It’s Day 102. I’m going to start using numbers in my titles now…small detail, but realized how long the titles would be if I kept spelling them out in words! I’m having a lazy Saturday (for me…meaning just painting a few paintings and walking dogs). Join me in celebrating Nancy Spero today.
Nancy Spero (August 24, 1926 – October 18, 2009) was an American visual artist.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Spero lived for much of her life in New York City. She was married to, and collaborated with artist Leon Golub.
As both artist and activist, Nancy Spero’s career spanned fifty years. She was renowned
for her continuous engagement with contemporary political, social, and cultural concerns. Spero chronicled wars and apocalyptic violence as well as articulating visions of ecstatic rebirth and the celebratory cycles of life. Her complex network of collective and individual voices was a catalyst for the creation of her figurative lexicon representing women from prehistory to the present in such epic-scale paintings and collage on paper as Torture of Women (1976), Notes in Time on Women (1979) and The First Language (1981). In 2010, “Notes in Time” was posthumously reanimated as a digital scroll in the online magazine Triple Canopy.
Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1926, but a year later her family moved to Chicago, where she grew up. After graduating from New Trier High School, she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1949. Among Spero’s peers at the Art Institute was a young GI who had returned from service in World War II, Leon Golub. Spero and Golub exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago as part of the group the Monster Roster.
After her graduation from the Art Institute Spero continued to study painting in Paris
at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and at the Atelier of Andre Lhote, an early Cubist painter, teacher and critic. Soon after her return to the United States in 1950, she married the painter Leon Golub, and the two artists settled in Chicago.
From 1956 to 1957, Spero and Golub lived and painted in Italy, while raising their two sons. 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. In Florence and Ischia that Spero became intrigued by the format, style and mood of Etruscan and Roman frescoes and sarcophagi which would influence her later work.
Finding a more varied, inclusive and international atmosphere in Europe than in the New York artworld of the time, Spero and her family moved to Paris, living there from 1959 to 1964. Spero’s third son was born in Paris, and the artist had major solo exhibitions in Paris at Galerie Breteau in 1962, 1964, and 1968. During this period, Spero painted a series titled Black Paintings depicting mythic themes such as mothers and children, lovers, prostitutes and hybrid, human-animal forms.
Spero and Golub returned to New York in 1964, where the couple remained to live and
work. The Vietnam War was raging and the Civil Rights Movement was exploding. Affected by images of the war broadcast nightly on television and the unrest and violence evident in the streets, Spero began her War Series (1966–70). These small gouache and inks on paper, executed rapidly, represented the obscenity and destruction of war. The War Series is among the most sustained and powerful group of works in the genre of history painting that condemns war and its real and lasting consequences.
An activist and early feminist, Spero was a member of the Art Workers Coalition (1968–69), Women Artists in Revolution (1969), and in 1972 she was a founding member of the first women’s cooperative gallery, A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) in SoHo. It was during this period that Spero completed her “Artaud Paintings” (1969–70), finding her artistic “voice” and developing her signature scroll paintings, the Codex Artaud (1971–1972), in which she directly quoted the writings of the poet and playwright Antonin Artaud. Uniting text and image, printed on long scrolls of paper, glued end-to-end and tacked on the walls of A.I.R., Spero violated the formal presentation, choice of valued medium and scale of framed paintings.
Although her collaged and painted scrolls were Homeric in both scope and depth, the artist shunned the grandiose in content as well as style, relying instead on intimacy and immediacy, while also revealing the continuum of shocking political realities underlying enduring myths. In a 2008 interview in The Brooklyn Rail with publisher Phong Bui, Spero says of her early identification with Artaud: “For me, the spoken words were part of the body, as if whatever I was trying to paint, and my own awareness of pain and anger—you can call it the destruction of the self—was an integral part, that duality. Things get split up right in the middle, which I was very much interested in at that moment in my life.”
In 1974, Spero chose to focus on themes involving women and their representation in various cultures;
her Torture in Chile (1974) and the long scroll, Torture of Women(1976, 20 inches x 125 feet), interweave oral testimonies with images of women throughout history, linking the contemporary governmental brutality of Latin American dictatorships (from Amnesty International reports) with the historical repression of women. Spero re-presented previously obscured women’s histories, cultural mythology, and literary references with her expressive figuration.
Developing a pictographic language of body gestures and motion, a bodily hieroglyphics, Spero reconstructed the diversity of representations of women from pre-history to the present. From 1976 through 1979, she researched and worked on Notes in Time on Women, a 20 inch by 210 foot paper scroll. She elaborated and amplified this theme in The First Language (1979–81, 20 inches by 190 feet), eschewing text altogether in favor of an irregular rhythm of painted, hand-printed, and collaged figures, thus creating her “cast of characters.” The acknowledgement of Spero’s international status as a preeminent figurative and feminist artist was signaled in 1987 by her traveling retrospective exhibitions in the United States and United Kingdom. By 1988, she developed her first wall installations. For these installations, Spero extended the picture plane of the scrolls by moving her printed images directly onto the walls of museums and public spaces.
Harnessing a capacious imaginative energy and a ferocious will, Spero continued to mine the full range of power relations. In 1987, following retrospective exhibitions in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, the artist created images that leapt from the scroll surface to the wall surface, refiguring representational forms of women over time and engaging in a dialogue with architectural space. Spero’s wall paintings in Chicago, Vienna, Dresden, Toronto, and Derry form poetic reconstructions of the diversity of representations of women from the ancient to the contemporary world, validating a subjectivity of female experience.
Spero expressed her art once in this way: “I’ve always sought to express a tension in form and meaning in order to achieve a veracity. I have come to the conclusion that the art world has to join us, women artists, not we join it. When women are in leadership roles and gain rewards and recognition, then perhaps ‘we’ (women and men) can all work together in art world actions.”
Nancy Spero died of heart failure in Manhattan on October 18, 2009.
Biography is from wikipedia.
The most difficult part of painting today was choosing what I wanted to paint and also how I wanted to. Nancy Spero is one of those artists that does have a style, but also her style has evolved and changed throughout the years. I find that difficulty with certain artists more than others. But I think evolution is wonderful. I know that people would be astounded if they saw the versatility of my art. Not all of it is good, but it definitely varied throughout the years. I finally told myself just to keep examining her artwork until something came to me…and it did!
I hope you enjoy my tribute today and I will see you tomorrow on Day 103! Best, Linda