Nancy Spero, in her New York Studio, 1973.
August 24, 1926|
|Died||October 18, 2009
New York City, New York
|Education||Art Institute of Chicago|
|Known for||Painting, Printmaking, Collage|
Nancy Spero (August 24, 1926 – October 18, 2009) was an American visual artist.
Life and work
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, 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. Rarely exhibited, Torture of Women was translated into book form in 2009. 
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.
2011 Serpentine Gallery, Londres - UK Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris - FRANCE 2010 Galerie Lelong, Paris – FRANCE Serpentine Gallery, Londres - UK 2009 Museum der Moderne Salzburg Mönchsberg, Salzburg - AUSTRIA 2008 Musée d'art contemporain de Barcelone - SPAIN Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid – SPAIN Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam – NETHERLANDS The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York – USA 2007 FRAC Haute-Normandie - FRANCE Centre of Graphic Arts, Lubljana - SLOVENIA The Museum of Modern Art, New York – USA Galerie Lelong, Paris - FRANCE 2005 Drawing Center, New York – USA Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima – JAPAN Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea,Santiago de Compostela - SPAIN 2004 Galerie Lelong, Paris - FRANCE 2003 Galerie Lelong, New York – USA 2002 Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Kiel – GERMANY Galerie Lelong, New York – USA 2001 Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver – CANADA 2000 The Museum of Modern Art, New York – USA 1998 Tate Gallery, Londres – UK Museo Jacobo Borges, Carcass - VENEZUELA 1997 Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – USA 1993 National Gallery, Ottawa – CANADA 1992 Museum of Modern Art, New York – USA 1991 Salzburger Kunstverein, Künstlerhaus Salzburg – AUSTRIA
- In 2006, Spero was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- Ivry, Benjamin (2010-04-16). "Nancy Spero and Leon Golub: A Politically Relevant Artistic Couple". Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved 2011-07-07.
- Richard Vine, "Where the Wild Things Were", Art in America, May 1997, pp. 98-111.
- Bui, Phong (July–August 2008). "Nancy Spero in Conversation with Phong Bui". The Brooklyn Rail.
- Torture of Women Siglio Press
- Christopher Lyon, Nancy Spero: The Work (Munich and New York: Prestel, 2010) ISBN 978-3-7913-4416-4
- Geneviève Breerette, Spero, The Paris Black Paintings, 2007 (ISBN 978-2-86882-081-5)
- Robert Storr et Leon Golub, The War Series (1966-1970), 2003 (ISBN 88-8158-457-3)
- Deborah Frizzell, “Nancy Spero’s War Maypole: Take No Prisoners”, Cultural Politics v. 5, no. 1 (March 2009);
- Deborah Frizzell, "Nancy Spero's Museum Incursions: Isis on the Threshold," Woman's Art Journal v. 27, no.2 (Fall/Winter 2006);
- Deborah Frizzell, "Nancy Spero's Installations and Institutional Incursions, 1987-2001; Dialogues Within the Museum, and Elsewhere," Ph.D. Dissertation, Graduate Center of CUNY, 2004;
- Walker, Joanna S., 'Nancy Spero 1926-2009', Art Monthly, no. 332 (Dec-Jan 09-10);
- Walker, Joanna S., ‘An Encounter with Nancy Spero’, n.paradoxa, Vol. 24 (July 2009);
- Walker, Joanna S., ‘The body is present even if in disguise: tracing the trace in the art work of Nancy Spero and Ana Mendieta’, Tate Papers, Issue 11 (Spring 2009). See http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/09spring/joanna-walker.shtm
- Walker, Joanna S., Review of Nancy Spero's retrospective at MACBA, Art Monthly, no. 320 (October 2008);
- Walker, Joanna S., Nancy Spero: An Encounter in Three Parts. Performance, Poetry and Dance (PhD Thesis, University College London, 2008).
- Purdom, Judy, "Nancy Spero and Woman in Performance", in Florence, P. and Foster, N. (eds.), Differential Aesthetics, Ashgate, 2000. ISBN 0-7546-1493-X
- Roel Arkesteijn, Codex Spero. Nancy Spero Selected Writing and Interviews 1950-2008. Roma Publications, 2008. ISBN 978-90-77459-28-7
- Biography, interviews, essays, artwork images and video clips from PBS series Art:21 -- Art in the Twenty-First Century - Season 4 (2007).
- Jon Bird and Lisa Tickner, Nancy Spero, exhib. cat. (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1987);
- Dominique Nahas, ed., Nancy Spero: Works Since 1950, exhib. cat. (Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1987);
- Hanne Weskott, Nancy Spero in der Glyptothek, Arbeiten auf Papier, 1981–1991, exhib. cat. (Munich: Glyptothek am Koenigsplatz Muenchen, 1991);
- Linda Julian, ed., Nancy Spero, 1993 Emrys Journal, exhib. cat. (Greenville, South Carolina: Greenville County Museum of Art, 1993);
- Susan Harris, Nancy Spero, exhib. cat. (Malmö: Malmö Konsthall, 1994);
- Jon Bird, Jo Anna Isaak, and Sylvere Lotringer, Nancy Spero (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996);
- Benjamin Buchloh, "Spero's Other Traditions", in: Inside the Visible, edited by Catherine de Zegher, MIT Press, 1996;
- Nancy Spero. Woman as Protagonist: Interview with Jeanne Siegel, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, edited by Kristine Stiles and peter Selz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 244–246. ISBN 0-520-20253-8;
- Elizabeth A. Macgregor and Catherine de Zegher, Nancy Spero, exhib. cat., (Birmingham, U.K.: Ikon Gallery, 1998);
- Judy Purdom, "Nancy Spero and Woman in Performance". In: Penny Florence and Nicola Foster (eds.) Differential Aesthetics. Ashgate, 2000.
- Nancy Spero: A Continuous Present, Exhibition Catalogue (Kiel, Germany: Kunsthalle zu Kiel and the University of Kiel, 2002);
- Jon Bird, ed. Otherworlds: The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith (London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2003);
- Susan Harris, Nancy Spero: Weighing the Heart Against a Feather of Truth (Spain: Santiago de Compostela, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea, 2005).
- Jewish Women's Archive
- Nancy Spero
- Obituary, NY Times
- Obituary, The Guardian
- Nancy Spero exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries 2011
- Pompidou Centre, exhibition: elles@centrepompidou  2010.
- Interview with Phong Bui in The Brooklyn Rail, Jul/Aug 2008
- Nancy Spero, Christine König Galerie, Vienna, Austria
- Torture of Women at Siglio Press