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Artists Nancy Spero
Nancy Spero Photo

Nancy Spero

American Painter, Collage, and Installation Artist

Movement: Feminist Art

Born: August 24, 1926 - Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Died: October 18, 2009 - New York, USA

Nancy Spero Timeline

Quotes

"The images may be repeated, but I feel that they're actors in different situations. [...] A figure can be ambiguous, terrified, or lyrical according to the situation."
Nancy Spero
"... what irritates me is that women artists are often expected to respond to the idea of the universal - the phallus, the symbol of power and authority. I would prefer to act without constant reference to it, unfettered from rather than in reaction to the male presence. Why should women artists be constrained to respond to male power and control? Let male artists respond to us!"
Nancy Spero
"In my work from 1976 on, I have used only the images of women to depict woman as protagonist, woman as the universal symbol. I have images of contemporary figures, some taken from the media, other improvised and invented, ancient goddesses, prehistoric figures, images of women from times and cultures. [...] Up to now men and the term "man" have been used to symbolize both women and men. I decided to view women and men by representing women, not just to reverse history but to see what it means to view all this through the depiction of women."
Nancy Spero
"What can one do as an artist when you see all the violence being carried out in the world?"
Nancy Spero
"I print without a press, by hand. I can smear the image and vary the pressure of my hand or the amount of ink so that tone and values change. Sometimes there are transparencies: one image, if it's from a line drawing, can be seen through another. So even though the plate is formed by a mechanistic process, I take great liberties. The recent, more exuberant and celebratory works have become very colorful. I now often print the colors first, almost as an abstract background, and over that I print the images. I then cut the figures out and collage them onto the paper."
Nancy Spero
"When I was doing work related to Artaud, it was concerned with the artist in society and the realization that the individual couldn't combat all these forces that were larger than herself. That's a more personal kind of thing."
Nancy Spero
"The art world provides a space for symbols and metaphors, a kind of touchstone for ideas, and all kinds of ideas are coming forth. I feel there's room for all this and there should be. But I do think that political art is marginalized. Why is the question always asked 'Is this art?' It's ridiculous, because there's an intention in every kind of art."
Nancy Spero

"I used to think that the artist was powerless. The art community is small but if the artist gains a voice you reach some people who transmit ideas into the world."

Synopsis

Nancy Spero's career moves forth on a seamless figurative journey, beginning with lovers painted on heavy black ground to culminate in a whole host of female characters initially united by collage and then dispersed widely across white gallery walls. Whilst Spero's media and subject matter changed with time - moving between themes of family, the Vietnam War, and the subjugation of women - her work always retained an immersive quality. As a first generation American Feminist artist, married to fellow creative, Leon Golub, and known for giving Antonin Artaud a voice, Spero dispels any notion of a fixed and singular identity and instead sings within a large chorus drawn from all phases of history and culture. She draws upon a plethora of goddesses, famous personalities, and religious icons from her own visual archive. Indeed her art reveals that our mundane everyday existence is also a constant magical dialogue with myths and symbols. Feeling as a young artist alienated from the art world, by her latter years she was revered and respected in that very same arena, even being asked to re-design a New York subway station. As struggling figures jump from the canvas to be released into architectural space or to dance around city streets, it is as though through a lifetime of making that Nancy Spero achieved the ultimate goal, she set herself free.

Key Ideas

Spero expresses deep interest in origins and in the primordial. She depicts early female archetypes, makes use of the scroll formation in her work, and calls one series, 'the first language'. She includes early Christian figures like Lilith, and Egyptian goddesses like Maat, proposing the idea to viewers that it is only via absorption into where we come from (i.e. a return to the source), that we can subsequently best appreciate who we are and where we are going.
She shows women suffering, be it by suppression under patriarchy or through the experience of actual bodily harm. Overall, she is an artist who well expresses the difficult to articulate language of a body in pain, a notion investigated in detail by theorist Elaine Scarry. Alongside figures like Frida Kahlo and Kiki Smith, Spero was a pioneer in making collectively visible what is usually the individual invisible experience of hurt. This 'hurt' becomes psychological as well as physical.
The artist's use of different techniques and media, from painting, to printing, to collage, to working directly onto the wall, and also using text along with image emphasizes the timeless aspect of her project. Not only does Spero look across history for subject matter, she also experiments with past processes such as fresco and mosaic. In this sense, she looks back for method as well as for message. The practice in particular of combining word and image link Spero to the likes of Hilma af Klint and William Blake and suggests that she is not only a visual artist, but also a mystic, a philosopher, and a poet.
Spero's oeuvre opens up the essentialist debate whereby academics are worried by an artist's strong identification with nature. Progressive modernism seeks to avoid trapping women in the arguably socially constructed role of life giver and mother and thus finds the celebration of powerful ancient feminine archetypes difficult to rationalize. Spero however, along with artists Kiki Smith and Francesca Woodman, understood that her relationship with age-old female connectivity was important, and more of a complex mythical and spiritual idea, rather than a straight forward social and historical one.

Biography

Nancy Spero Photo

Childhood and Early Training

Nancy Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1926 to a family with a Jewish background. A year later, her family moved to Chicago, where Spero remained until age 23. In an interview for the Brooklyn Rail with art historian Stephanie Buhmann, Spero reflected on her early years, observing that she had decided to become an artist because it was the only thing she was really interested in. "For me," she said, "it was all about making art. It was the only thing that I really wanted to do and the only thing that I seemed to have some talent in. In those days, in Chicago, it wasn't such a glamorous thing to be a visual artist." As a dealer of used print-presses, Spero's father Henry Spero was, apparently, indifferent to her decision to become an artist: "Anything that wouldn't lead me too far from home seemed to be fine. My mother, as I recall, seemed to go along with my father." Thus without any real objection from her family, while at the same time without any real support, Spero enrolled at the School of Art Institute in Chicago. It was there that she met Leon Golub, her future husband, who had just returned from service in WWII and was now studying towards his masters at the Art Institute.

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Nancy Spero Biography Continues

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Nancy Spero
Interactive chart with Nancy Spero's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Andre Lhote
Jean DubuffetJean Dubuffet
Antonin ArtaudAntonin Artaud
Simone de Beauvoir
Kiki SmithKiki Smith

Personal Contacts

Leon GolubLeon Golub
Ana MendietaAna Mendieta
Lucy LippardLucy Lippard

Movements

The Monster Roster
Primitivism in ArtPrimitivism in Art

Influences on Artist
Nancy Spero
Nancy Spero
Years Worked: 1949 - 2009
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Kiki SmithKiki Smith

Personal Contacts

Leon GolubLeon Golub
June Leaf
Louise BourgeoisLouise Bourgeois

Movements

Feminist ArtFeminist Art
Protest Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Lilly Markaki

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Lilly Markaki
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
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