Art
The 1950s Housewife Who Became the Grandmother of New York’s Underground Art Scene
Photo of May Wilson, taken by William S. Wilson. Courtesy of Pavel Zoubok Gallery.

Photo of May Wilson, taken by William S. Wilson. Courtesy of Pavel Zoubok Gallery.

For over 40 years, the little statuette has resided on a shelf in my curiosities cabinet beside a hippopotamus tooth and other personal treasures. It was made out of a pair of women’s shoes, bound together with twine and spray-painted gold. The spike heels resemble outstretched arms and its folded toes recall the legs of a headless female torso—as if the tiny sculpture were an archeological artifact recovered from the dust of mid-20th century America.

The piece was made in 1967 by an artist named May Wilson. But her identity has long been overshadowed by the reputation of the person who gave it to me—Ray Johnson. Best known as a pioneer of mail art, Johnson eschewed gallery shows and art dealers. Instead, he stuffed envelopes with photocopies of his drawings, magazine clippings, and assorted bric-a-brac, and mailed them to his collectors, friends, and fans. His philosophy was that art should be free, a gift from one person to another. The gift of my May Wilson was typical Ray.

While Johnson was widely known in the New York art world of the 1970s and ’80s, Wilson’s work attracted the attention of just a small coterie of admirers. Only in the years since her death in 1986 has she gained overdue recognition—not only as a collaborator on the mail art network dubbed the New York Correspondance School (deliberately misspelled by the pun-obsessed Johnson), but as an important artist in her own right. Wilson made a point of overturning conventional notions of 20th-century womanhood via neo-Dada collages made by cutting Playboy centerfolds into patterns resembling doilies or “snowflakes,” as she called them; her “Ridiculous Portraits,” pasting the faces from selfies taken in a Times Square photobooth onto pictures of women through the ages; and the artist’s assemblages, made of discarded kitchen utensils, children’s dolls, and women’s shoes.

Her singular, acerbic vision of woman-as-object seems especially relevant at a time of Hollywood mogul molesters, plus a pussy-grabbing President and a predatory art magazine publisher. Yet, for the most part, Wilson remains an obscure figure in the art world. Who was she?

An untitled sculpture by May Wilson that Ray Johnson gifted to the author.

An untitled sculpture by May Wilson that Ray Johnson gifted to the author.

It was for good reason that the art and film critic Molly Haskell once described her as “the heroine of a true story of liberation.” Wilson was born in Baltimore in 1905 to working-class parents. Her mother was a seamstress, and her father, a laborer, died when she was a teenager. To help support the family, she dropped out of school and went to work as a stenographer.

At 20, she married a lawyer, William S. Wilson, Jr. They had two children: a daughter (Betty Jane) and a son, Bill, who would become an influential art scholar—and play a crucial role in his mother’s transformation from Maryland housewife to New York underground artist.

Wilson continued working as a stenographer to help support her husband’s career. By then, Wilson’s law practice had prospered, and they were able to afford a luxurious lifestyle; a townhouse in Baltimore and a 10-acre “gentleman’s farm” in Towson, Maryland, along with an existence peppered with antiques, expensive cars, and country clubs. But the closer the couple came to the apex of the American dream, the less May seemed to like it.

“She rarely was driven past the country club without taking a cigarette out of her mouth to curse it,” Bill Wilson once wrote about his mother. “Conventional entertainments began to bore her.”

Wilson was in her forties when she began taking correspondence school art classes and painting folksy, brightly-colored depictions of the scenes and people around her in rural Maryland. But, she saw herself strictly as an amateur artist until the mid-1950s, when Bill introduced her to his 29-year-old friend, Ray Johnson. Johnson, who was just becoming interested in mail art, was fascinated by the odd fact that May had learned to paint through the mail. She, in turn, appreciated his droll sense of humor and unpretentious approach to art. The connection flourished into a friendship that would last for the rest of her life.

Over the following decade, Wilson became one of Johnson’s closest mail art collaborators. He would send her small drawings or collages, which she would then incorporate into one of her own collages, sending the results to someone on their growing list of art world cognoscente. But, more importantly, Johnson encouraged a new boldness in her work, Bill Wilson wrote: “He took her comedy and her art so seriously that she had to let go of self-abjection and take herself more seriously.”

She began making abstract paintings out of discarded rags and creating peek-a-boo nude collages: folding pictures of pin-up girls and cutting patterns in them, the way children make rudimentary paper snowflakes. Johnson helped out by mailing her gay pornographic magazines to expand her range of material.

According to Bill Wilson’s account, by the time she turned 60, May Wilson had become “an outrageous truant from the middle class and its womanly conventions.” But, nevertheless, she’d tried to maintain bourgeoise appearances, telling filmmaker Amalie Rothschild, in the 1970 documentary Woo Who? May Wilson: “I felt like an oddball, but I cared for the home and would have sat in that environment until rigor mortis set in, if not for the fact that my husband told me he had plans for the rest of his life that didn’t include me.”

In 1966, the marriage broke up, and, at 61, May Wilson moved to a room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York to pursue a career as an artist.

“When I closed the door behind me at the Chelsea Hotel that was the first night I’d ever been alone in a hotel room,” she told Rothschild. “I didn’t know how to run the elevator, I didn’t even know how to let the water out of the bathtub. I got panicky. I was clawing at the porcelain of the tub trying to get the water out.”

In the months that followed, she became accustomed to city life, and increasingly obsessed with her work.

She moved from the Chelsea to a large studio apartment nearby. Through Johnson, she’d made friends with a circle of young New York bohemians, including the artists John Evans and John Willenbecher, and the writer and filmmaker Paul Gardner, who became frequent guests at the informal salon Wilson hosted in the evenings. The image of the elderly woman—dressed in one of her colorful muumuus and earrings made of found objects, sitting in a rocking chair with her white hair in a bun, surrounded by young artists, actors, and writers—earned her the sobriquet “Grandmother of the Underground.”

Visitors remember the apartment as literally overflowing with her art. “The gilded shoes, sequined masks, and baby-doll mummies were everywhere, wall to wall, even in the bathroom,” Gardner says.

Wilson continued her work with Johnson throughout the ’70s, recalls John Willenbecher. “She always had a drawer full of pre-addressed envelopes in her desk. She would put things in them and when the envelope was full, she’d send it off to one of the other Correspondance School people.” The artist certainly didn’t settle down with age. At 70, she converted a nude photograph of herself into a stamp that she pasted on her mailings.

But her main focus was on her own work, including wild assemblages of found objects: women’s shoes, toasters, steam irons, and the assorted debris of conventional domestic life, spray-painted in monochrome colors. Another series, called “Mummies,” was made of cast-off dolls, wrapped in spray-painted cloth or layers of gaffer’s tape.

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.

Jeff Goldberg