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Nancy Spero: The Work

Nancy Spero: The Work

by Christopher Lyon
Prestel Press, NY, NY, 2010
312 pp., illus. 100 col. Trade: $85.00
ISBN: 978-3-7913-4416-4.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Commemorated with the opening of a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris this year (12 October-10 January, 2011), the work of Nancy Spero (1926-2009), long recognized among the most path-breaking artists of the later twentieth century, stands as testimony to a lifelong engagement with la peinture feminine, an epochal striving to give greater articulation and resonance to women's experience in art. In works of her maturity, she introduced into canonical discourse a dialogue with art history and memory as both the consciousness and the subject of aesthetic expression. This she conceived as the voice of women over time, a universal language long silenced by repression. Cast as choroi of antiquity, her openly sexual, political, and provocative female subjects represent women as protagonists who defy the conventions of a male-dominated artistic history to assert their life-affirming presence in the act of creation.

She was inspired early in her career by Dubuffet who in 1951 delivered a series of lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where Spero and her husband of more than 50 years, the painter Leon Golub, were art students. Spero long remembered Dubuffet's talks on language and beauty that informed her understanding of painting as a language of signs much more immediate than verbal communication, closer to the cry or the dance as an expression of the inner voice. Initially her work was composed of complex arrangements of text and inter-textual constructions, juxtapositions of poetry, expletives and declamations with miniscule figurative cut-outs of heads or headless, bodiless, contorted depictions of the self. Through combinations of literary excerpts delivered by a host of "borrowed" tongues interspersed with phrases of her own, she confronted emerging philosophical debates in art based in linguistic, literary, psychoanalytic and feminist theory that held currency during the 1970's. These ideas included appropriation, deconstruction, and concepts of difference, presence, and coming into being identified with Jacques Derrida, and notions of the Other, phallocentrism (the obscene phallic weight of a tongue that prays/Artaud), fragmentation and dimensions of the imaginary, particularly the grammatical voice of desire and jouissance espoused by Jacques Lacan. Spero's incorporation of reproductive imagery, compositional bi-directionality, paradox, hybrid construction, wordplay, reversal and other effects have also been linked to Laura Mulvey. She aligned herself more fully, however with the French school of feminist theory represented by Hélène Cixous (The Laugh of the Medusa) and Julia Kristeva, which provided the underpinnings of her interest in semiotics, abjection, the relationship between sexuality and language, and intertextuality. The semiotic significance of Spero's polymorphic symbolism is one of the most distinctive features of her developed imagery.

Dubuffet's conviction that the artwork should be the result of an internal struggle whose marks convey a subject's primary essence appears early in Spero's oeuvre as in the hallucinatory poetry of the Codex Artaud: When a man dies he kindles a light for himself. Living. He touches death. Waking. He touches being. Spero's existential orientation developed further through engagement with the writings of Simone de Beauvoir whose treatise The Second Sex detailed the oppression of women, setting forth the principle tenets of the post-1960's feminist revolt, especially the credo that existence precedes essence, a position that denies the social constructions of gender as it seeks the validation of difference. Spero's understanding of the connection between sex and power as it contributed to hierarchic organizations of society, abuse, discrimination, violence and war became central to her friezes of the 1970's. These positions provided the philosophical infrastructure of a shared commitment (with her husband) to figuration and history painting as a quest for meaning in a world beset with evil and injustice. More importantly, Spero's ideology, founded on a belief in moral intentionality, ethical freedom, human relatedness and artistic transcendence was in sympathy with the crux of Simone de Beauvoir's secular humanism and ethical existentialism.

Against the prevailing trends of the 70's, above all abstract expressionism and minimalism which she viewed as both largely self-absorbed and insular, she remained committed to figuration, a figuration that allied her work to venerated themes of cant and dramatic ritual long associated with sacred architecture, manuscript illumination and mural painting. Intent on rescuing the female subject from denigrations of the past, her work increasingly sought to re-envision the human story as a mythic arabesque in which archaic, medieval and modern archetypes are woven into an ennobled present.

Christopher Lyon's commanding text Nancy Spero: The Work presents the most comprehensive survey of the artist's oeuvre available to date, certainly the most definitive sourcebook on her career, annotated with an extensive bibliography, exhibition history, collection record and index. While the monograph joins many other publications on the subject, including articles, dissertations and catalogues written by such respected luminaries as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jon Bird, Lisa Tickner and Helaine Posner, Lyon's distinction is that, given full access to the Spero archive both during her lifetime and following her death, the resulting text integrates her work with relevant biographical data, wide-ranging contemporary critical and theoretical positions, formal and iconographic analysis, direct conversations, published interviews, quotations and commentary by noted art historians and curators such as Robert Storr, Barbara Wally, Peter Scheldahl and Lucy Lippard. He availed himself of material provided by family members and galleries; an inclusive image data-base compiled by Samm Kunce, longtime Golub/Spero studio manager; and poems, critical reviews, photographs, books and essays in Spero's possession that help to document the conceptual and iconographic framework of her production. While not a catalogue raisonné, the book sets forth Spero's overarching artistic program as a springboard for future scholarship and criticism including assessments of her contributions to modernism and postmodernism and her involvement with psychoanalytic theory and esotericism. Among its strengths are detailed analyses of Spero's evocative mixed media techniques rendered with a variety of typesets and hand-printing processes (some created with a bulletin typewriter), collage, textiles, photoengraving and mosaic.

Commissioned 10 years ago by Nancy and Leon together, Lyon's text adopts a chronology originally outlined by Leon, one especially beneficial due to Spero's overlapping sequences and methods of reworking earlier subjects over time. He traces her artistic movements through three principal phases, from the War Series and Codex Artaud in the tradition of apocalyptic manuscripts, codices, epic poems and cantos; to the endless scrolls and friezes of her classic period which reference Egyptian funerary art, ritualistic dance and temple architecture (The Hours of the Night, Torture of Women, Notes in Time); to site specific installations and museum interventions applied directly to walls, windows, skylights, cornices, stairwells and rooflines over the last three decades. These increasingly collaborative works include her ever-expanding cast of stock characters (Sheela-na-gig, Dildo Dancer, Marathon Runner) in To Soar II at Smith College; The Ballad of Marie Sanders in Hellerau, Dresden; Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers in the Lincoln Center subway, and Cri du Coeur at the Galerie Lelong in New York.

The volume includes hundreds of full color illustrations spanning more than 60 years of Spero's art, many newly photographed. These permit closer appreciation of the dark, atmospheric quality of the Paris Black paintings; the muted tonalism of iconic Mothers and Children lit from within; the hand-rubbed Lovers series with smearings of ink and color underlay; and gatefolds of Notes in Time and the Lincoln Center mosaics that reveal the force of Spero's formal and compositional bravura. Lyon takes care to note Spero's dialectic of anguish and exultant release, sullied ground that yields to luminosity, zinc-cut stampings superimposed over evanescent tracings. He emphasizes the quintessential ephemerality of her imagery, its aleatory grace and the emotive power of space as she conceives of it. In her later work he highlights the centrifugal movement of celebratory figures who spiral ever upward and outward. Above all, he conveys the lyric musicality of her work, its syncopated rhythms and synchronicity as a "defiant and joyful" dance of life. In so doing he does justice to her legacy, her humanity and her art as one of the twentieth century's most gifted artists.

Among those who knew her personally, Nancy Spero will always be remembered as a model of endurance, transfiguration, and hope. To view her work in its totality resembles issuing from the 1-line at 66th Street - steel doors crash open, passengers surge forward and suddenly you are face to face with the operatic glory of Spero's monumental golden Diva. You can hear the voices of women everywhere ringing through the tunnels as the O Fortuna chorus of Carmina Burana. Overhead you see Spero orchestrating from the studio, Sky Goddess in a golden bathing suit busting through the sky.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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