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Why is Nancy Spero so angry?

The rallying call of Spero raised questions for me and the OCA students who came to the Nancy Spero exhibition. Spero confronts in her installation Maypole Take No Prisoners II which is made from steel, silk, wood, nylon filament, handprint on aluminium. It’s composed of hand-printed severed heads with protruding tongues attached to the maypole by red silk threads; grotesque and bloodthirsty, heads raining down in an embodiment of the realities of war. These gruesome reminders suggest that after 40 years nothing much has changed as governments still hide profoundly from us. Nancy Spero may not have had first hand experience of war but her husband Leon Golub was a soldier in the second world war. Spero was a Jewish American and may have had relatives who were prisoners of war in Germany.
The Spero exhibition provoked questions: how and why does she make work that is raw? It is politically engaging, she is a voice in the darkness. What made her so angry?
Nancy Spero lived and worked at a time when the American Abstract Expressionists and Pop Art prevailed. Most successful art then was made by male artists who would commit their work to canvas mostly using oil paint; for example, Jackson Pollack, Willem De Kooning, Barnett Newman and Hans Hoffman to name but a few. Spero wanted to create work compelled by ideas of a non-hierarchical society. She began to develop a more ephemeral way of working. Using paper, collage and printmaking she regarded this as “a process which allowed all manner of processions, conflicts, interruptions and disruptions”.
The middle room of the exhibition had a tomb or temple like resonance, her work resembled the inside of Egyptian tombs and temples with images and text around the walls like hieroglyphics and paintings from ancient worlds. This work was a mixture of patterns, prints, text and colour and created light relief. Faced with images of war, torture, helicopter gunships bombing Vietnam, we found this work beautiful. The imagery was almost universally dark and brooding, of disfigured, contorted bodies and also chequered designs resembling flags, perhaps reminders of nationalism and patriotism, remnants of war when countries invade and raise flags to stake their claims. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of John F Kennedy, Spero’s imagination fired to produce radical work with strong statements against war, abuses of power and male dominance.
The final room in the show was inspired by the French poet Antonin Artaud, who had strong connections with the Surrealist group. Artaud and his sister were the two surviving children in his family, his mother gave birth to nine children all of them dying at a young age. Artaud had a difficult life suffering various illnesses and depression, he became addicted to opiates in an attempt to ease his pain and distress. Spero first encountered Artaud when she and her artists husband Leon Golub moved to Paris in the late 1950s and early 60s to escape the hegemonic domination of the discourse around Abstract Expressionism in America. During this time they met a number of contemporary French artists on the circuit in Paris which had a thriving community of international artists. Through her encounter with Artaud, Spero also became familiar with the ‘Art Brut’ ouvre that Artaud had been associated with.

Confronted with Spero’s work Codex Artaud, depicting Artaud’s outpourings, memories of electric shock treatments, crazed railings about God and the Universe and text that could be described as obscene, some students found the text in the work an interesting idea to convey strong messages. Spero hired an old typewriter to type up Artaud’s poetry onto what resembled old Egyptian papyri.
The study day went very well and I would like to encourage more students, if they are able, to take up the opportunity of attending future study days which are a valuable aid to your learning.

Posted by author: Rhonda
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6 thoughts on “Why is Nancy Spero so angry?

  • Many thanks to Rhonda for organising this trip and explaining Nancy Spero’s work to us. Not only was it fascinating to look at the exhibition and discuss what we saw, it was great to meet up with other OCA students. We all agreed that we would welcome more study events like this one. We’ll be updating our blogs with our thoughts about the day.
    Once again, thanks very much Rhonda!
    By the way Rhonda, please will you remind us of the dates and location of your next exhibition please?

    • It was a really good day and a great way to meet students and visit an exhibition of such an interesting artist. The work of Nancy Spero is, in my opinion, helps us to think about the human condition in so many ways. When she began making work it was in a time when there was such a lot of struggles ging on. A lot of death and destruction, a bit like today. So there lies the question “what have we learned” or have we learned anything at all?”
      The dates and place of my next exhibition is 18 June – 3 July in the Flux Gallery Burnham.

  • I too am pleased that Rhonda organized this trip. Not an exhibition I would have chosen to see myself and its great to be pushed to make you go out of your comfort zone. I really benefited from meeting fellow OCA students in the flesh. Would definately like to have more days like this.
    As far as Nancy Spero is concerned, I found the following quote by the photographer Garry Winogrand:
    “I look at the pictures I’ve done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and what we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at the magazines (our press). They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb many finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper. This is my project.”(Honour/Flemming,2009,World History of Art, p. 849)
    I don’t know why she is so angry, but often questions are never answered, or the question changes and as an practitioner myself I sometimes feel damned to just carry on.

  • I can in many ways ascociate with nancy.I was bought up with
    a father who fought in the second world war.He was a very angry
    man,and i grew up always fearing his anger.I never knew when he
    was likely to be angry.It seemed the slightest thing would annoy
    him.War has that efect on people who have gone through it.The
    memories never seem to go away.They are with them for ever.I do
    hope that one day nancy finds the peace she is looking for.

    • Dear Tom
      War is an outdated, outmoded answer to the problems we are confronted with. It would seem we have not evolved enough and still regard war as the only way to solve the complexities of human existence. I am aware there are those among us who strive for world peace but so far their efforts have made little difference in the madness that is giong on day after day in our world.
      I hope one day you will find your peace.
      Nancy Spero died in October 2009.

    • Yes my father was a very angry man, when he was young Spain was fighting the civil war, and I am sure he had mental health issues.

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