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b. 1926, USA

Nancy Spero Biography

Artist and activist Nancy Spero is best known for her anti-war and feminist collages and paintings. She was a leading proponent of the Women's Movement in 20th-century art. Her oeuvre, spanning over six decades across the mediums of painting, drawing, print, collage, and mural, is characterised by a lifelong commitment to socially and politically engaged artmaking.

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Early Life and Influences

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Nancy Spero studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a BFA in 1949 and later receiving an honorary doctorate in 1991. Following her undergraduate studies, Spero studied painting for a year in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and at the Atelier of early cubist André Lhote.

Following her return to the United States, Spero married fellow artist Leon Golub. He would become, in the years to follow, the father of their three children as well as Spero's lifelong collaborator.

Black Paintings

Nancy Spero's paintings up until the mid-1950s were dark, brooding images that focused solely on the human figure. Mostly, they represented couples in positions of embrace and standing figures, becoming known as the 'Black Paintings'. Once the family moved to Paris in 1959 and Spero began exhibiting these works at the Galerie Breteau, they became the 'Paris Black Paintings'.

The War Series

Moving back to New York in 1964, the outbreak of the Vietnam War sparked a new direction in Spero's work. Galvanised by the political atmosphere, Nancy Spero's Vietnam protest took the form of a series of anti-war paintings made with gauche on paper.

Comprising around 150 individual pieces, Nancy Spero's 'The War Series' (1966–1970) responds to the atrocities inflicted by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. In them, Spero depicts the weaponry of war through a feminised formal language, personifying the gendered repercussions of the conflict in Vietnam.

Nancy Spero's Female Bomb (1966), from this series, presents an apocalyptic image of heads flying outwards from a female body, with strokes of red bursting from their mouths as well as from parts of the woman's body. Blurring the distinctions between the weapons of war and the female body destroyed by it, the work portrays women as both victims and initiators of violence.

Scrolls and Feminist Activism in Art

Spero's work in the 1970s was heavily inspired by the writings of French avantgarde dramatist, essayist, and artist Antonin Artaud. Through his words, she expressed her frustration at her lack of a voice as a female artist, pushed to the periphery of a male-dominated art world.

Nancy Spero's 'Codex Artaud' (1971–1972) series heralded the arrival of her 'scroll-like' works. Consisting of 34 horizontal scrolls made of paper glued end to end, these works collage together fragments of Artaud's writing with female figurative imagery inspired by a variety of historical sources. Typography remained a key part of her work for the 1970s.

Spero became increasingly active in the Women's Movement, becoming involved with artist-activist groups like Women Art Revolution (WAR), the Art Workers Coalition, and the Ad Hoc Women Artist's Committee. Spero was a founding member of the A.I.R (Artists in Residence) Gallery, the first women's cooperative gallery, which opened in New York in 1972. Spero's increasingly collaborative practice, partly necessitated by her worsening arthritis, sat well with the movement's ideals of a non-hierarchical society.

Late Works

Following the 1970s, Nancy Spero quotes from a range of female figures throughout visual history in her works. In both her large-scale paintings, works on paper, and collages on paper, references to Egyptian hieroglyphics, Etruscan Frescoes, and 17th-century French history painting blend with the content of fashion magazines, American lingerie advertisements, and pornographic imagery.

This combination of visual sources can be seen in works ranging from Nancy Spero's Notes in Time on Women (1979) to Azur (2002). Both collaged works reference a broad lexicon of female representation.

Nancy Spero's Maypole: Take No Prisoners (2007)—one of the artist's final works—revives her anti-war iconography of the 1960s in light of the Iraq war. In the installation, aluminium cut-outs of decapitated heads are suspended from red ribbons and metal chains stemming from a central 15-foot pole. Like a merry-go-round of misery, the work examines the cyclical nature of history, war, and subsequent victimisation.

Public Collections

Nancy Spero's artworks can be found in public collections around the world, including the Tate, London; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa; and the Pompidou Centre. Spero also has permanent public installations in New York, Chicago, Vienna, and Innsbruck.

Exhibitions

Nancy Spero's work was widely exhibited throughout her lifetime, appearing in galleries and institutional exhibitions, as well as art events, such as the Venice Biennale, documenta, and the Whitney Biennial. Her art has also been the subject of several retrospective shows since her death in 2009.

Nancy Spero's solo exhibitions include Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror, MoMA PS1 (2019); Nancy Spero, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2010); Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan (1996); War and Memory: Nancy and Spero and Leon Golub Retrospective, The American Center, Paris (1994); Nancy Spero: Works Since 1950, The New Museum, New York (1987); Codex Artaud, A.I.R. Gallery, New York (1973).

Nancy Spero's group exhibitions include Some Day is Now: Women, Art & Social Change, New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut (2020); Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2017); Female Power, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, Netherlands (2013); WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC (2007); The American Century, Art and Culture, Part II 1950-2000, Whitney Museum of American Art (1999); Issue: Social Strategies By Women Artists, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), London (1980); In Her Own Image, Philadelphia Museum of Art (1974).

Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021

Nancy Spero Featured Artworks

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Mother and Children by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork painting, works on paper
Nancy SperoMother and Children, 1962Oil on canvas
195 x 110.5 cm
Galerie Lelong & Co. New York Contact Gallery
Search and Destroy, D.O.W. N.A.P.A.L.M by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork painting, works on paper
Nancy SperoSearch and Destroy, D.O.W. N.A.P.A.L.M, 1967Gouache and ink on paper
60.3 x 89.5 cm
Galerie Lelong & Co. New York Contact Gallery
Bomb, Dove and Victims by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork painting, works on paper
Nancy SperoBomb, Dove and Victims, 1967Gouache and ink on paper
61 x 91.4 cm
Galerie Lelong & Co. New York Contact Gallery
La Folie III by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork works on paper
Nancy SperoLa Folie III, 2002Printed collage on paper
184.2 x 47 cm
Galerie Lelong & Co. New York Contact Gallery
S.E.A.R.C.H. AND D.E.S.T.R.O.Y. by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork painting, works on paper
Nancy SperoS.E.A.R.C.H. AND D.E.S.T.R.O.Y., 1967Ink and gouache on paper
61 x 91 cm
Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris Contact Gallery
Vietcong Prisoners by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork works on paper
Nancy SperoVietcong Prisoners, 1968Ink and gouache on paper
63 x 100 cm
Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris Contact Gallery
Sans titre (Cimetière de Varsovie à l'extérieur du ghetto) by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork works on paper
Nancy SperoSans titre (Cimetière de Varsovie à l'extérieur du ghetto)Hand printing and collage on paper
52 x 64 cm
Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris Contact Gallery
Dildo Dancer Circle by Nancy Spero contemporary artwork print
Nancy SperoDildo Dancer Circle, 2003Hand printing on paper
Gazelli Art House Contact Gallery

Nancy Spero Recent Exhibitions

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