Galerie Lelong: January 3 – February 21, 2009
Nancy Spero’s recent exhibition at Galerie Lelong reaffirms the artist’s status as a national treasure. It is ironic, then, that Spero’s art has not been appropriately honored by American museums even as it is the subject of a retrospective now traveling exclusively in Spain—a country that, because of Francisco Franco’s repressive 36-year regime, never even exhibited her work until 2004. By 1975, the year Franco died, Spero had already produced an astonishing body of work that railed against the horrifying military actions of the US government in Vietnam and the brutality perpetrated toward women throughout time by oppressive regimes and self-proclaimed rulers. In this context, Spain’s embrace—albeit belated—of Spero’s vision is as stunning as the failure of U.S. museums to celebrate her groundbreaking career as a cross-cultural, feminist artist. Until that happens, American viewers can remain grateful to Spero’s gallery for its ongoing commitment to present exceptional and intelligent shows of her work.
Nancy Spero: Un Coup de Dent is an elegant, haunting installation comprised of early framed canvases, known as the Black Paintings, along with a group of drawings that were executed primarily in Paris between 1954 and 1965. Brought together and exhibited for the first time since the mid ’80s, these romantically melancholy, expressionist oil paintings feature isolated individuals that materialize out of dark, ill-defined backgrounds that Spero laboriously painted, repainted, and wiped down with turpentine-soaked rags. Since Spero is known primarily for an oeuvre evolving from the 1970s comprised of unframed, delicate sheets of paper, pinned end to end like scrolls, with printed, painted and drawn mythic and historical female personages, these late ’50s/early ’60s works with a seemingly conventional format and stately presentation may come as a surprise. As different as they may seem from her signature work, these paintings are startling in their revelation of the nascent strategies, subject matter and subversive disposition that Spero mined throughout her unconventional career.
As a woman artist, wife and mother, Spero felt shunned by the art world. The themes and compositional schemes introduced in the Lelong show are sourced in Spero’s deep sense of personal and professional isolation. In canvases such as Lovers IX (1965), Le Couple (Lovers XVI) (1961-63), and Mother and Children (1962), ambiguously rendered and gendered individuals are locked in their own physical and psychic spaces forever disconnected from one another. Her existentialist Black Paintings, which coincided with the ascendancy of Pop and Minimalist Art, appropriate archetypal images from fertility myths and earthly passions to express timeless concerns as well as personal preoccupations—and they foreshadow her future practice of scavenging myths and history for female personages to add to her personal lexicon.
In Great Mother Birth (1962), a dark, graphic line carves out a ferocious profile, torso and breasts from the dark, churning and bloodstained space—capturing the powerful, primal nature of the event. Spero’s subsequent bodies of work, including the War Series and Cri de Coeur, which were featured in Spero’s last two shows at Galerie Lelong, incorporate a similar emphasis on drawing, ambiguous space and painterly expressionism. The very visceral process of the scraping and rubbing out of images in the Black Paintings, moreover, anticipates the ripped, torn and violated sheets of paper on which Spero literally unleashed her anger in works about the Vietnam War and the torture of women.
The eponymous Un Coup de Dent III (1960), a colloquialism for a biting remark or slap in the face, incorporates language with figures, a psychologically charged scheme that would become a hallmark of Spero’s works from 1970-1980. Birth (1960), meanwhile, hauntingly presages ways in which Spero would compose figures in space in the War Paintings and after—dramatizing the smallness and vanity of human events in the face of a vast and indifferent universe. At the bottom of the canvas, a childlike figure seems to rise out of three primitive heads, its outstretched arm holding a miniature depiction of a woman and baby, recalling Peace (1968) or Christ and the Bomb (1967), with their heroic figures astride a helicopter or mushroom cloud respectively. Maintaining dignity in the face of an uncontrollable destiny, the Black Paintings laid the foundation of an art of political, social and poetic fervor, through which Spero continues to give voice to women’s fundamental strength and assertion of freedom.
Susan Harris is co-president of the Board of the International Association of Art Critics, United States section (AICA-USA). She is an independent scholar and curator. Her most recent project is Managing Editor, Unfinished Memories: 30 Years of Exit Art, Steidl, 2016.