Last night I was reading an e-mail from a friend in Norman, Oklahoma and it mentioned friends of hers who had died this year. I had missed in the news in October that Harold Stevenson had died.
Harold was a prominent artist who never quite reached the fame and popularity of his contemporaries. You can read an excellent obituary here that gives you some of his history, which includes working with Andy Warhol and having one of his paintings exhibited on the Eiffel Tower (it was taken down when it caused a giant traffic jam).
Harold's masterpiece was The New Adam, the most monumental male nude ever painted by an American artists (the actor Sal Mineo was the model). The paintings is forty feet long and was intended to be displayed wrapped around three walls of a gallery. It was to appear in a show at the Guggenheim in 1962, a show that made names such as Robert Rauschenberg famous, but the painting was rejected at the last minute. The Guggenheim finally purchased the work in the early Aughts, though it hasn't been on display in a while. In 2005 a detail from the painting was selected for the cover of the book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art. I reviewed that book here.
So, how did I know this prominent gay painter?
He was from Idabel, Oklahoma, a small town in the pine woods of southeastern Oklahoma where he returned in his final years and he was friends with people I knew in Oklahoma City. It was my privilege to hang out with Harold on a few occasions. A few times he attended the church I pastored in Oklahoma City, including once being there for the annual pet blessing. He gave me a signed print.
Harold was a delightful person, funny and smart, and full of great stories of some of the most significant characters in twentieth century American cultural life.
Harold's other masterwork is less well known, though it has been exhibited in Paris. This work is entitled The Great Society, and now belongs to the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus, though it is also currently in storage.
The Great Society is 100 larger than life size portraits of the citizens of Idabel, Oklahoma painted by Harold in 1966. In 2006 the paintings were exhibited in Norman, Oklahoma and I reviewed the opening for Hard News Online (which no longer exists, though you can read the opening paragraphs of the review here). That night Michael and I were fortunate to be part of a small group that went to dinner with Harold after the premiere, where we peppered him with questions. That night, in answer to one of my questions about the paintings, Harold responded, "You must understand, Reverend Doctor, that each one was spontaneous; after the session, I never touched them again."
I hadn't seen or talked with Harold for some time, one of the losses of moving to Nebraska, but I was sad last night to learn of his death in October. He was a fascinating figure--this great erotic gay artist from rural Oklahoma who returned there and in one of his greatest works elevated its ordinary citizens into the world of fine art.