The American artist and feminist, Nancy Spero, passed away on Sunday in Manhattan, at the age of 83. Spero was best known for her figurative art through which she addressed the realities of political violence.
Born in Cleveland in 1926, Spero studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before moving to Paris in 1959 with her Husband, the painter Leon Golub. There, Spero submerged herself in the European existential movement, producing a series of oil paintings that explored themes of night, motherhood and eroticism.
Around the time couple returned to the U.S, settling in New York City, the Vietnam War started. The social changes and movements that the war created, affected Spero profoundly, and became a major source of inspiration for her very political work.
Her unique style, combined drawing and painting as well as craft-based techniques like collage and printmaking. She rejected the traditional Western notions of high art and mastery, through style and content.
Possibly one of her best known series was The War Series” (1966-70). Today it remains one of the great, sustained protest art statements of its era. With its depictions of fighter planes, helicopters, and phallic insects, the series linked military power and the sexual predator. Spero later described this body of work as “a personal attempt at exorcism”
In 1971, Spero turned her interests back to her inspiration from the years she was in Paris, producing the introspective and very tormented “Codex Artaud.” The series is composed of interspersed images of broken bodies and hieroglyphic monsters with the transcribed writings of Antonin Artaud (the mentally ill French poet who viewed himself as an outcast from society and whom often spoke of human folly with a mocking rage).
It was also at this time that her long involvement with the women’s movement begun. An active member of the Art Workers Coalition, she joined the splinter group Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), which protested against sexist and racist policies in New York City museums. In 1972, she became a founding member of A.I.R. Gallery, the all-women cooperative. This activism throughout the 1970’s strongly impacted her work, as she resolved by the mid-1970s to focus her art exclusively on images of women, as participants in history and as symbols in art, literature and myth.
Spero’s work has always been received with mixed opinions, as it has been both celebrated and dismissed. As Kiki Smith once commented: “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.’ ”
I feel quite fortunate, as I was lucky enough to see one of Spero’s last major shows while she was still alive, in Barcelona. This great artist will surely be missed by the arts community.