A pioneer of feminist art, Nancy Spero's work since the 1960s is an unapologetic statement against the pervasive abuse of power, Western privilege, and male dominance. Executed with a raw intensity on paper and in ephemeral installations, her work often draws its imagery and subject matter from current and historical events such as the torture of women in Nicaragua, the Holocaust, and the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Spero fascinated their contemporaries by interweaving political themes into expressive artworks. As an individual creator, Spero finally received her full due in Christopher Lyon’s “Nancy Spero: The Work,” a lavish book out in October from Prestel Publishing.
Lyon’s introduction explains the symbolic importance to Spero of texts such as “The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype..'
Spero’s own archetypes began in Cleveland in 1926, where she was born into a family of Russian /German Jewish descent.
A vital early teacher in Chicago, Paul Wieghardt, had fled Europe because his wife, the sculptor Nelli Bar (1904-2001), was Jewish. After meeting Golub in 1947, Spero went from strength to strength, as a 1958 canvas, “Homage to New York (I Do Not Challenge),” indicates, boldly including the initials of “rival” artists with whom she refused to compete, such as Helen Frankenthaler; Larry Rivers and Mark Rothko.
As the Vietnam War loomed, Spero looked back to Holocaust imagery in order to express her 60s anti-war stance, including crematoria, swastikas, and The Star of David in artworks at this time. Spero was also influenced by writings about the female body by the Algerian-born French Jewish feminist author Hélène Cixous. Into the 1990s and later, Spero’s work was preoccupied with the violence inflicted upon women, as in 1995’s “Nancy Spero: Woman/War/Victimage,” displaying a female Gestapo prisoner in an artwork created for display in Vienna.
The following year, Spero created for Vienna’s Jewish Museum “Installation of Remembrance,” featuring images of cultural achievement and everyday life. From depictions of Gustav Mahler to a synagogue to a matzoh bakery, Spero included what one curator called “fragments of memory” in this creation, which is still on view in the museum today.
In a parallel way, in 2001 when Spero created lively mosaic murals for Manhattan’s Lincoln Center subway station, she added nine images inspired by photos of the Austrian Jewish operetta diva Fritzi Massary, a widely beloved, exuberant icon. Although clearly inspired by this operetta lightness..
The work of American artist Nancy Spero is as much about the oppressions of a male-centric, hierarchical society as it is about the corruption caused by war, violence and power. An artist as well as a devout feminist and political activist, Spero's work is a reflection of, and crucial contribution to, her ongoing statements against inequality and injustice.
Nancy Spero, The Dance, 1993