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It’s May 3, 2019. I am in the exhibition Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror at MoMA PS 1 with Julie Ault, who organized the show, which is on view until June 23. The show originated at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, and this is its only presentation in the U.S. Nancy Spero is a key figure in the rise of the women’s movement in art, beginning around 1970. She, together with her husband, the painter Leon Golub, already was a fiercely committed political artist by that time. She achieved international attention by the 1980s but her challenging art has yet to be fully recognized in the U.S.
Christopher Lyon: MoMA is calling this the first retrospective in the U.S. of Spero’s work since her death in 2009.
Julie Ault: I drew work from Nancy’s full career, but I think of the exhibition more like an opinionated survey structured around mapping Spero’s radical transformations throughout her practice. My curatorial motive involves looking at her ideological and production shifts, in terms of medium, method, and content, and highlighting those transformations throughout the show.
CL: The show’s title comes from a phrase by Lucy Lippard?
JA: Yes, Nancy invited her to write the text for the announcement flyer for Spero’s 1976 AIR Gallery exhibition of Torture of Women —
CL: — one of two monumental works on paper Spero made in the 1970s; the other, Notes in Time on Women, is included in this show.
JA: Lippard worked up some ferocious notes. Lucy said, “These are my thoughts, my notes. You do what you want with them,” and Spero did the layout. Lippard describes Spero as “secretary to the apocalypse” and her works as “long scrolls like an attenuated image of the artist in a paper mirror.” Isn’t that beautiful and sharp?
CL: In some attenuated — I love the word — sense, do you see the work as a kind of multifaceted mirror of Nancy herself?
JA: Absolutely. I see a constant striving for self-liberation in Nancy’s entire body of work: coming to [her] voice, exercising her voice, or voices, and a constant pushing against the frame and the edges, compositionally. She wants to exceed her boundaries, boundaries that are put on her by authority structures, cultural conventions. I think we’re getting a multifaceted reflection/refraction of Nancy’s development over time as an artist. We’re also getting a reflection of the cultural and political contexts of each period of [her career].
CL: You mentioned giving voice. The work that faces us, as we enter the exhibition, the 1962 “Great Mother Birth,” is one of her Black Paintings, made when Nancy and her husband, the painter Leon Golub, were living with their children in Paris. A figure emerges from darkness. One can see, in the mouth of this figure, a tiny head. Nancy said the figure is giving birth through her mouth. But the head is also a tongue. There’s a voice there.
JA: We start to see Nancy’s visual voice. When I was working on the checklist for the show at the [Museo] Tamayo, I suddenly realized, “Oh my god, there are so many disembodied heads and tongues in this show!” The tongue is a guiding force throughout. Tongues have been in Nancy’s vocabulary since early in her work. The tongue as essential to speech. Phallic tongues. Violent and sexual tongues. Or she is sticking her tongue out.
CL: In 1964, Spero returned with her family to the U.S. and they settled in New York. Images of mothers and children give way to images of war as we walk through the first gallery off the main hall.
JA: Two things shifted for Spero. One was a change of subject matter. She was very disturbed by the U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and the war. Leon Golub was involved in many anti-war efforts, as was Spero. They’re watching TV at night and seeing the U.S. drop napalm on people. The war had seemed more remote from Paris. When it was in her face, she aggressively put it in our faces.
CL: She says, “I couldn’t think of any other way of showing the obscenity of the bomb except through this expression of sexual obscenity.”
JA: This coincided with her being fed up with what she called “the establishment male look of oil on canvas.” She declared a manifesto: “I will not work in oil on canvas anymore. I will work on vulnerable, lowly paper.” She began the War Series in 1966, which she explicitly called paintings, though they’re gouache and ink on paper. Spero’s move was constructive defiance.
CL: You have a male bomb here and a female bomb. Spero said, “What happened was this terrific outburst. The bombs became very sexual and very phallic. Mostly male bombs, a long penis with heads at the end of the penis. But there are female bombs, too.”
JA: This time, the tongue is not coming from the mouth, but from the penis. Eventually, she decided the helicopter was the most iconic symbol of the U.S. in Vietnam. Spero did about 150 war paintings. She made them fast and furiously. Here, we’re looking at a brutal image called “Bomb, Tree, Eagle, Lynched Victims” . Lynched victims with bloody groins hang from a tree. Yet Spero’s rendering has a delicacy.
CL: She said, “These paintings are full of bloodied victims.” What do you make of the notion of “victimage,” which was a coinage of hers?
JA: What I appreciate about Nancy’s term victimage is that it suggests a layer, a fact of life. It’s transhistorical and can embody any scenario. It extends into the past and the future. It’s a layer of — what do we call it? — “civilization”?
CL: Now we’re moving into a gallery that’s mostly devoted to Nancy’s works derived from writings of Antonin Artaud. There’s no area of her work, I think, where you get a clearer sense of a reflected double than in these pieces. She said, “I dare to transmit the ravings of a man, a man shunted aside from human intercourse, to personify how I, a woman, view lack of power.”
JA: It was like she found her voice in his. As she was reading Artaud’s writing, she found a reflection of herself there and joined to that through doing these works. She forced a collaboration with the deceased poet. It’s not a simple appropriation. It’s an engagement — a doubling and a coupling. She’s not illustrating his words; she’s embodying their content. She’s feeling exiled and in a rage. Out of that comes this fantastic body of work, the Artaud Paintings.
CL: Then a shift happens, from individual, unitary works like these to the beginnings of the scroll-like works.
JA: Nancy’s first significant shift in media and method is from oil and canvas to paper. Then she works for two years on the Artaud Paintings. Again, she is defying containment; and, in time, she wants to escape the usual sanctified format. She wants “to expand into space.” She glues together papers from around the studio and makes larger vertical tower-like or horizontal scroll-like forms. She starts working with the bulletin typewriter –
CL: Can you explain what a bulletin typewriter is?
JA: Bulletin typewriters were used to make notices in type for schools or commercial situations, legible at a distance of about six feet. I associate this with news bulletins. Spero transcribes Artaud. She’s a scribe.
CL: It’s almost like she’s a medium. Giving voice to the dead.
JA: This next room we’re moving into is work from 1974. She’s working with letterpress and tiny collaged figures. She’s working with phrases from war terminology and from medieval texts — abbreviated in the case of the phrase “LICIT EXP” [derived from “explicit explanation”; the phrase appears repeatedly in pieces by Spero of this time].
CL: Following is a very long, relatively narrow gallery devoted to one of Spero’s most ambitious and resonant works, Notes in Time on Women, 1979, now in MoMA’s collection.
JA: Notes in Time has 24 panels. Its entire length is 210 feet. There were over 100 sources that Spero researched for three years to do the work. She’s showing and telling the situations of women’s status historically. Victimage and cruelty towards women appear to be continuous across time and cultures.
CL: There are also joyous dancing elements in it.
JA: There’s athleticism and dance and breaking-free movement. I wanted to avoid boxing in this work. I’ve seen it shown four layers high, which makes it difficult to read all the textual inclusions. I wanted it to extend and wrap [it] across adjacent walls to stress the work’s eccentric length and its musicality.
CL: Your installation also brings to mind the notion of strata. And the range of sources is just immense. I mean, from an Aztec woman’s song to ancient sources like Pliny to Sojourner Truth to —
JA: — to a letter from a friend about her [friend’s] painful divorce. The scale and form of the work suggest endlessness. These perimeter galleries that we’ve been walking through surround and lead into the central room as a kind of temple.
We’re making a shift as we enter the large gallery. I call it, “woman as protagonist,” which is a term Spero used. The work in this central space is from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. Around 1975 Spero made a momentous decision to image the world through depiction of women exclusively. Here, we find figures breaking free, and mythological figures of female power and agency combed from various eras and cultures. Victimage remains, but there’s also liberation. Another production shift is in evidence. Also in ’75, Spero began making printing plates of her drawings and found images so that she can recycle and recast them. Printing [by hand] allows her to create this cast of characters, or “stock company,” as she called them.
CL: There are nearly 400 separate plates, I think.
JA: In this main gallery is where Spero’s discourse has become the language of the figure and motion. She dispenses with text. I often think of her like a snake shedding its skins. She sheds painting and standard formats. She sheds Artaud. She sheds male images, and text. She even, at times, drops paper to print directly on walls and ceilings, using flexible rubber plates [beginning in the late 1980s].
I would love to have been able to print directly on the walls, but those installations were site-dependent. Nancy made the decisions. We can’t make them for her. I thought about how to activate and enliven the framed works that are here, in a way that is in step with what she was doing with installation modes in her last 20 years. I want to stress the feeling of independence. And spaciousness. Almost like you throw the figures in the air, and they go where they want to.
I’m fortunate to have learned about Irene Sosa, who made many artful videos documenting Nancy’s process and work. I’ve situated three of them in the exhibition. The two in this room show Nancy at work with assistants on site — in Dresden and at the Pompidou — making installations, hand-printing figures directly on walls and architecture.
CL: Leaving the third-floor galleries, we stop to see Spero’s “Maypole: Take No Prisoners,” one of her last major works. It fills PS1’s first-floor Duplex gallery.
JA: When Spero made “Maypole,” the Iraq War reminded her of Vietnam. She said “It’s just happening all over again.” She was 81, nearing the end of her life, and she said, “It’s an abomination. I can’t understand society and, especially, Americans.” There is a lot of social and collective trauma, historical and ancient, as well as personal trauma in the work.
CL: You’ve made a remarkable reading book to accompany the exhibition — not a catalogue but a thought-provoking introduction to Spero’s work. You assembled parts of many interviews with Nancy over the years to create a composite dialogue with her.
JA: Yes, Spero felt silenced for so long. I focused on interviews and putting together a chronology for the catalogue, in which I intersperse her voice a lot, quotes from her. The last sentence quotes Spero, “I hope that my art is a continuum and that it moves through the years like a melody.”
I’m intent on activating Spero’s work presentationally, with the present tense of political and cultural contexts in mind. I hope understanding of her work will deepen and new constituencies will discover it. Sometimes there’s a gap, but people find and return to an artist who cannot be ignored. Younger generations of artists, curators, cultural practitioners, and viewers are coming to Nancy’s work anew.
Julie Ault is an artist, curator, writer, and editor who works both independently and collaboratively, often engaging historical inquiry. Ault frequently adopts curatorial and editorial roles as forms of artistic practice.
Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through June 23.