Life and Work of Nancy Spero, Feminist Printmaker

Image from Spero's War Series
Image from Spero's War Series.

 Museo Reina Sofia 

Nancy Spero (August 24, 1926–October 18, 2009) was a pioneering feminist artist, best known for her appropriation of images of myth and legend culled from various sources collaged with contemporary images of women. Her work is often presented in an unconventional manner, whether in the form of the codex or applied directly to the wall. This manipulation of form is designed to place her work, which frequently grapples with themes of feminism and violence, in the context of a more established art historical canon.

Fast Facts: Nancy Spero

  • Known For: Artist (painter, printmaker)
  • Born: August 24, 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Died: October 18, 2009 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Art Institute of Chicago
  • Selected Works: "War Series," "Artaud Paintings," "Take No Prisoners"
  • Notable Quote: "I don’t want my work to be a reaction to what male art might be or what art with a capital A would be. I just want it to be art."

Early Life

Spero was born in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her family moved to Chicago when she was a toddler. After graduating from New Trier High School, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where she met her future husband, painter Leon Golub, who described his wife as being “elegantly subversive” in art school. Spero graduated in 1949 and spent the following year in Paris. She and Golub married in 1951.

While living and working in Italy from 1956 to 1957, Spero took note of the ancient Etruscan and Roman frescoes, which she would eventually incorporate into her own art.

From 1959-1964, Spero and Golub lived in Paris with their three sons (the youngest, Paul, was born in Paris during this time). It was in Paris that she began exhibiting her work. She displayed her work in several shows at Galerie Breteau throughout the 1960s.

Art: Style and Themes

Nancy Spero’s work is easily recognizable, made by repeatedly hand-printing images in a non narrative sequence, often in codex form. The codex and the scroll are ancient ways of disseminating knowledge; thus, by utilizing the codex in her own work, Spero inserts herself into the larger context of history. The use of the knowledge-bearing codex to display image-based work begs the viewer to make sense of the “story.” Ultimately, however, Spero's art is anti-historical, as the repeated images of women in distress (or in some cases women as protagonist) is meant to paint a picture of the unchanging nature of the female condition as either victim or heroine.

An example of Spero's Codices.  Aware Women Artists

Spero's interest in the scroll was also partially derived from her realization that the female figure could not escape the scrutiny of the male gaze. Thus, she began to make works that were so expansive that some pieces could only be seen in peripheral vision. This reasoning also extends to her fresco work, which places her figures in out of reach places on a wall—often very high or hidden by other architectural elements.

Spero derived her metal plates, which she used to print the same image over and over again, from images she encountered in her day-to-day, including advertisements, history books, and magazines. She would eventually build up what an assistant called a “lexicon” of female images, which she would employ almost as stand-ins for words.

The fundamental position of Spero’s work was to recast woman as the protagonist in history, as women “have been there” but “have been written out” of history. “What I try to do,” she said, "is pick the ones that have a very powerful vitality” in order to force our culture to grow accustomed to seeing women in the role of power and heroism.

Spero’s use of the female body, however, does not always seek to represent the female experience. Sometimes, it is “a symbol of victim of both men and women,” as the female body is often the site of violence. In her series on the Vietnam War, the image of woman is intended to represent the suffering of all people, not merely the ones she chooses to depict. Spero's depiction of womankind is a portrait of the universal human condition.

Politics

As her work no doubt suggests, Spero herself was outspoken about politics, concerned with issues as diverse as the violence suffered in war and the unfair treatment of women in the art world.

About her iconic War Series, which used the menacing shape of an American army helicopter as a symbol for the atrocities carried out in Vietnam, Spero said:.

“When we came back from Paris and saw that [the U.S.] had gotten involved in Vietnam, I realized that the United States had lost its aura and its right to claim how pure we were."
"Bomb Shitting" from her War Series.  Museo Reina Sofia 

In addition to her anti-war work, Spero was a member of Art Workers Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution, and the Women’s Ad Hoc Committee. She was one of the founding members of A.I.R. (Artists-in-Residence) Gallery, a collaborative workspace of female artists in SoHo. She joked that she needed this all-female space as she was overwhelmed at home as the only woman among four men (her husband and three sons).

Spero's politics were not limited to her art making. She picketed the Vietnam War, as well as the Museum of Modern Art for its poor inclusion of female artists in its collection. Despite her active political participation, however, Spero said:

"I don’t want my work to be a reaction to what male art might be or what art with a capital A would be. I just want it to be art."

Reception and Legacy

Nancy Spero’s work was well-regarded in her lifetime. She received a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 1988 and at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992 and was featured at the Venice Biennale in 2007 with a maypole construction titled Take No Prisoners.

"Take No Prisoners" at the Venice Biennale.  Getty Images

Her husband Leon Golub died in 2004. They had been married for 53 years, often working side by side. By the end of her life, Spero was crippled by arthritis, forcing her to work with other artists to produce her prints. However, she welcomed the collaboration, as she liked the way the influence of another hand would change the feel of her prints.

Spero died in 2009 at the age of 83, leaving behind a legacy that will continue to influence and inspire artists that come after her.

Sources

  • Bird, Jon et al. Nancy Spero. Phaidon, 1996.
  • Cotter, Holland. "Nancy Spero, Artist Of Feminism, Is Dead At 83". Nytimes.Com, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/arts/design/20spero.html.
  • "Politics & Protest". Art21, 2018, https://art21.org/read/nancy-spero-politics-and-protest/. 
  • Searle, Adrian. "Nancy Spero's Death Means The Art World Loses Its Conscience". The Guardian, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/oct/20/nancy-spero-artist-death.
    Sosa, Irene (1993). Woman as Protagonist: The Art of Nancy Spero. [video] Available at: https://vimeo.com/240664739. (2012).