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Nancy Spero

American Painter, Collage, and Installation Artist

Nancy Spero Photo
Movement: Feminist Art

Born: August 24, 1926 - Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Died: October 18, 2009 - New York, USA

"I used to think that the artist was powerless. The art community is small but if the artist gains a voice you reach some people who transmit ideas into the world."

Summary of Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero's career moves forth on a seamless figurative journey, beginning with lovers painted on heavy black ground to culminate in a whole host of female characters initially united by collage and then dispersed widely across white gallery walls. Whilst Spero's media and subject matter changed with time - moving between themes of family, the Vietnam War, and the subjugation of women - her work always retained an immersive quality. As a first generation American Feminist artist, married to fellow creative, Leon Golub, and known for giving Antonin Artaud a voice, Spero dispels any notion of a fixed and singular identity and instead sings within a large chorus drawn from all phases of history and culture. She draws upon a plethora of goddesses, famous personalities, and religious icons from her own visual archive. Indeed her art reveals that our mundane everyday existence is also a constant magical dialogue with myths and symbols. Feeling as a young artist alienated from the art world, by her latter years she was revered and respected in that very same arena, even being asked to re-design a New York subway station. As struggling figures jump from the canvas to be released into architectural space or to dance around city streets, it is as though through a lifetime of making that Nancy Spero achieved the ultimate goal, she set herself free.

Key Ideas

Spero expresses deep interest in origins and in the primordial. She depicts early female archetypes, makes use of the scroll formation in her work, and calls one series, 'the first language'. She includes early Christian figures like Lilith, and Egyptian goddesses like Maat, proposing the idea to viewers that it is only via absorption into where we come from (i.e. a return to the source), that we can subsequently best appreciate who we are and where we are going.
She shows women suffering, be it by suppression under patriarchy or through the experience of actual bodily harm. Overall, she is an artist who well expresses the difficult to articulate language of a body in pain, a notion investigated in detail by theorist Elaine Scarry. Alongside figures like Frida Kahlo and Kiki Smith, Spero was a pioneer in making collectively visible what is usually the individual invisible experience of hurt. This 'hurt' becomes psychological as well as physical.
The artist's use of different techniques and media, from painting, to printing, to collage, to working directly onto the wall, and also using text along with image emphasizes the timeless aspect of her project. Not only does Spero look across history for subject matter, she also experiments with past processes such as fresco and mosaic. In this sense, she looks back for method as well as for message. The practice in particular of combining word and image link Spero to the likes of Hilma af Klint and William Blake and suggests that she is not only a visual artist, but also a mystic, a philosopher, and a poet.
Spero's oeuvre opens up the essentialist debate whereby academics are worried by an artist's strong identification with nature. Progressive modernism seeks to avoid trapping women in the arguably socially constructed role of life giver and mother and thus finds the celebration of powerful ancient feminine archetypes difficult to rationalize. Spero however, along with artists Kiki Smith and Francesca Woodman, understood that her relationship with age-old female connectivity was important, and more of a complex mythical and spiritual idea, rather than a straight forward social and historical one.
Nancy Spero Photo

Nancy Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1926 to a family with a Jewish background. A year later, her family moved to Chicago, where Spero remained until age 23. In an interview for the Brooklyn Rail with art historian Stephanie Buhmann, Spero reflected on her early years, observing that she had decided to become an artist because it was the only thing she was really interested in. "For me," she said, "it was all about making art. It was the only thing that I really wanted to do and the only thing that I seemed to have some talent in. In those days, in Chicago, it wasn't such a glamorous thing to be a visual artist." As a dealer of used print-presses, Spero's father Henry Spero was, apparently, indifferent to her decision to become an artist: "Anything that wouldn't lead me too far from home seemed to be fine. My mother, as I recall, seemed to go along with my father." Thus without any real objection from her family, while at the same time without any real support, Spero enrolled at the School of Art Institute in Chicago. It was there that she met Leon Golub, her future husband, who had just returned from service in WWII and was now studying towards his masters at the Art Institute.

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