Nancy Spero had a tremendous effect on me as an artist as well as many other artists.
As a feminist she belonged to, and actively participated in, a generation that fought and broke ground for women artists as well as other marginalized artists, which completely changed the paradigm of art making. They changed the way we construct and perceive meaning; they changed who can imagine themselves as artists; and they expanded the parameters enabling a greater representation of artwork.
She was generous to my generation of artists, including Lesley Dill, Jane Dickson, Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler, Sue Williams, Samm Kunce, Nalini Malani, myself and many more.
Her activism enabled my generation to have cultural representation.
When I first saw her work, I saw an older artist using paper as her primary medium, employing printmaking, and making small-scale work. It made me nervous and was a confirmation to stay on my path.
It was only later that her use of collage, mythology, historical imagery, and figurative representation of women influenced me as a precedent.
I do not think Nancy identified herself as a “printmaker,” but it was her use of multiply generated, hand-printed images to animate her work where I am aware of her direct influence on me.
The first time I remember really seeing her work was at Leslie Tonkonow’s gallery in the East Village, where I sheepishly asked if I could have a Xerox of a work to hang on my wall. Then in an East Village group show, I remember seeing a piece that was perhaps from the works referencing Amnesty International’s torture reports.
It was political, forthright and unambiguous; I thought this work had everything against it. It was made by a woman, it was small, it was made on and from paper, it incorporated collage, it was made up of printed images, it was representational, it used figuration and language and color. And it was subversive, which was precisely what made the work so powerful.
What I perceived as too vulnerable was really her tenacity and fearless commitment. It was a confirmation, and permission to be fearless and to find one’s own voice.
Nancy used the gestural language of the body to create a non-linear, serial narrative; a broken and ruptured narrative. She implied movement through accumulation, layering, and repetition of stillness. Her narratives at times moved both horizontally and vertically at the same time, suggesting simultaneity and a non-hierarchical reality. The use of images from antiquity to the contemporary, collapsed time.
Her work was generative. Nancy made an open story of humans, and of humanity. She actively brought into dialogue and blurred the difference among national, religious, racial and cultural icons and images.
Her collages, structured like silent films, or other techniques of film editing like the jump cut or pixelation, gave her a way to construct meaning through repetition, nuance, disruption and juxtaposition. Her work showed the female, as well as the narrative, as multidimensional, not fixed, and having many guises.
I think her embrace of ancient forms, frescos, hieroglyphics, friezes, and sequential narrative—–all of which are often filled with language–—as well as contemporary commercial printing technology—–allowed her to use the hundreds of images she generated as a pictorial language that could constantly change and conjure meaning. She used the language of others out of context, and relocated the written word in pictoral space which gave it new voice.
The long format of her work, like Chinese landscape painting, disallowed a fixed reading or vantage point and necessitated one to move one’s body, making one an active participant in the reading and experience of the work. By subverting the gaze and requiring movement, the work becomes a quiet modeling of activism.
History rarely represents women’s experience. Nancy used images that have survived time, and used them as testaments to endurance while subverting them. She allowed them their own integrity and attributes, and gave them agency and free movement outside of their prescribed narratives or cultural constraints. She preserved, witnessed and revitalized these images.
She used overtly sexual images, images of women at war, victims of violence, women of resistance and women exercising physically–—as well as images of motherhood, tenderness, humour, playfulness and a bit of “voguing”—–in a way which was often transgressive.
She allowed the representations to reveal their own relation to one another and allowed it to be a dynamic corporal dialogue.
She opened a narrative space, a visual space that allowed and modelled a holistic space of women’s lives, insistent on encompassing the human experience as represented through figuration.
She created work using the female body without exclusion and allowed it to represent humanity.
She embraced the great subjects of our existence and time.
She used images of woman in the midst of movement and celebration, as her own body became more constricted.
She used her personal anger, vitality and ferocious energy to invigorate her work. And while she had a great personal stake in the images, she did not co-opt them into an autobiographical narrative. Her work was topical without being dogmatic or didactic.
Later her introduction of vibrant color, made with brayers and then with colored cloth, reminding me of heraldry flags and introduced another vivid layer of information or language of form. Her work, while seemingly representational, was made from layers of abstraction, and she was extremely aware of the power of composition.
When she spoke publicly or in interviews, she spoke of the exact materials she used—which papers, and how the plates were produced and inked. This served to demystify the process and also reaffirm that art is not located in the material, but in the intent of the artist.
I had the opportunity to see Nancy’s work at The Glyptothek in Munich, where her images ran across the building, reiterating the historical usage of the body in architecture. Through Jon Bird’s curation, I was privileged to have an exhibition with her at Baltic Mill Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England. I also was lucky to have seen her comprehensive exhibition in Barcelona, Spain two years ago.
She and Leon were my heroes and were also like a mother, a source.
I saw Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Museum of Modern Art as a child, and I thought there had been no other works shown in America since that concisely depicted the horror of wars and violence. But both Nancy and Leon showed in their work the devastation and brutalisation of violence explicit in our present day and insisted on its exposure and representation.
Nancy suffered a great deal physically but stayed here to see her work embraced by the culture.
Many people supported her and her work. I think this enabled her to leave here knowing that she has had a tremendous impact and that her work has begun, and will continue, to receive its rightful place as a testament and witness to humanity, as well as being wonderfully innovative visual art.
Shortly after her death I dreamt that Nancy’s use of the sticking out tongued-heads were like the heads on the necklace of Kali, representing the vowels and language that brings forth both creation and destruction.
The first time I met her, I asked her about her use of the tongue, as I had just made a room covered in tongues. She spoke about her feeling of being voiceless and silenced.
During Nancy’s life there has been no subsiding of the personal and cultural violence perpetrated that is gender specific and that contaminates all of us. She was compelled and unafraid to see and address it. Now that we live in a time of global awareness her work mandates us, as artists and as citizens, not to be silenced tongues.
-Kiki Smith, 2010
Published courtesy of the author © 2010. All rights reserved.