On display through January 10, 2011, the exhibition Nancy Spero at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is the artist’s first retrospective in France, a country where she spent many formative years early in her career. Nestled among the extravaganza of women artists that is elles@pompidou on the fourth floor of the gallery complex, this comparatively modest show nevertheless promises an afternoon of thought-provoking museum-going.
Spero (1926–2009) hailed from the American Midwest (she was born in Cleveland) and spent a significant amount of time in the region, completing her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949. It was there that she met the painter Leon Golub, who she married after returning from her first stay in Paris in 1950. During the tumultuous 1960s, Spero began to add a political edge to her figurative work, most notably with her War Series, a response to the American war in Vietnam. The following decade saw an ever increasing sociopolitical awareness, with the artist’s firm embrace of feminism, which evolved into a commitment to portray primarily women in her work. What materialized was what Spero termed a “visual revisionist history.”
Along with that thematic dedication, certain stylistic practices remained consistent throughout Spero’s career. During the 1960s, she rejected oil paint and canvas, symbols of the male-dominated art world, for paper, ink, and gouache. Printmaking (one of her prints was on display during this summer’s The Collaborative Print: Works from SOLO Impression at NMWA) also played an important role later in her career. The effect is one of delicate fragility, a surprising contrast to her heavy subject matter, yet one that invites the viewer to step closer to the work and pay close attention to details that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Text is another significant element in Spero’s work. Whether citing a specific source, as she does in her pieces responding to the writings of Antonin Artaud, or signaling a refrain that appears throughout her oeuvre, language unites and contributes to the layered meanings of her prints and drawings. The repeated use of “explicit,” for example, amplifies the horror of violence Spero aims to communicate.
The Pompidou exhibition takes us through the major phases of Spero’s career, including her early Black Paintings, her seminal War Series, and the Artaud Paintings and Codex Artaud of the 1970s. It begins on a strikingly strong note, with the frieze-like installation of her late work, Azur, 2002. Encompassing the entire gallery space, 39-panel print presents an alternative, women-populated history, richly colored and densely composed. Despite conflicting elements—various shapes and patterns interrupt an unobstructed reading of the narrative—the work flows seamlessly from one anecdotal scene to the next, insisting on a continuous forward movement.
As I circulated through the galleries, what emerged was an exciting duality in Spero’s work. Her pieces are both violent and beautiful; there is sensuality in her nightmares. Contradictions have always dominated Spero’s universe. Describing her portrayals of women, the artist once stated “that these women…are empowered and that they are sexual. These women are protagonists and they are subjects.” This dynamic clearly comes into view at the Pompidou exhibition. From her earliest work, like the Lovers from the 60s, part of her Black Paintings series, dark subjects—in this case, overwhelming possession in a romantic relationship—are treated in such a thematically ambivalent and yet handsomely textured manner that the viewer can’t help but be seduced.
—Rebecca Park is a freelance writer and educator based in Paris.
Siglio Press recently published Torture of Women to honor Spero’s harrowing work. Visit http://tortureofwomen.wordpress.com/ to join the discussion. Nancy Spero: The Work by Christopher Lyon, a definitive monograph revealing a pioneer of feminist art and a key influence on contemporary art, was also recently published by Prestel.
On Tuesday, November 2, the Drawing Room in New York will be hosting an event to celebrate these two books.