In an early video, made by Patsy Scala, Nancy Spero works in her New York studio in 1973. We see her laying out sections of her scroll Codex Artaud across the wooden floorboards. The camera slowly scans the images and texts scattered over the loosely unfurled hand-made paper sheets that curl at their edges while, occasionally, a slight breeze lifts an end and creates undulations over the surface, all of which accidentally emphasizes the lightness and fragility of the work, contrasting with its formal and conceptual strength. On the soundtrack, her son Philip Golub reads one of Artaud’s letters to Jacques Riviere whilst Nancy listens and writes phrases onto scraps of paper. The proximity of the camera to the work, despite the poor visual quality of the image—its all slightly out-of-focus—suggests to the viewer the hand-crafted, collaged nature of the Codex. As she recounts her procedures, the camera follows her hand, already showing the signs of the rheumatoid arthritis that possesses her body over the coming years; inscribing the ferocious language of Artaud, the metonymic expression of her own angry sense of exclusion from the New York art world. This short video concludes with her rewinding the scrolls around a large cardboard tube; its all very hands-on and personal, there are no assistants, no large-scale production of the backgrounds and figures that would come to compose her image bank, none of the activity that later enlivened the studio and home at La Guardia Place. But there is a strong sense of process and of the temporal dimension of works that could take years to reach their final form, and of something almost secretive: the rolling and unrolling of each scroll, an action of disclosure and concealment, a characteristic of women artists’ practice in the early feminist period.
Over the years things have changed and Spero’s work increased immeasurably in visibility, most evidently entering the public domain through her shift into direct printing onto the surface of walls, doors, even roofs and ceilings, as architecture became the ground for her ever-growing numbers of female figures to dance and cavort over; a visual lexicon constructed from the histories and mythologies of past and present cultures. But accompanying her move from the relative privacy of a visual symbolic language shared with family and friends (and, firstly, with Leon Golub, her ever-present companion and fellow artist) to the domain of galleries, museums, and art-world recognition, was the assault upon the body, born with fortitude and a wry humor, that invaded every action, an everyday (and every night) reminder of the body’s materiality; that we are, in the end, just flesh and bones.
I was forcefully reminded of this, again, while watching Nancy directing her assistants and helpers in the arrangement and printing of her current wall installation at the Drawing Center. Hers has been a collaborative practice for many years, a choice that reflects both a politics with origins in the Women’s Movement, and a necessity as it became increasingly difficult (read painful) for her to physically control the actual printing. Since her first installation—Waterworks, set in a water filtration plant in Toronto in 1988—the filmmaker Irene Sosa has documented the design, production, and realization of many of Nancy’s temporary and permanent installations throughout Europe and North America. For example, her film of the making of works for Smith College, Massachusetts in 1990, records the artist holding rubber plates against walls to determine the specific placing of a figure, and in close discussion with her long-time assistant, the artist Samm Kunce. Another section shows the installation of Minerva, Sky Goddess on the roof of the Circulo de Bella Artes, Madrid (1991) with assistants inking plates, placing them against wall and floor surfaces, and then printing the image through the pressure of a roller on the rubber. This tells us a lot, but also, inevitably, misses more. What persistently evades both the fictional and factual portrayal of artists is the intricacy, rigor, attentiveness to detail and facture—the work of the work of art—that characterizes individual practice and the relationship between artist and assistant.
This is a complex event that inevitably touches upon questions of authorship. The long history of gesture and trace as the genesis and primary signifier of artistic intention and identity is, as it were, placed in parenthesis by working practices that favor concept and process over action and expressiveness, a connection that carries the memory of the Duchampian Readymade as the paradigmatic performative act of modernist aesthetics. In this respect, Nancy Spero’s installations are performative events. However, watching her attentive engagement and directorship of the realisation of each printed image, there can be no doubt over her authority in determining both the overall structure and the detailed relationships of part-to-part and part-to-whole. She wants it just so, precisely and definitively, and whose hand leaves the final impress is secondary to the effectiveness of the dialogue between instructor and maker. It is a matter of interpretation and translation, and an exercise in a very particular form of communication which, perhaps, alludes more to film and the character of the mise-en-scène as the mark of directorial sensibility.
The filmic reference also comes to mind when contemplating her installation at Galerie Lelong where the temporal dimension is very much in play—not simply (and obviously) the real time of viewing such an extended work, but the times past and present that configure its conceptual domain. Titled, significantly, Cri du Coeur, the hand-printed paper panels are sited at the join of wall and floor, wrapping around the entire space of the large gallery, a somber unfolding of mourning women set against backgrounds that fade from darkness to light, the rectangular format interrupted by passages of silhouetted figures starkly outlined against the white walls. Once again the artist usurps the familiar viewing relation as we are required to cast our eyes down upon a work that demands close attention and an awareness of the body—we bend or crouch to distinguish figure from ground and the complexities of over-printing, veiling, and repetition. The rhythm of this work is the melancholic beat of a funeral drum, a panoramic narrative of loss and the ending of all things.
Somehow, and against the body’s frailties and failures, Nancy Spero continues to produce a resistant and compulsive art that engages the viewer intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally in an extraordinary poetics of the body, time, and history.
Nancy Spero’s Cri du Coeur is just that—a passionate cry against war, death, and destruction that is both political and personal, social and metaphysical. The work’s strength arises from an inspired restraint, limiting the aesthetic means—a group of figures transferred and repeated through a fury of color and tone on sheets of drawing paper joined end to end to make a continuous grounded frieze running around the base of an otherwise empty gallery—to extraordinary ends. The scale and compressed intensity of the baseline frieze activates the untouched white walls and ceiling of the gallery, which press down and ground our attention in the painting.
It begins on the right, with a group of mourning women fully visible and intact, inscribed against a light background. The mourners’ feet are flat on the ground and their hands are in the air, waving like cilia seeking nourishment, beseeching, as their tears stream down, streaking the colors. This group of mourners—one thinks at first to count them, women and girls, but they proliferate into a mirrored multitude—is taken from the painted funeral scene in the rock-cut tomb of the vizier Ramos in the necropolis at Thebes, circa 1370 B.C., and has been in Spero’s repertoire of images for many years. The women are seen in profile, bare-breasted and sheathed in gray gowns, faces and extremely expressive hands raised in lamentation. There is a remarkable balance in the composition between movement and stasis, uncontrollable wailing and serene sorrow. This same group recurs rhythmically through the frieze, rising and falling as the environment they move through becomes more complex and dark, from passages of light yellow and pale blue to blood red and bilious green, punctuated by explosions in black and blue. These shifts in color and tone reflect the chronology of the Theban tombs, from pure colors washed onto light grounds in the earlier periods to more opaque tones in the later phases, but also the increasing violence of our own time. With no gisant before them, the mourners move ever forward, into the storm.
We are well into the progress of their procession before we realize that we too are in a procession, walking slowly around the room in a counter-clockwise direction, unwinding time. As in Spero’s mosaic for the Lincoln Center Subway Station, the recurring figures are animated by our movement. As we walk, looking down, the sense of it washes over us—the relentless cycle of mourning, of women grieving for their dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Israel and the Occupied Territories, in Sri Lanka and New Orleans. It is the news cycle, the continuous stream of human catastrophes pictured in our newspapers and magazines and on our TV and computer screens, people distraught amid the smoke and ash, the carnage and ruin, both natural and cultural. The scale of it dwarfs us.
But there is a tremendous strength of resistance in these mourning women, and a grace born of endurance. In contrast to the single figures in Spero’s architectural installations of the past—the acrobats, dancers, and sky goddesses gliding and cavorting vertically, on walls and ceilings—these mourning women are resolutely grounded in their grief, within a frame, and moving in one direction (back to the beginning). At the end of the frieze, when the painting turns the corner and comes out of the gallery, and the figures are reduced to white phosphorescent traces against the darkness, we recognize that their gestures of grief are also, after all, gestures of praise for the human heart that prevails, against all loss.
—David Levi Strauss
ContributorsDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.Jon Bird