Nancy Spero: Grit and Grace

For me it all started in 1991 in Munich at the Glyptothek. First visit there and unsure about the city with its place as a fertile bed for the rise of the National Socialist Party, indeed its foundation was there in 1919. Even though it was May, the weather had turned and we were faced—dressed in light jackets, jeans and sneakers—with angled sheets of rain and snow. We crossed an open plaza, lost in the misery of travellers’ weather, having only a vague sense that this was where we wanted to be—a section of the city with museums. Eyes narrowed against the needles of wet ice, my peripheral vision picked out something with colour in this grey city, something fluttering, long banners flapping and turning in the wind. SPERO. A rescue. “Look, art,” and we headed there. Like compatriot poet Emily Dickinson seeing things slant, for Nancy Spero, too, this angled apprehension was a way in, and out, what she identified as “the possibilities of peripheral vision as a disruption of a way of looking at art,” a tactic she elaborated and commented on consistently in her increasingly broadening work.

There it was, an entire museum of Greek and Roman sculpture set in a neoclassical purpose-built, suitably grand structure, commissioned in the mid-19th century by King Ludwig of Bavaria for his own collection. Hundreds of sculptures, some intact or as large fragments, missing, say, only a head or legs or an arm. No setting could have been better chosen to resonate as mimesis, as content, as tribute and acknowledgement, impeccably installed by the artist, her intentions and accomplishments fully evident. Works on paper, 1981–1991, in a museum full of stone. Flat and fragile, simply framed, vertical and horizontal strips in varying lengths, of figures on sheets measuring no more than 52 centimetres wide. The stone sculpture and friezes were exiles, none of them naming Munich as birthplace. Immigrants, refugees, deported or stolen, never to return to the Aegean, to the Mediterranean. All of them so still, silent and beautiful. Nancy Spero felt she had been silent or silenced, too, and found her early voice through the language of Antonin Artaud. His pain and suffering, his profound sense of exclusion were something she recognized as familiar, sympathetic. She told Border Crossings in 2000, in the second interview we did with her (the encounter in Munich being only the start of our connection), “I knew his bitter disappointment at the world and also I was in pain from arthritis. … I was in great pain and it resonated: Artaud, the art world, my being silenced, bourgeois society’s indifference, my physical pain and the inherent futility and/or tragedy of life itself. It fuelled my imagery.”

In stone, the friezes are constrained in narrow bands, the weight of the material felt in the processions even when signifying movement, or, grimly, bands of heaped bodies. Spero’s panels, which she placed with the stone friezes, are expansive—one can be added beside another to continue the narrative, an ongoing story of women, historical to the present, a tale that goes forward and back, humankind’s record of both atrocities and celebration, told on behalf of men and women but by the female figure.

The sculptural pieces for which the Glyptothek was built are readable, even though almost all are less, or more, broken. The postures range from standing to seated or kneeling, men and women, men and women holding a child, tender, reflective, robed or naked, some brief vignettes, a snuffling dog, a swan or goose in the tight embrace of a child. All are tragic, with their physical damage forever irreparable and on display. Their circumstances aren’t the result of torture, but the tone they present collectively is mute sorrow.

Nancy Spero’s overwhelmingly and unavoidably horrifying testimony on torture, Torture of Women, in 14 panels, measuring 125 feet, is an epic statement of sanctioned violence, supported in varying degrees of brutality and inhumanity by virtually every country in the world. In this work, it is text that recounts the endless record of horror, language here being more elastic or expansive in its iterative capacities than images. Spero’s use of figures is restrained but highly effective in its spareness. Her players are there: defiant, brave women facing down a giant, hellish winged serpent, her Sky Goddess confined in a cell-like grid; heads open-mouthed with knife-like tongues protruding— aggressive, venomous and capable of piercing. The minimal presence of figures leaves spaces empty and silent, disappeared, as victims of institutional, regularized abuse are.

In her career, Nancy Spero felt silenced and invisible, but really she wasn’t ever without language, or a voice. It just may not have been heard. In the very fine book on the body of work Torture of Women published by Siglio Press (Los Angeles, 2010), editor Lisa Pearson has included a section: “On Art and Outrage: Selected Quotes from Nancy Spero.” In thinking of Spero’s works installed in the Glyptothek, intermingled with pieces from the permanent collection, and in light of their beautiful but sepulchral setting and their broken state, these brief quotes seemed especially applicable. She said, “My figures are shown either taking control over their bodies or, at the opposite polarity, experiencing pain, torture, destruction. Female figures run, or mourn, over landscapes of broken bodies; irradiated with the poison of modern death machines—even Artemis who heals woman’s pain is irradiated, but primarily the protagonist is activated, elegiac, or celebratory.” Also, “I think that if you don’t use the body there is an absence. And to use the body embodies an idea and … it’s the most complex and challenging kind of conceptual reference. And also for me, the body is a symbol or hieroglyph, in a sense, an extension of language.” And, as well, “The grace of their bodies confronts these political obscenities.”

Grace is Nancy Spero’s close attribute. When there is grace it’s an inherent, natural quality and everything an individual does is suffused with it. Spero observed it in the source characters who became members of her repertory cast, and she spoke about it in terms of the “poses” in which they appeared. She said, “A ‘pose’ is how one carries oneself, identifies oneself—how one confronts the world and the gaze of the viewer, male or female.” What speaks here is Spero’s unconscious self-awareness; simply, she carried and conducted herself with grace. It served as an underlying support or ground for her work and was evidenced as courage, when necessary, and reticence, as a preference. Samm Kunce worked with both Nancy Spero and Leon Golub as a studio assistant and then collaborator from 1986 until Nancy’s death in 2009 and is now the manager of the Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts. She would have had ample occasion to observe the artist in every situation; the Spero–Golub shared studio space was also their residence. In conversation with Julie Ault, who curated the recent exhibition “Nancy Spero Paper Mirror” at the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City and at MoMA PS1 in Long Island city this year, Samm Kunce replied to Ault’s suggestion that in spite of Nancy Spero’s desire for the deserved recognition, perhaps it was the case that marginalization was built in to her practice. (It was always my sense—applying to both Nancy Spero and Leon Golub—that outside the centre and allowing for critical distance was a preferred location.) Samm Kunce’s response is to the placement or understanding of Spero’s work, but I read her answer as encompassing the character of the artist, too. She said, “Well, it is confrontational, for sure. But I believe the fundamental beauty of the work is what makes it possible to enter into its more challenging aspects. There is a classical grace in her handling of figures that seduces the viewer and belies the overarching brutality of the underlying message of war, misogyny, and social inequity.”

In 1992 the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a massive exhibition, “Henri Matisse: A Retrospective.” Reckoning with the powerful influence of Matisse was a challenge and we decided the magazine would do this through multiple perspectives, inviting five contemporary New York painters to view the exhibition and respond to it in interview format in the Winter 1993 issue of Border Crossings. We asked Nancy Spero to see the exhibition and talk to us. We’d never met. The interview took place in Spero’s studio loft at La Guardia Place in Greenwich Village. Not only her studio space but also the studio of Leon Golub—one very large space separated, one studio from the other, by a dividing wall, which didn’t extend to the ceiling. Over and through this wall the couple carried on a decades-long critical, stringent, loving, respectful and deeply rigorous dialogue. They were, for each other, the essential, first and best critic.

Included in the catalogue for “Paper Mirror” is a conversation Helaine Posner and Katy Klein had in 1994 with Leon Golub and Nancy Spero for the MIT List Visual Arts Centre. Asked about his work as assessed by Spero, Leon Golub replied, “I don’t have all the answers to this. I recognize in Nancy’s work a subtle, complex and powerful subversion of much of what I’m about. She can really interrupt or counter these posturings. But even when she interrupts them, they are still there, because the world is still out there. Her work is extremely eloquent. What we have given each other by mutual agreement and subtle consideration is space to do our own work. And I’m not talking about physical space. If I make a criticism of her work and I do frequently, she knows there is no ill will. I may misinterpret but it is not ill will, and I know exactly the same about her.”

Beyond the shared studio space was an open kitchen. Nancy Spero described the large table as the home’s only social space. We sat there to conduct the interview. Photographs show how lovely Nancy Spero was, a delicate gamine beauty, always stylishly and simply dressed. Her eyes were large with deep lids, which were an astonishing lilac tone. I am certain this colour wasn’t cosmetic and I was struck by it each time we visited, even until the last meal we had together—a kind of picnic in the small office at the front of the loft.

Nancy Spero may not have been an obvious choice for commenting on the Matisse retrospective, which is why, in part, we were interested to hear her response. The exhibition, how ever Matisse’s influence is assessed, was dazzling, extensive, and it made the museum handsome. Spero acknowledged all of this and expressed admiration for Matisse’s Dance paintings but was unremitting. And here is another example of her grace. She wasn’t going to be rude—she had agreed to the interview—but she wasn’t going to yield, either. In response to our querying an assessment of Le Maitre’s achievement, she said, “It was just so evident in those early sombre paintings that he was masterful and that he honed his skills over and over again. Perhaps too masterful, too suave.” During the interview and peppered at interesting intervals, there would be a second voice responding not so much to our questions but to Nancy’s answers. Leon Golub had a large voice, confident and compelling. The first time an answer materialized from the other side of the studio wall, we were surprised—a disembodied correction booming across the space, and then we recognized what wonderful theatre we were privy to and how these lively intelligent voices carrying interest and engagement would play in the large space—bubbles of rich comment filled with wit and care and enthusiasm. On other occasions, talking with Leon on his side of the studio, Nancy’s voice would ring out, correcting the interpretation and faulty memory.

We interviewed Nancy again in February 2004 for an issue titled “Remember There’s a War Out There.” The US was deeply implicated in Iraq, and Spero’s “War Series” from 40 years earlier was, alas, current and no less searing. She told us, “I deliberately did works on paper, since paper, as a surface, was devalued. It was a radical, self-propelled process. My thinking on art and war meant that I didn’t want to continue doing oil paintings on canvas, I didn’t want to do ‘important’ art.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, her uncompromising insistence on avoiding “important” art, Nancy Spero’s work is persistently that. We visited the exhibition “Nancy Spero Paper Mirror” at PS1 on a long Sunday afternoon. It was good to see the span of the work, to see work done for specific installations present successfully outside of their initial context. Her careful attention and the power and beauty of the pieces held. Seeing it was a poignant elegiac hello, once again. We go often to New York and always come away enriched by the art and the artists who are our friends. But still, for us, the conscience of New York has been diminished by the eternal absence of the artists who occupied the studio divided only by a partial wall. ❚

Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

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