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.