Nancy Spero was a major 20th-century artist, who used paper, hieroglyphics, and words to create scrolls, collages, and even maypoles to reveal tales of ferocious, heroic women. Working from her cutouts and images of leaping, dancing, active women – her “paper dolls” – Spero’s art explores eternal issues of life and death. She used some of these figures over and over again. One was an athletic figure, nude and running forward; another was Sheela, a powerful Celtic fertility figure, full of humor.
Spero was born in Ohio, but the following year her family moved to Chicago, where she attended the Art Institute and met Leon Golub, whom she would marry in 1950. Both artists did figurative work during the height of Abstract Expressionism. Unlike her husband, Spero was not political then. Spero and Golub lived in Italy for a year before moving to Paris from 1959 to 1965. During that time, Spero gave birth to three sons and worked non-stop caring for them and making artwork. She created her enigmatic Black Paintings during that period, portraying mothers and childbirth as if seen through a scrim. In these works she first addressed one of her central themes: language as a voice for the disenfranchised.
In 1965, Spero and her family moved back to New York. She created her “War Series” which were ink and gouache drawings on paper that showed the obscenity of the Vietnam War. She sexualized its violence with images of phallic helicopters and bombs. The image of a phallicized tongue would epitomize her entire oeuvre at this time.
Spero’s next major series, produced in the early 1970s, also dealt with language. She typed up portions of a manifesto, written by Antonin Artaud, and collaged them into a printed repertoire of images. She glued the sheets of paper together into a long scroll, called “The Codex Artaud.”
Spero was a member of the Art Worker’s Coalition and Women Artists in Revolution (WAR). She picketed the Whitney Museum and other museums for failing to represent women. In 1972, she was a founding member of the Artists in Residence gallery (A.I.R.), the first art cooperative to show only women. By the mid 1970s, Spero had decided to have only woman in her work, portraying them as heroic and not victimized.
Starting in 1974, Spero made two series that dealt with torture: “Torture in Chile” 1974 and “Torture of Women” 1976. Both combined oral testimony by South American women taken from Amnesty International documents. Her scrolls in the late 1970s chronicle the impact of war on women throughout history. In the 1980s, she printed her hieroglyphs directly on the walls, floors, and ceilings of museums, galleries, and a New York subway station.
In 2005, she unfurled a 160 foot-long paper frieze along the base of the walls at Galerie Lelong, her “Cri du Coeur” whose figures were based on Egyptian wall paintings. Her Maypoles first appeared in a 1967 drawing, a version of which Spero created for the 2007 Venice Biennale. Her “Maypole/Take No Prisoners” is like a lynching tree bearing decapitated heads as it bursts through a gallery ceiling. Her work has been shown in major exhibitions which include MOCA in 1988 and MoMA in 1992. In 2006, Spero was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.