Nancy Spero died in 2009 at the age of 83. The current exhibition of her hand-printed collages from the 1980s and 1990s, From Victimage to Liberation, at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea, is the first show in New York to focus on her work since her death.
The installation is, in a word, stunning — as spare and light-filled as the work itself. The collages, with their rhythmic interplay of repeating images, shimmer across expanses of paper with touches of jewel-like color when they’re not exploding in flashes of graphic intensity.
That they can be so materially beautiful in spite of their often wrenching subject matter is one of the paradoxes that carries Spero’s work out of the times for which they were made and makes them invaluable for our own.
Other artists who have explored the blunt exercise of power, such as Leon Golub, Spero’s life partner, or Jenny Holzer in her Redaction Paintings, have often signaled their seriousness by exchanging visual seduction for a functional asceticism.
Holzer’s silkscreens of blacked-out government communiqués on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan juxtapose their bland, even antiseptic surfaces against their chilling content. Golub’s paintings of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and thuggish mercenaries in Central America, while powerful and immense, are purposefully scraped and dry, as if a more sensual handling of paint would undermine the efficacy of the image.
In the small room near Galerie Lelong’s entrance, there are five collages that Spero made between 1981 and 1994. Their format differs from the other works in the show — they are more conventionally rectangular than scroll-like — and each is austerely beautiful, their elements interacting like Constructivist shapes against their blue or brown fields.
Four of the five are named after countries, their titles stamped on their surfaces: “South Africa” (1981); “Argentina” (1981); “Nicaragua” (1986); “El Salvador” (1986). The last is called “Death Figure/Gestapo” (1994).
The two earlier works, assembled on brown paper, feature torn, typewritten sheets recounting victimizations of women in their respective countries. The last three feature negative images in white with splashes of color printed on a dark blue field.
The events that kindled these works are now receding thirty years on. What remains of their content is more memento than mission, the names stamped on their surfaces functioning as loci on a map of universal suffering rather than datelines for dispatches from the hottest hotspots in Hell.
The word “victimage,” according to the exhibition’s curator, Mary Sabbatino, in her introduction to the show’s compact but handsomely produced catalogue, was coined by Spero “to describe the victim passing from sufferer to protagonist.”
There’s another word for that, martyrdom, though the difference is that a martyr has the choice of apostasy or death, while a victim has no such option. “Victimage” is a way of commemorating those who have been swept away by the industrialized forces of war and genocide, who were given no say in how their lives ended.
The 1980s work confronts us with an unflinching bleakness. There is no redemption for the victims, no moral to be gleaned from their loss. Their afterlife is inscribed in the formal beauty and emotional resonance of the artworks that remember them.
Most of the collages from the 1990s on display at Lelong leave overt depictions of suffering behind in favor of a heterodox assortment of aboriginal, Egyptian and medieval motifs, along with modern fine art and pop cultural references. This work is no less beautiful than the pointedly political pieces — “The Underworld” (1997) is positively jaw-dropping — but it feels more remote, a citation of signifiers rather than a crystallization of lived experience.
Such motifs are found in Spero’s earlier work, including her monumental “Codex Artaud” (1971-1972), but they are offset by political texts or contemporary imagery, and the effect is much more bruising and raw.
The accretion of archetypes during the 1990s feels most grounded in the collages where we catch a glimpse of Masha Bruskina, a teenage Jewish partisan fighter, at the moment of her execution by the Nazis in 1941.
These works, “Invocation” (1995) and “Masha Bruskina/Vulture Goddess” (1996), are reminders that myth evolved to account for the blind cruelty coiled within the wonder of creation. In her most trenchant work, Spero draws upon both and then erases the line between them.
Nancy Spero: From Victimage to Liberation: Works from the 1980s & 1990s continues at Galerie Lelong (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 16.