Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror at MoMA PS1: installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror, closing tomorrow at MoMA PS1, is about as perfect an exhibition as you can imagine: setting, installation, and selection. It’s a show I wish I could visit again and again, if circumstances hadn’t prevented me from getting to it sooner.

Curated by Julie Ault, an artist and co-founder of the activist collective Group Material, Paper Mirror does not necessarily shed new light on the artist, who was born in Cleveland in 1926 and died in New York in 2009; rather, it displays her work to consummate advantage, conveying above all the singularity of her practice and the searing beauty of her sublime rage.

The installation wastes no time setting up its formal parameters; to the right of an introductory wall text, one of Spero’s early Black Paintings, an oil-on-canvas titled “Great Mother Birth” (1962), hangs in contradistinction to two scroll-like collages on paper from the 1990s, “Mourning Women: Le Cimetière de Varsovie” (1993) and “Performance” (1995). “Great Mother Birth” is painted by hand in a medium and manner enshrined in modernist art history; the two scrolls are printed, typewritten, cut, and pasted on a support equated with the preparatory, the transitional, and the ephemeral.

Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror at MoMA PS1: installation view

“Radical” is the most overused word in artspeak, but there isn’t a more concise term to describe the material and spiritual break represented by the traversal from canvas to paper, and for Spero, the change wasn’t evolutionary, but deliberate and decisive.

Spero was in her mid-30s when she created the Black Paintings (1959-1965), “her first mature works, […] which seem to brood over existential questions of selfhood, motherhood, and otherness,” as the wall text puts it in the gallery featuring a selection of these works and of the War Series (1966-1970). When she brought the Black Paintings to completion, she came to the recognition that:

[T]he language of painting on canvas was “too conventional, too establishment,” resolving that from then on she would work on paper—vulnerable, insignificant paper meant to be pinned to the wall.

She then embarked on the paintings in gouache and ink on paper that make up the War Series, a response to the conflict in Vietnam. In these works, she continued to exploit the expressionistic strokes she used in the Black Paintings, but her imagery turned decidedly spare and clean, leaving large swaths of empty space, eschewing traditional composition for direct, impulsive mark-making. It was here that she also began to use collage.

In 1969, in addition to her work on the War Series, Spero began her four-year, transformative engagement with the French actor, director, theoretician, and madman, Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), founder of the Theater of Cruelty — first with the Artaud Paintings of 1969-1970, and then with her breakthrough Codex Artaud (1971-1972).

Nancy Spero, “Notes in Time” (1979), cut-and-pasted painted paper, gouache, and pencil on joined sheets of paper, 20 inches x 210 feet: installation view at MoMA PS1

The Artaud Paintings hewed to conventional formats — individual sheets of standard-size paper oriented horizontally or vertically — despite the idiosyncrasy of their content, which included fragmentary images in gouache accompanied by handwritten quotes from Artaud in English and French.

For the Codex, however, Spero “gathered together a mixture of papers from around her studio,” according to a wall text, “and glued them into a scroll-like formation, which evolved into an extensive series of thirty-one works.”

With their free interplay of image and text, the Codex Artaud and the even more ambitious Notes in Time (1979), a 210-foot long scroll — here handsomely framed in approximately nine-foot-long sections and arranged in closely stacked rows across two rooms — are nothing less than a personal redefinition of the nature and meaning of visual art.

Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror at MoMA PS1: installation view

You are put on notice the moment you step into exhibition’s large main room with its thick walls and vaulted central entranceway, redolent of an archaeological museum in Naples or Rome. The artworks, most of which date from the 1980s and ‘90s, are installed to overwhelm — arrayed across the walls, running below your knees, and, frieze-like, flush with the ceiling. You can inspect the individual pieces or you can absorb them all at once; either way, the sensation is as fierce as it is buoyant: abstract and figural, imagist and textual, serial and unique, architectural and cinematic.

Spero paid a great deal of attention to the way her work was presented to the public, and as an artist and curator committed to that legacy, Ault doesn’t miss a beat. Repeated images (which the novelist and poet Jesse Ball, in a text for the exhibition catalogue, calls “Speroglyphs”) gain meaning as they change context; works that are hung uncomfortably high or low amplify the impact of the whole while underscoring the historical sources of their motifs in Egyptian and Greco-Roman friezes.

Nancy Spero, “Notes in Time” (1979), cut-and-pasted painted paper, gouache, and pencil on joined sheets of paper, 20 inches x 210 feet: detail

Though informed by the Pattern and Decoration movement, Spero’s art never comes off as decorative; still, it is astonishing how many decorative elements are contained within it. A serial image of one of her “stock company” of actors, as the artist called them — the Dildo Dancer, copied from a Grecian urn, or the Celtic fertility goddess Sheela-Na-Gig — creates a pattern that intensifies the figure’s formal qualities while defusing its shock value, in effect normalizing the experiences of women — female eroticism and childbirth — that count among the most foreign to the male gaze.

This simultaneous exaltation/diminution of the image and its conjoined relationship to text can be viewed in terms of the crisis of figuration that Spero, newly returned from Europe, faced in a postwar American art scene dominated by Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop. An appropriationist before there was a critical term for it, she not only ceased to use oil paint and canvas; she also refused to invent images of her own, declining the role of world-creator while embracing a teeming realm of otherness: the totality of iconic meaning across the breadth of human culture, refracted through a feminist prism.

The exquisitely understated tension between image and text deepens Spero’s topical, bulletin-typed narratives into timeless meditations on cruelty and folly, driven home with a soul-crushing relentlessness made bearable only through their cleansing formal rigor. The paradox of art in Spero’s practice does not feel redemptive, the way the beauty of a Renaissance painting might elevate the inhumanity of a Crucifixion. Instead of mitigating or ameliorating barbarity, her work affords us a modicum of distance from the historical facts, so that we are able to think about them as clearly as we feel them. This aspect of her work — the insistence on picking at history’s scabs — is what makes it so dire, necessary, and real.

Nancy Spero, “Notes in Time” (1979), cut-and-pasted painted paper, gouache, and pencil on joined sheets of paper, 20 inches x 210 feet: detail

In a “composite interview” edited by Ault for the exhibition catalogue, which draws on 20 years of Spero’s conversations with writers (including Christopher Lyon, who interviewed Ault for Hyperallergic Weekend on June 1), the artist laments over the parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, asking:

It’s a terrible continuum, isn’t it? It’s due to our terrible leaders here. Can you believe how the people have allowed this? It’s hard to believe how the Americans have allowed [George W. Bush] to get away with this. It’s incredible…

Spero made her last major work, “Maypole: Take No Prisoners” (2007) in response to the continuum between Vietnam, which Bush sat out stateside, whiling away his time in the Texas Air National Guard, and Iraq, which Bush and Dick Cheney started under false pretenses, following Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin playbook.

Nancy Spero, “Maypole: Take No Prisoners” (2007): installation view at MoMA PS1

Drawing her imagery from “Kill Commies/Maypole,” a painting from her 1960s War Series, she literalizes that work’s depiction of severed heads dangling from strings by attaching aluminum heads, many with protruding tongues (something of a signature in Spero’s work), to colored ribbons stretching out from a 35-foot-tall metal pole. In the interview, Spero continues:

And again, I am so dumbfounded that this continues—that this would be allowed to happen again, right under our noses. […] It’s really beyond my comprehension. And the only tool I really have is my artwork […].

I’ve seen “Maypole: Take No Prisoners” in three iterations: first in its original installation at the 2007 Venice Biennale, incongruously shimmering in the light of a cupola; 10 years later at the Galerie Lelong in New York, where the heads hung so low that you could walk among them; and as part of this show in the basement level of PS1, devoid of natural light and hemmed in by double-height walls.

In each manifestation, the maypole looms with ever darker menace. If anything, Spero knew the course of empire, and she would recognize the moment when its outward-facing cruelties turn into a cruel joke on itself. In 2003, she watched in disbelief as the nation was blindly led by an idiot king into a heedless, unjust, and endless war. Ten years after her death, with only her art left to bear witness, the chaos and atrocities grind on, 1000 US troops are headed to the Gulf of Oman, and the state of idiocy is complete.

Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through tomorrow, June 23. The exhibition is curated by Julie Ault.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.