Wilson began her series of “Ridiculous Portraits” after discovering a 25-cent photobooth in Times Square. Making faces for the camera was “therapeutic,” she told Rothschild. She would cut and paste the photos onto pictures of classical nudes, the Madonna, fashion shoots, chorus girls, and softcore pornography.
Around this time, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, both published in 1970, were fanning the flames of Women’s Liberation, and Wilson’s rebellious appropriation of the objects and images of women as homemakers, wives, mothers, and sex objects fit the shifting cultural landscape perfectly. But she would not have identified herself as a feminist artist. “For sure there’s anger, alienation, and distancing in those pieces,” her granddaughter Kate Wilson told me. “But she wouldn’t have identified her art as feminist. She probably would have bristled at the word. She spoke about her art in purely formalistic terms. She was looking for interesting shapes and symmetries, angles and composition—not to make a political statement.”
Wilson rarely showed her work during her lifetime. A one-woman show in 1972, at the prestigious Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery, was well-received critically, but there were no sales, and she seemed to lose interest in exhibitions after that, Kate Wilson recalls. “She never expressed disappointment, but as she got older she began to retreat. She became more fragile mentally and physically. People came over less, and then hardly at all, and she gradually stopped making art.” By 1984, in declining health and suffering from dementia, Wilson’s family moved her to the Village Nursing Home in Manhattan, where she died two years later.
“Her connection to Ray Johnson probably put her more in the mail art world, but she was much more than that,” reflects Pavel Zoubok
, owner of the the eponymous New York gallery, which represents the May Wilson estate. “Her interest in creating personas using her own image and commenting on women’s roles was there before people were talking about feminism. She was very prescient, but she never got a chance to ride the wave of interest in post-war modernist women artists that came later.”
Wilson did get a posthumous nod in a few key shows, like an acclaimed 1991 solo at Gracie Mansion Gallery, and a 2008 retrospective at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey. And thanks to the efforts of Zoubok and other supporters, her work is now in the collections of the Whitney Museum
, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum
. The bold, irrepressible, sometimes creepy, sometimes uproariously funny vision of the Grandmother of the Underground lives on.