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Nancy Spero - Biography and Legacy

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."

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Biography of Nancy Spero

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.

For a year, Spero lived in Paris, continuing her training as an artist at the √Člive Nationale Supponale des Beaux-Arts and at the Atelier of Andre Lhote, an early Cubist painter. When she returned to Chicago, at the age of 24, she married Golub. "We lived and worked together," she described, "and it was pretty wonderful - a perpetual dialogue. The influence was mutual." A few years later, having had two sons and feeling disappointed with the state of the art-world in America, at the time dominated by Abstract Expressionism, the couple decided to escape and to look for a new, more open environment in which to make work. As described by the Tate: "Spero and Golub were equally committed to exploring a modernist representation of the human form, with its narratives and art historical resonances, even as Abstract Expressionism was becoming the dominant idiom."

Between 1957 and 1959 the couple lived in Italy and in Bloomington, Indiana. They then moved to Paris, where they stayed for five years and Spero gave birth to their third son. It was also in Paris at this moment that Spero created her first really mature works, the enigmatic Black Painting series. This highly creative phase included a series of paintings of lovers which although dark in palette were calm in tone. By contrast, works like Les Anges, Merde, Fuck You (1960) and Nightmare Figures II (1961) were more frenzied, with severed heads sticking out their tongues cleverly making reference to both the demons of patriarchy, and to the artist's own crying babies.

Mature Period

In 1964, the family returned to America and settled in New York. "When we came back from Europe," remembers Spero, "we had three young sons. With Leon and even a male dog that made five men in the family. That was pretty heavy duty." This was also a period of political crisis which affected Spero profoundly. "We were immediately confronted with the Vietnam War through the media (even as we were simultaneously trying to track my cousin who was in the summer Olympics!). That's when I became really upset about what was going on in Vietnam. That's what changed my whole perspective on the work that I was going to do. I started to paint the war in this crazy way. In the beginning, I focused on bombs, helicopters [...] I stopped painting the Black paintings, which took forever to paint and I could only do five a year at the most. The war paintings I would make very rapidly and angrily." Indeed Spero abandoned oil painting altogether and, from 1966 to 1970, focused on "furious ink and gouache drawings on paper that articulated the obscenity of war," as New York-based writer Phoebe Hoban describes them.

It was around the same time that the artist became interested with what she called the "victimage" of women, focusing her practice on making visible a variety of local histories of female subjugation. What is more, she began looking for ways to become engaged with the world in a more active, immediate way - extending her feminism and activism beyond her practice as an artist. "During the late sixties," she told Buhmann, "I started to hear about radical women activists, such as the radical feminist collective, The Redstockings, who were not focused on the arts, but on doing radical actions. So there was all this exciting stuff going on. That's when I really got interested in these feminist groups. At first, a friend took me to AWC (Art Workers Coalition) meetings, which were made up of men and women and then I heard about an offshoot, a women group called WAR (Women Artists in Revolution). I loved it. I was so angry at that time about so many things, especially about not being able to get my art out, to get people to look. I thought, "WAR" - that's it. We started to organize some actions and protests and wrote manifestos. For example, a few of us marched into the Museum of Modern Art and demanded equality for women artists. Then, I joined another, the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists. It all went very fast in those days."

In 1972, Spero joined the founding committee of the Artist in Residence Gallery (A.I.R.), an initiative dedicated to exhibiting work by women. "We were very firm that this was not a man-hating group of women artists," Spero claimed, "but I was frustrated. I couldn't get my voice out; it was like I was being pushed down [...] I saw you have to have a base in which to be planted so you can go out and see what's going on and kind of confront the art world with a little bit more assurance."

Late Period

By the beginning of the 1980s Spero had already begun to assemble her well-known "cast" of female characters. Sourced from a variety of different images and cultures, these figures - including Lilith, Medusa, and the Irish fertility goddesss Sheela-Na-Gig - were invested by Spero with a different energy or role depending each time on the work. By 1988, her art had evolved from works on paper to installations, with the artist now printing her figures directly onto the walls of galleries and of public spaces. Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, which progressively affected control of movement in her hands, Spero eventually decided to employ assistants, turning her practice into a collaborative process that would allow her to continue to create until the very end of her life. From the late 1980s until the early 2000s, Spero had installed installation pieces all across the world.

"Being with Leon and having my three beautiful sons," she said in a conversation for the Brooklyn Rail with Phong Bui at the age of 82, "I am really blessed in a lot of ways. Otherwise, by living day-to-day, one realizes the firmness of cruelty, what people do to each other. But then one realizes that it's always built with double meaning of the conflicted self. Whether it's through language and gesture and thoughts, and so on..." The tone of this interview well exemplifies a contradiction that lived within Spero throughout her life, one of lightness, and joy, and a great overall appreciation of life combined with ongoing struggle, a heaviness, and deep disappointment in humanity's general will towards destruction.

The Legacy of Nancy Spero

Today, Spero is widely recognized as one of the most influential women artists of her generation. "She is a major 20th-century artist," said Fordham University professor of art history Jo Anna Isaak, who has helped curate several exhibitions of Spero's work. "I think that she is now assuming her proper role and getting her critical due." One of the artists to openly acknowledge the tremendous influence of Spero's work is Kiki Smith. Art Historian, Jon Bird curated a crucial major exhibition called Otherworlds in 2003 that well united and showcased the work of Smith and Spero.

Working directly onto the wall, Spero's technique recalls ancient fresco painting, but simultaneously her cut and paste approach of placing individual figures in the urban landscape interestingly brings to mind the work of contemporary street artists, such as the famous and anonymous Englishman, Banksy. The process and result of creating an immersive gallery environment rather than simply a framed artwork is a way of making work that is now much more wide spread than it was when Spero developed the notion during the 1980s. The contemporary British artist Jean Thompson practices a very similar technique with equally challenging 'maternal' and 'feminine' themes. More broadly speaking in popular culture, using collage cut and pasted directly on to the wall has become an important statement in the world of design, with both public and private spaces preferring this way to decorate rather than a picture in a frame.

Most Important Art

Nancy Spero Famous Art

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

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.
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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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