On Nancy Spero: Art now in the age of Abu Ghraib

News Section, Reviews

August 29th, 2012


(Essay) Torture of Women

Art 21 Blog


Originally published April 16, 2010


“In our day, [when] we came back from war,” said Seymour Hersh to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, “We would take our pictures and hide them behind the socks in the drawer and look at them once in a while.” But this generation is different, Hersh lamented, appearing on Fox just after his infamous Abu Ghraib expose debuted in the New Yorker; this generation sends sensitive pictures around on CDs, uploads them to the Internet, and even sells them — God forbid — to news outlets. “Some kid right now is negotiating with some European magazine,” Hersh said, confident that the onslaught of Abu Ghraib visuals had only just begun.

When Nancy Spero (Art:21 Season 4) began making her biting panoramas, war pictures were still hidden behind the socks in American bedrooms. The subject of torture seemed the ideal province for a socially driven artist who wanted to cut through the strange sheen of silence that surrounded political trauma. Spero, sensitive but unrelenting, was perfect to do the cutting. A new book by Siglio Press, out April 30, re-presents Spero’s often talked about yet rarely seen project, Torture of Women (1976) — 125 feet of drawings that pair accounts of female torture victims with willowy, mythical figures.

In book form, Spero’s drawings are jarringly seductive, quaint like Henry Darger, pious like Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, and angry like Emma Goldman. They also look old. But their datedness may actually be the book’s greatest asset. Spero was quick to say that art should talk to its time and, though the subject of Torture of Women matters now as much as ever, a lot changed when photographs of torture catapulted out of drawers and into the blogosphere.

I first encountered Spero in the pages of Michael Kimmelman’s 1998 book Portraits, a down-to-earth take on the “artists-on-art” formula. Kimmelman joined Spero and Spero’s husband, painter Leon Golub, for a stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, in the resulting essay, Spero and Golub come off as two deeply conscientious artists. They apologize for resenting Pollock, talk about Tiepolo as if he were their contemporary, and praise one another’s subversiveness. Though they react to art viscerally, they care more about how it relates to the world than its identity as art. “Nancy and I are both content-oriented,” says Golub. “I have often thought of myself as a history painter and I think Nancy looks at things in a similar way.” . . .

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