IN 1966, NANCY SPERO concluded that the language of painting was "too conventional, too establishment," and she decided that from then on she would work exclusively on paper--flimsy, vulnerable, insignificant paper meant to be pinned to a wall. Having recently returned to the United States after a number of years in Europe, Spero was deeply disturbed by the atrocities the US military was committing in Vietnam, and over the course of the next four years, she created her first significant works on paper, the scores of gouache-and-ink pictures that make up her "War Series." As she later described them to curator Barbara Flynn, these works express "the obscenity of war" via imagery of "angry screaming heads in clouds of bombs [that] spew and vomit poison onto the victims below. Phallic tongues emerge from human heads at the tips of the penile extensions of the bomb or helicopter blades. Making these extreme images, I worried that [my] children might be embarrassed with the content of my art ..."
For Spero, who died in October at the age of eighty-three, choices of material, form, method, and subject matter were always political. Born in Cleveland in 1926, Spero graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949. Before settling with their three sons in New York in 1964, she and her husband, the painter Leon Golub (1922-2004), lived in Italy and then in Paris, where she created her first mature works, the "Black Paintings," 1959-64: figurative compositions that seem to brood over existential questions of selfhood and otherness, several depicting sexual partners who appear remote and estranged from each other. She received little recognition for these powerful paintings.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s Spero experienced intense isolation, discontent, and anger because of the invisibility accorded a female artist making figurative, aggressive work. Moreover, the lion's share of child-rearing duties fell to her, leaving little time for artmaking. But Spero was resolute: "I never stopped working and always late at night, proving if only to myself that I was an artist," she wrote years later. Her fury over being persona non grata in the art world mounted. Spero regarded her Vietnam works as broadsides--manifestos to be given away freely. But no one wanted them. She had no audience to speak of beyond Golub; no opportunity to exhibit her work except at "a few anti-war shows and benefits." No one looked at, engaged with, or discussed her work. The "War Series" was not exhibited in the US until years later.
Feeling like an outsider, in 1969 Spero began an intense four-year engagement with that brilliant outcast Antonin Artaud. "He lashed out at everything, that is just what appealed to me," she said in an interview with Flynn. On discovering Artaud's writing, she immediately began to incorporate it into her practice, transcribing his texts into notebooks so that his words would pass bodily through her. The first fully realized works that emerged from these explorations were the "Artaud Paintings," 1969-70, which juxtapose text fragments redolent of the writer's "desperation, humor, misogyny, and violent language" with painted images of androgynous figures, disembodied heads, and, as in the "War Series," phallic tongues. In one painting, a figure in profile floats limply, tethered to a cord with an unseen end, the words ME, ANTONIN ARTAUD, BORN SEPTEMBER 4, 1896 OUT OF A UTERUS I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH scrawled above. Spero later reflected that her identification with Artaud had to do with her awareness of being silenced: "The anger in the 'Artaud Paintings' came from feeling that I didn't have a voice, an arena in which to conduct a dialogue; that I didn't have an identity," she told Flynn. "That's exactly why I choose to use Artaud's writing, because he screams and yells and rants and raves about his tongue being cut off, castrated." Joining herself to Artaud, Spero activated his words to articulate her own experience--women's experience--of negation. …