Throughout 2009, as I’ve written a series of posts that have examined the ways in which artists have addressed torture and related horrors, I’ve found myself thinking about Nancy Spero more and more. As I worked on those posts, I thought a lot about the humanity (or intentional lack thereof) of some of the work about which I was writing. I found myself mentally wandering toward Spero’s work, which is as human, urgent and direct as any art since George Grosz.
Most of all I thought about Spero’s art about war and violence. In many of her Vietnam War drawings, Spero used a helicopter as a symbol for both American militarism and for our nation’s distance from the conflict. In G.L.O.R.Y. (1967, detail at right), Spero runs her helicopter up a flagpole, making explicit the way in which the stars-and-stripes helicopter stands in for the United States and declaring American culpability for the results of indiscriminate bombing. Politicians are shy about pointing fingers. Artists, especially Spero, need not be as circumspect. G.L.O.R.Y. is about responsibility and accountability in a way that realizes art’s socio-political potential.
While many artists wallow in the space between art history and their art, in participating in a multi-generational discourse with previous artists, Spero was always more interested in the space between her art and contemporary events. It’s not that she wasn’t explicitly informed by art history, she just chose not to self-consciously bask in sizing herself up with the past. For Spero art history was not an oval around which she made left turns, but a straight road to now.
On Tuesday I called Connie Butler, the chief curator of MoMA’s drawings department. In 2007 Butler curated WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, an audacious survey show of feminist art. We talked about Spero.
MAN: Thanks for chatting with me. I wanted to talk with you in particular because you just came through doing WACK! and I thought that maybe that experience might have given you the opportunity to re-examine a group of artists within the context of not just each other, but within a broader context. I wanted to know how you came out of that process thinking about Nancy Spero.
Connie Butler: I ended up having a much deeper appreciation for the work after going through that process. I didn’t know the work so well before doing WACK! Even though I had seen the work over the years there hadn’t been many exhibitions in this country. I expected, as I got to know her, that I would find an incredibly formidable person there — and she was. [Image: Search and Destroy (detail), 1967.]
I last saw her about six months ago. She had this incredible force of her politics and her belief in the importance of dealing with, really, the big issues of life and death, birth, sexuality. She was a hugely strong personality and that was a thrill to get to know. She had all those things — and in such a frail body in the last years.
She was one of my early visits for WACK! I was working on that show in 2002 when there was a show at Guild Hall on Long Island and at White Columns. Both were explicitly feminist exhibitions. There had just been a great write-up in the NYT. So after seeing those two shows I visited Nancy to ask her to be in my show and to make a selection of her work.
She said to me, ‘What more could you possibly say about this feminist work that hasn’t been in those two exhibits there?’ There was also something about what she had set up for me to see in her studio – it was something relatively small, some work that she had pulled out of a drawer or such. I just had this feeling of how she was emblematic to me of the diminished expectations that a lot of women of her generation had, that she couldn’t see that no one had done a major exhibition on this topic and she couldn’t see that someone would – or should.
So in a way, at first, that puzzled me… but then, as it turned out, this was something I kept experiencing. I visited Nancy relatively early on in the process of working on WACK!, and as it turned out, I experienced this same thing over and over again. It was most marked with her because she’s one of the women in the show who had the biggest careers. And yet when I visited her, still she pulled out maybe four small fragments for me to see and I thought, ‘Come on! You’re a major, major figure! You should be telling me you want major real estate! An entire wall!’ It’s not like she wasn’t strong or that she was shy, you know. [Image: Cri du Coeur (detail), 2005.)
MAN: Your show had a major impact. I don't know how to put this, but she's been 'trending up,' it seems.
CB: She was certainly front-and-center in Rob Storr's Venice Biennale. As she became more and more frail she wasn't able to travel and see some of these shows that really celebrated her work. But yes, I think in recent years she began to get her due, particularly with the American audience. As there has been more interest recently in figuration and in the socio-political context of art there's been a move to broaden the consideration of her work.
MAN: Is there any part of her work that you've been thinking about lately or that you think deserves some extra thought now?
CB: I think 'Torture of Women' is certainly one of her most important bodies of work, but lately and maybe since the [Galerie Lelong] show in the spring I’ve been thinking about the early war drawings. I think they’re so gut wrenching and so incredibly simple and minimal in terms of their gesture and composition but so, so powerful. I think they’re kind of extraordinary.
MAN: Did Nancy Spero become so identified as a feminist or as a ‘political’ artist that she became hard to consider as just an artist?
CB:This is going to maybe sound weird or perhaps it’s an experience that’s too personal to my own history. I didn’t come to her first as a feminist artist. My feeling is that she really emerges into the consciousness of the art world is really in the 1980s, and not really within the context of feminism, where she’d been active since the late 1960s. You might be right, but maybe that’s because in more recent years that the work has been associated with feminism. [Ed.: After Butler and I did this Q&A, I noticed that the NYT headlined its obituary: "Nancy Spero, Artist of Feminism, is Dead at 83."] In addition to those in Europe such as Catherine de Zegher or Manuel Borja-Villel and Rosario Peiró, she’s been championed by a number of wonderful American curators who weren’t necessarily associated with feminism, curators such as Ro
Storr, Elizabeth Smith and Susan Harris.
That’s an interesting turn of events if you think about the arc of her career. Turning her back into a feminist is interesting. If you go back to the Vietnam War drawings, her feminism emerges out of her political feelings about a range of other issues: the Vietnam war and civil rights and such. She and Leon Golub were actively protesting on a lot of fronts before she began making explicitly feminist work into the 1970s.
MAN: Maybe it’s just that the curators and people I talk to tend to be around my age, and that’s a generation of folks that grew up after the 1988 Elizabeth Smith show at MOCA and so on. [Ed.: MOCA's exhibition archive is down. When it's up, I'll insert a link to the show.] I mean, when I’ve seen Spero it’s hit me in the gut. But perhaps in recent years the Vietnam stuff and other work has been on view in museums less than the feminist work? Most of the Spero I’ve seen in the last couple years has been at MoMA, in fact. And it’s been really meaningful to me.
CB: What you’re getting at is right though. It’s maybe partly because you’re younger than I am and I did see the shows in the late ’80s when, for my generation of curators and scholars, the 1970s and feminist art were the distant past and still unmined territory. But I think probably what you’re getting at is right–because the work is figurative and because it’s figurative in a very particular way. In fact, not only that, it’s also the kind of mythologies she’s dealing with, such as the female goddess mythology which was, in a way, verboten in the 1980s.
It’s possible that more to the point is her work being political at all – maybe if it’s had a more gradual build and reception it’s partly because of that. Not unlike Leon’s work, which was explicitly political and sexual and often very raw. I think political art has always had trouble reaching broad critical reception, possibly until right now.
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