Nancy Spero: Feminist art pioneer

Author Bios & Interviews, Library, Women Artists & Hybrid Forms

September 24th, 2010

Nancy Spero (1926 – 2009, born in Cleveland, Ohio) is regarded as a pioneer in feminist art whose work confronts social and political injustice with creative ingenuity. Her work has received considerable international acclaim with more than a dozen solo museum exhibitions around the world, including the ICA in London, de Appel in Amsterdam, Malmö Kunsthalle in Sweden, the New Museum in New York, and MOCA in Los Angeles as well as a limited retrospective in 2010 at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In 2008 the Museo d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona organized a retrospective that traveled to two other museums in Spain. Her work has also been included in exhibitions including, most recently, WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution, elles@centrepompidou , the Whitney Biennial 2006, and Think with the Senses — Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense at the 52nd Venice Biennale. Among her many commissions is the popular “Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers,” a permanent mosaic installed at the 66th Street/Lincoln Center subway station in New York City.

While her work is now widely recognized and respected, Spero worked in relative obscurity for almost twenty-five years, resisting the predominant art world trends and protesting inequality in the art world and beyond. Graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949, she married artist Leon Golub a few years later. Together they moved to Paris where, in domestic isolation, she painted while raising her three young sons. Her dark and existential series, Black Paintings including her first use of text in works such as “Fuck You / Merde,” presaged the radical transformation of her art upon returning to the U.S. in 1964.

Horrified by the war in Vietnam, Spero painted the War Series (1966-70), using sexual imagery to shock the viewer into recognizing the relationships between sex and power, war and obscenity. Her outrage and anger was expressed in both art and action: she joined several activist groups including the Art Workers Coalition and Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and also helped found the all-women’s cooperative gallery A.I.R. where she had her first solo New York show, Codex Artaud, in 1973. This work, while less overtly political, was more subversive in method, collaging non-illustrative imagery with the fractured, tortured texts of Antonin Artaud to create a complex indictment of the powers of oppression and an intimate portrait of pain. This early experiment developed into an innovative, wide-ranging, and enduring artistic practice that is unapologetically feminist, anarchic in spirit, and tenaciously political, a practice she continued well into her eighties.