New York Times
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: October 19, 2009
Nancy Spero, an American artist and feminist whose tough, exquisite figurative art addressed the realities of political violence, died on Sunday in Manhattan. She was 83 and lived in Manhattan. The cause was infection leading to respiratory problems that in turn caused heart failure, said her son Philip.
Born in Cleveland in 1926, Ms. Spero studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and there met her husband, the painter Leon Golub, to whom she was married for 53 years until his death, in 2004.
The couple moved to Paris in 1959, where Ms. Spero steeped herself in European existentialism and produced a series of oil paintings she had begun in Chicago on the themes of night, motherhood and eroticism. When they settled in New York City, which became their permanent home, in 1964, the Vietnam War and the social changes it was creating in the United States affected Ms. Spero profoundly.
To come to grips with these realities, Ms. Spero, who always viewed art as inseparable from life, developed a distinctive kind of political work. Polemical but symbolic, it combined drawing and painting as well as craft-based techniques like collage and printmaking seldom associated with traditional Western notions of high art and mastery.
One result was a group of pictures in gouache, ink and collage on paper titled “The War Series” (1966-70). With its depictions of fighter planes and helicopters as giant, phallic insects, the series linked military power and sexual predatoriness, but also included women among the attackers. Ms. Spero later described the work as “a personal attempt at exorcism”; it remains one of the great, sustained protest art statements of its era, all the more forceful for its unmonumental scale. Exhibited in 2003 at the LeLong Gallery in Manhattan, its pertinence to contemporary politics was unmistakable.
In 1971, Ms. Spero also returned to the interests of her Paris years in the introspective and tormented “Codex Artaud,” a series that interspersed images of broken bodies and hieroglyphic monsters with the transcribed writings of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), the mentally ill French poet who viewed himself as an outcast from society and who spoke of human folly with a mocking rage. To some degree, the work reflected Ms. Spero’s own sense of exclusion from an art world that had the character of a men’s club.
By the time of the “Codex Artaud” her long involvement with the women’s movement had begun. Ms. Spero was active in the Art Workers Coalition, and in 1969 she joined the splinter group Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), which organized protests against sexist and racist policies in New York City museums. In 1972, she was a founding member of A.I.R. Gallery, the all-women cooperative, originally in SoHo, now in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn. And in the mid-1970s she resolved to focus her art exclusively on images of women, as participants in history and as symbols in art, literature and myth.
On horizontal scrolls made from glued sheets of paper, she assembled a multicultural lexicon of figures from ancient Egypt, Greece and India to pre-Christian Ireland to the contemporary world and set them out in non-linear narratives. Her 14-panel, 133-foot-long “Torture of Women” (1974-1976) joins figures from ancient art and words from Amnesty International reports on torture to illustrate institutional violence against women as a universal condition.
Ms. Spero considered this her first explicitly feminist work. Many others followed, though over time she came to depict women less as victims and more often as heroic free agents dancing sensuously.
Although Ms. Spero received relatively little art world attention during the early part of her career, she gained visibility in the 1980s and ’90s as socially concerned art came into favor. By this time her work had gained in formal complexity and variety, with its weavings of image and text, its time-consuming techniques of painting, cutting and stamping, and its adaptation of aspects of Pop, Minimalism and Color Field painting, styles she had previously distanced herself from.
Beginning in the late 1980s, she transformed the scroll format into site-specific wall murals. In 2001, she completed a mosaic installation for the 66th Street subway station at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. In 2006, despite painful degenerative arthritis that had crippled her for years, she executed wall paintings for “Persistent Vestiges: Drawing From the American-Vietnam War,” an exhibition at the Drawing Center in SoHo. For a concurrent solo show at the LeLong Gallery, she made a single printed-paper frieze that wrapped around the base of the gallery’s walls.
Titled “Cri du Coeur,” (2005) and adapted from an Egyptian tomb painting, the mural depicted a procession of mourning women. Some viewers saw in it a reference to the war in Iraq or to Hurricane Katrina; others understood it as Ms. Spero’s response to the death of her husband the previous year. Like her, he had created an art that insisted on balancing ethics with aesthetics.
Ms. Spero had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1992 and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1988. A traveling career retrospective was organized by the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse in 1987. In 1997, she was included in Documenta X in Kassel, Germany. She often exhibited in two-person shows with Mr. Golub. A Spero retrospective is planned for the Pompidou Center in Paris next year.
In addition to her son Philip, who lives in Paris, her survivors include her sons Paul, also of Paris, and Stephen, of Swarthmore, Pa.; six grandchildren; and a sister, Carol Neuman, of Portland, Ore.
Kiki Smith, one of the many younger artists influenced by Ms. Spero, once said in an interview: “When I first saw Nancy Spero’s work, I thought, ‘You are going to get killed making things like that; it’s too vulnerable. You’ll just be dismissed immediately.’ ”
Ms. Spero herself, who experienced both being dismissed and celebrated, said simply of her work, “I am speaking of equality, and about a certain kind of power of movement in the world, and yet I am not offering any systematic solutions.”