Nancy Spero: technique as ideology
by Gloria Moure
It is difficult to understand art and its poetic essence without recognising its necessary and lucid radicality, the borderline nature of its configurative practice. Creative yearning implies seeking to appreciate reality in some way, and, of course, to sensitively interfere with it. This means being available to intervene in all territories where judgement can be exercised, which is to say, especially today, in all fields of knowledge. This understanding inevitably brings the creator into the political sphere, regardless of the context in which he or she moves.
As a woman in a blatantly and pornographically chauvinist society, Nancy Spero (Ohio 1926 – N.Y. 2009) painfully experienced the crudest expression of that seemingly inescapable and invincible modern alienation. She completed a degree at the Art Institute of Chicago and continued her training in Paris with André Lhote, who proved instrumental in facilitating the realisation of her creative yearnings.
Her time in Europe with her husband Leon Golub seems also to have been extremely important: in Italy she became interested in Etruscan sarcophagi and frescoes, while in Paris, between 1959 and 1964, she produced her Black Paintings, still at that time on canvas. Spero was particularly receptive to Antonin Artaud's ideas on physical and mental pain, which she later worked on when settling back in the USA.
Her return to New York landed her in a turbulent climate, with the civil rights movements exploding at the height of the Vietnam War, circumstances which brought about a radical shift in her work. She began to work on paper, turning technique into an ideology, with the desire to distinguish her work from that of her male contemporaries.
While marked by her condition as a female, her discourse was much broader and sought to take on a more ambitious act of communion. Spero thus expanded naturalistic connotations with superimposed formalisations drawn from anthropology, history and the world around her. In this respect we should emphasise, with a view to differentiating her, that these recurring symbols laid a cultured and learned foundation for her work, manifesting a solid cultural and intellectual substratum in the use of these magical connotations, which relate to marginal or forgotten cultures. In so doing, she laid bare her shortcomings, ghosts and hopes, while at the same time shining a light on our own.
The situation in America in the 1960s and the Vietnam War led Spero to clash with the cognitive conventions of the individual and social order; far from treating these conflictive contacts as just another residue, she took an active stance on the matter. Her War Series (1966-1970) was a cry against the conflict and should be recognised for its courageous visual and humane expression. Yet the impact of this work was more far-reaching, insofar as the immediacy of its plastic creation is imbued with the requisite experience. This physics of poetry acts on both the linguistic fabric and on how things are understood. Given these two territories serve to articulate power, plastic creation can thus also be assimilated to a poetics of power, which would be the sphere in which Spero sought to act, with her appropriation of violence during the 1970s being the most obvious manifestation of this desire. In this respect, Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty was a clear reference.
Her feminist activism led her to co-found AIR Gallery in 1972, a platform for exhibiting the work of women artists. She realised that the plight of women was above ideology and that it was indeed a general rule in American society.
She always regarded her circumstance as a marginal excrescence, as both a real and symbolic manifestation of a much larger phenomenon that was at once historical and contemporary. It appears she came to the early conclusion that progress did not exist, that history, in a linear sense, did not exist either, and that it was necessary to fight for difference from within a natural becoming that was dubiously deterministic. In this sense, her awareness of her female condition reinforced a clearly vitalist attitude.
Even the most radical of her works reflected a careful and consistent balance between formalisation and presentation. In Spero's case, this was not a question of discovering the optimum format from an aesthetic point of view, understood as one in which form, perception and the configurative idea coincide inseparably, delimiting as far as possible the frontier between linguistic and sensory spaces, but of bringing together signs, symbols, language, landscape, nature and artifice from an absolutely plastic and blended poetic perspective, thus coinciding with her creative and political yearnings.
Her later works responded to a nuanced reflection on art and its history, considering art not as a producer of autonomous objects, but as a configurative activity in the broadest sense. Spero delved deeply into this nuance, mining it with authenticity. While she accepted objectuality, at the same time she made a critical foray into the complex intricacies of configuration and perception.
While this practice straddling the linguistic and the ideological was already evident in Spero's early work, from the 1980s onwards the configurative idea somehow became the artist's action itself, which in any case took place in spaces that can hardly be described as scenographic, insofar as they featured acerbic violence.
It behoves us to recognise her courage and the way she expressed this as an artist and as a human.Her commitment was radical, as her work attests, but we should not confine it to a particular era or generation; rather, this is a commitment that should be undertaken by anyone who seeks to be an artist.