Spotlight on Protest: Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero, <i>Female Bomb</i>, 1966. Gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 27 inches. Photo by David Reynolds. © Nancy Spero, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Nancy Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1926. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1949), and honorary doctorates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1991) and Williams College (2001). Spero is a pioneer of feminist art. Her work since the 1960s is an unapologetic statement against the pervasive abuse of power, Western privilege, and male dominance. Executed with a raw intensity on paper and in ephemeral installations, her work often draws its imagery and subject matter from current and historical events such as the torture of women in Nicaragua, the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust, and the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Spero samples from a rich range of visual sources of women as protagonists, from Egyptian hieroglyphics, 17th Century French history painting, and Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie advertisements. Her figures, in full command of their bodies, co-existing in nonhierarchical compositions on monumental scrolls, visually reinforce principles of equality and tolerance. Spero was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2006). Awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Art Association (2005); the Honor Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art (2003); the Hiroshima Art Prize (jointly with Leon Golub, 1996); and the Skowhegan Medal (1995). Major exhibitions include Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Spain (2003); MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1994); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1994); Museum of Modern Art, New York (1992); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1988). Spero lives and works in New York.

Nancy Spero, <i>Mourning Women</i>, 2000 (detail). 4 panels of handprinting and printed collage on paper. Panel 3: 25-1/2 x 76-3/4 inches (64.8 x 194.9 cm).

Watch a clip from Spero’s Art:21 segment:

About her work, Spero says,

“I guess maybe my art can be said to be a protest. I see things a certain way and as an artist, I’m privileged in that arena to protest or say publicly what I’m thinking about. Maybe the strongest work I’ve done is because it was done with indignation. Considering myself as a feminist, I don’t want my work to be a reaction to what male art might be or what art with a capital A would be. I just want it to be art. In a convoluted way, I am protesting; protesting the usual way art is looked at, being shoved into a period of category…[I]f people want to take something from it I’m thrilled because in a way that gets my message to the world.”

(taken from the companion book Art in the Twenty-First Century 4, p. 54).

Nancy Spero, <i>Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers</i>, 2005. Glass and ceramic mosaic murals. Located at 66th Street-Lincoln Center subway station. Public commission for the MTA Arts for Transit.

Read more about Nancy Spero’s work and watch additional clips on her Art:21 webpage here.

Have you experienced Spero’s work in person, or did you have an opportunity to view her segment in one of the hundreds of Art21 Access ’07 events that have been taking place all month? Share your thoughts on Nancy Spero by leaving a comment below.

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