Art historians have their work cut out for them if they ever hope to get the period since 1960s “right.” It is pretty obvious from existing accounts they haven’t done so yet. Never before were so many things made in so many formats by so many artists. And never before the last two decades have the signal accomplishments of our best artists been so completely overshadowed by the publicity and money lavished on lesser talents who excel at manipulating the media and the markets. But when serious attention is finally given to the works that speak most forcefully, most unsparingly and most innovatively about and to our times, those made by Nancy Spero will certainly figure foremost among them.
Spero’s achievement was a life long triumph over the long odds. A woman artist in a man’s art world, a feminist both before it was fashionable and after, a close reader of history, theory, and literature who invented a discursive form of verbal and visual critique that avoided the false dichotomies which pitted written language against pictorial language, the handmade image against the machine-made one, the emotionally charged touch against the intellectually rigorous dismantling of social, cultural, and political fictions during the 1980s and since, Spero created an all-encompassing dialectical art for an era so horribly rich in contradictions that most of her contemporaries shied away from the sheer quantity, complexity, and enormity of them and confined their efforts to what, for Spero, amounted to details within the dense fabric of her ongoing graphic project. That her paper and directly stamped murals were as physically fragile as she became while their imagery was as fiercely expressive and as tough-minded as she nevertheless managed to remain is one of the palpable marvels of Spero’s art.
In addition to sustaining her own practice over more than fifty years—much of that time with scant support from the critical establishment or from galleries and museums—Spero and her late husband Leon Golub played as crucial a role as organizers in an art world that so often talks politics but too rarely acts politically. Moreover, they were exceptionally generous to younger artists they welcomed to their studio, listened to and challenged in conversation, and helped to find outlets for their own work and the means to voice their own commitments. Starting in the early 1980s (I met Golub at an opening in Chicago in 1977 and knew both his and Spero’s work well before that) I was lucky to be among them. At Nancy and Leon’s invitation I contributed to the Artists’ Call against American intervention in Central America at Judson Church in 1984 and The Center Show at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in 1989, those causes and venues barely bracketing the extent of their engagements. On her own Nancy was a founding member of the pioneering women’s cooperative gallery A.I.R. and a leader on many other fronts of the women’s movement as well as a role model for countless women and men who followed its example.
But Spero’s greatest impact has been on visual culture even though that impact has still to be fully reckoned or acknowledged. It takes nothing away from the key contributions of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Kara Walker—to name just a few younger women artists and none of the younger men to whom the statement applies—to say that what they have done is virtually inconceivable without the artistic and conceptual breakthroughs that Spero made before their arrival on the scene. Someday soon that legacy will receive its due, but that will not happen without strong advocacy from the critics curators, collectors, activists, and others who appreciate its true extent. The energy for that effort will come from sparks thrown by the collision of words and images Spero painstakingly planned and triggered, as well as from the memory of a passionate and indomitable woman.
Daughters Nancy Spero mined through Artaud, plunging
into his Bowlahoola the seminal muscle of her tongue
to release these pater-encrusted Rahabs,
to let them strip and restrip
—from pedestal to Golden Lotus—
the binocular manacles from their feet,
to let them ungag their cunts,
to let their cunts stick out their tongues,
to let them dance inside out the accordion akimbo kick,
the dildo trot, the serpentine waver prance,
Ms. Gig and her wiggling trickers
rotating through the monument blockage, rooted and free.