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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

"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."

Summary of Nancy Spero

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.
Nancy Spero Photo

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.

Important Art by Nancy Spero

The below artworks are the most important by Nancy Spero - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Homage to New York (I Do Not Challenge) (1958)
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Homage to New York (I Do Not Challenge) (1958)

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting is one of Nancy Spero's earliest works as a trained artist - produced just nine years after the completion of her BFA at the Art Institute of Chicago - and possibly her first attempt to incorporate text in the plane of the image. In a conversation with writer and curator Jo Anna Isaak published in 1996, Spero described what is depicted in the painting as follows: "[There is] a tombstone right in the middle, and then on each side are two heads with dunce caps and rabbit-like ears, and their tongues are sticking out. And on this phallic-like tombstone... are the initials of the artists who were prevalent then... On top I wrote, 'I do not challenge,' and then 'Homage to New York' below."

While apparently neutral, this description betrays the painting's ironic quality and tone. The statement "I do not challenge" is humorously reversed in the work by the act of symbolically burying a number of artists, all associated with Abstract Expressionism, and who were Spero's contemporaries and very much alive in 1958. Despite its title then, the work is not homemade in homage, it is a mockery, a slap in the face, and a call to action for the non-dominant artists around at the time. As art-historian Mignon Nixon suggests in her essay 'Spero's Curses' (2007), the very manner in which Spero painted this picture is revealing. "Produced, coincidentally, around the same time Marcel Duchamp cast a deadpan self-portrait inscribed With My Tongue in My Cheek (1959) - a work often interpreted as a cunning critique of Abstract Expressionism's heroic posturing - Spero's parody conversely is expressionistic in tone," Nixon observes, "mimicking in its liquid, gestural application of paint the self-conscious performance of alienated, dumb virility that had become a defining characteristic of late-modernist painting." Later on in the same text, the author argues that the tongues, sticking out of the mouths of the two twin figures, "dramatize the author's own exclusion from speech, underscoring the futility of the gesture that is being enacted." Indeed, Spero often spoke of a certain feeling of being silenced: "I felt like a non-artist, a non-person," she once stated, "I had no world, I could not function in the world I was in." Her decision to displace her signature in Homage to New York, from the bottom to the middle of the canvas, so that it's now positioned in a direct contrast with that "select class of artists so well known that their initials alone are adequate to represent them," can, too, be seen as a device which enhances the experience of exclusion communicated in the work. "Spero's 'I'," writes Nixon, "is that of the subject whose rebellion falls on deaf ears."

What is worth noting in connection to Homage to New York is that, while it is certainly the case that the work constitutes a "critique of the masculine politics of the New York School of the fifties", as Britany Salsbury has put it, some of the artists that Spero "buries" here are, in fact, female. The work might, then, be better understood as communicating a sense of an outside which is derived from Spero's experience of being a figurative artist in an age of abstraction, rather than simply or only that of being female. Reflecting upon her early years as an artist, Spero once said that "anger gave impetus to the work. That, and literally sticking out my tongue at all of this, at all of the heroes, the so called authorities." The very "idea of monument," she stated, "is mostly a phallus." She sticks her tongue out to the sway of conceptual and abstract intellectualism, and radically dares to follow bodily intuition.

Oil on Canvas - Galerie Lelong, New York

Lovers I (1965)
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Lovers I (1965)

Artwork description & Analysis: Nancy Spero's Lovers I belongs to a series of twenty-five works known as The Black Paintings, for the most part produced between 1961 and 1965, while the artist was living in Paris. Emerging against the dark backdrop of the canvas, the figures delineated here by Spero appear to be embracing, facing each other as they recline. The title guides us in understanding the relationship between the two silhouettes, which otherwise remain indeterminate - their gender, age, and identity are unknown to us - bestowing the work an enigmatic quality. In her own words, "these paintings are about timeless subjects which continually appear in our society. They dealt with lovers, great mothers, children and prostitutes..." The rough, intuitive manner in which Spero renders her figures as well as their background, making it difficult to know exactly where one ends and the other begins - the way, that is, in which her figures, while standing independent, often merge into one another - is central to the sort of experience that the work is intended to produce. As the TATE describes: "Spero ultimately came to see these paintings as being about the isolation we all experience in love - the necessity for distance and separation within the state of connection with another ... The tension between these two elements (figures separated and yet joined) expresses the poignancy of this eternal lovers' conundrum."

It is perhaps worth noting here that despite their unfinished quality, the deeply evocative works that Spero presents us with in The Black Paintings series, often occupied the artist for months at a time. Examined against or within the larger context of Spero's artistic output, this series of paintings stand for an art of which the meaning is not so much political, as with many of her subsequent, more known works, but profoundly personal. This is all the more significant when one considers that Spero's decision to move from Chicago to Paris in 1959, was motivated by a need, shared by her life-long partner, Leon Golub, to "bypass New York" - at the time a much larger center for art than Paris - and the then-dominant movement of Abstract Expressionism, so as to find a place that would, as Spero put it, allow her "the freedom to create in an individual way." Despite, however, being 'personal' works, the dark, many layered canvases already reveal the far and wide searching language that Spero was to develop. The ground appears heavily layered and thus ancient, and the drawing is loose and free, pointing towards the elemental drive towards creation. When considered together, the ground and the marks upon it, the works recall early cave paintings. Even when simply depicting herself and her love, Spero suggests a harking back to the origins that we all share.

Oil paint on canvas - The Tate Collection

A cycle of the Universe is Finished - Artaud (1969)
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A cycle of the Universe is Finished - Artaud (1969)

Artwork description & Analysis: A cycle of the Universe is Finished - Artaud forms part of a larger project that Spero undertook between 1969 and 1972, only four years after relocating to NYC from Paris, and throughout which she engaged in a complicated dialogue with the writings of French playwright and poet Antonin Artaud. Painted in capital, disorderly letters, Artaud's quote "A cycle of the universe is finished" is accompanied here by a red ascending arrow and an illustration of a sphere at the core of which appears to be a human figure. While the precise meaning of the work is not immediately clear, one could, without doubt, understand it as a response to the political and cultural unrest that defined the late 1960s, an era shadowed by the Vietnam war and marked by the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the figure at the centre of the universe depicted by Spero in this work appears, upon closer inspection, to be a black woman or man. The artist's deep, continuous interest in Artaud at the time points towards this dialogue as the most significant aspect of the work.

Active during the first part of the twentieth century, Artaud is a figure whose life was defined by a series of unfortunate events, and a long-standing battle with mental illness. Between 1943 and 1946, he received fifty-one electroshock treatments, intended to eliminate his symptoms, but which plunged the author into an even deeper confrontation with what he perceived to be his "demons." It was, it appears, not only the contemporary relevance of his writings, but this painful personal history that was the source of Spero's fascination with Artaud. Clayton Eshleman, an American poet and a friend of the artist, recalled that Spero was "bowled over by Artaud's seething consternation and seemed amazed that a man could suffer as Artaud claimed he did, as if such suffering usually belonged to women ... it was this identification in suffering that enabled her to relate to his anger and apocalyptic pronouncements." Indeed, in an interview with Jo Anna Isaak from 1965, Spero stated that she "chose to use Artaud's writings, because he screams and yells and rants and raves about his tongue being cut off, castrated. He has no voice, he's silenced in a bourgeois society." In the years to follow A cycle of the Universe is Finished - Artaud, and upon completing the remarkable Artaud Codex in 1972, Spero would choose to focus her practice on articulating the suffering and objectification of women throughout history, becoming one of the foremost political and feminist artists working in the U.S. until her death in 2009. "Although we will probably never know exactly what demons Nancy herself was exorcising in her two Artaud projects, Eshleman once said, "it seems clear to me that especially the latter work was a central rite of passage for her ..."

Judging A cycle of the Universe is Finished - Artaud from the perspective of Spero's own attitude towards life, inferred not only from her uninterrupted activist practice but from her very determination to continue to create - this despite a feeling of marginalization which, although Spero never spoke of directly, is largely understood to have been part of her experience as a female artist and a mother - one is inclined to say that the work should be understood positively: as an attempt at renewal, and the beginning of a new, upward movement or cycle in human as well as individual history.

The Codex Artaud series that followed these individual works on paper was typically presented on scrolls. Images often featured serpents with their tongues sticking out and lactating Romulus/Remus wolves feeding their screaming youths. There are references to be made with the Creation Story, and also to Spero's own experience at the time feeding three hungry boys. It was as though the artist shared the same experience as Artaud of being extremely physically tested, while yet still insisting on having a voice, on speaking, on existing. Artaud, an equally brilliant artist as well as poet, made self-portraits of himself with holes piercing his skin, as though only through a process of self-mutilation could he experience a sense of relief from the heaviness within. It was perhaps through the aggressive gesture of cutting for collage that Spero felt a similar release, and such was a process necessary for the deepest of self-exploration.

Gouache, ink, and handprinted collage on paper - Galerie Lelong, New York

More Nancy Spero Artwork and Analysis:

They Will Torture You, My Friend (1971) South Africa (1981) To Soar (1991) Maypole: Take No Prisoners II (2008)

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.
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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
Influences on Artist
Nancy Spero
Nancy Spero
Years Worked: 1949 - 2009
Influenced by Artist
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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First published on 22 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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