference to President Johnson’s political program of the mid-1960s.

Johnson saw the Great Society as the foundation of his domestic policy. It was not a utopian dream but an argument for the value of equality and community. At its core, the Great Society demanded “an end to poverty and racial injustice,” as necessary for social progress, yet Johnson also urged Americans to unite in the building of community and the preservation of natural resources that defined the American landscape. He characterized the Great Society as “a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” The city provided the essential components for social life, but it should also satisfy the human desire for beauty and camaraderie. The creation of the Great Society was not limited to cities alone, and Johnson called on Americans to prevent the pollution and despoiling of natural resources in rural areas: “We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.” Johnson’s call to action challenged each and every American to assist in the effort to build that Great Society.

For Stevenson, Johnson’s philosophy of the Great Society would have resonated deeply as he painted the residents of McCurtain County. Idabel is the county seat and remains the largest city in the area. A 1971 community survey of Idabel listed the population demographic of Idabel as 70.1% Caucasian, 24.7% African American, 5.1% Native American, and .1% other. When Stevenson returned home in 1966, Idabel was largely agricultural, with 1,973 farms reported in 1964. Business in the city was dominantly retail, but the county boasted 874.5 acres of commercial forest in 1966. Natural resources drove much of the economy of rural McCurtain County, but unemployment in the 1960s was above the national average and the county had been in a prolonged depression since World War II.

Johnson’s desire to end poverty and racial injustice had practical value in a community like Idabel, which was beset by a lingering depression and marked by racial diversity. Preservation of natural resources also would have been important to a rural community with an economy based in agriculture and commercial logging. Stevenson’s use of the title The Great Society suggests that the residents of Idabel and McCurtain County are participants in Johnson’s experiment to end economic and racial inequality, to inspire community, and to protect American resources. The unnamed sitters of Stevenson’s series are the Americans to which Johnson appealed in the creation of the Great Society. The portraits may depict the residents of southeastern Oklahoma, but Stevenson intended their faces to have a significance beyond the local. He hoped that each portrait and their collective sum would convey not only their humanity but also the potential for greatness expressed by Johnson’s philosophical and political ideals. Stevenson’s The Great Society responds optimistically to the belief in human potential and the hope for a better society endorsed by Johnson’s liberal politics in the 1960s. Stevenson saw the residents of his hometown as the perfect expression of those ideals.