3 March – 2 May 2011
Artist and activist Nancy Spero (1926–2009) was a leading pioneer of feminist art. During her 50-year career, she created a vibrant visual language constructed from the histories and mythologies of past and present cultures.
Trained in the figurative tradition, Spero was greatly influenced not only by the enduring dialogue with her husband Leon Golub, but also by artists including Jean Dubuffet and by the objects and artefacts she discovered in ethnographic museums. Spero rejected the dominant post-war movements of formalist Abstraction and Pop Art in the 1950s, developing a more ephemeral way of working that used paper and collage, gouache and printmaking – a process she described as allowing for ‘all manner of processions, conflicts, interruptions and disruptions’.
Spero created an identity through the acts of borrowing and disguise. In early work, texts as well as images were enlisted from a wide range of sources to express alienation, disempowerment and physical pain. Directly quoting
the writing of poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, Spero voiced her anger at being exiled as a female artist to the peripheries of the art world. Spero’s often radical work made strong statements against war, male dominance and abuses of power, presenting compelling arguments for tolerance and a non-hierarchical society. Yet her work was never simplistically utopian. ‘Utopia, like heaven,’ she once remarked, ‘is kind of boring.’
Over her lifetime, Spero’s practice grew increasingly collaborative, reflecting both her involvement in the politics of the Women’s Movement as well as the progressive physical difficulties she faced as a sufferer of chronic arthritis. During her life she remained politically active and was a founding member of the first women’s cooperative gallery, A.I.R. (Artists in Residence), in New York.
In her late work, Spero drew upon a broad range of visual sources – from Etruscan frescos to fashion magazines – to create a figurative lexicon representing women from pre-history to the present. Her work, she stated, ‘speculates on a sense of possibility and comments upon immediate events, political, sexual and otherwise’. Richly layered and vibrantly cinematic, epic works such as Azur, 2003, are celebratory tours de force reflecting Spero’s political engagement and dynamic imagination.
Nancy Spero has been initiated by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, (presented from 13 October 2010 to 10 January 2011), and adapted for the Serpentine Gallery.