Artist and activist Nancy Spero (American, 1926–2009) produced a radical body of work that confronted oppression and inequality while challenging the aesthetic orthodoxies of contemporary art.
Spero drew on archetypal representations of women across various cultures and times in an attempt to reframe history itself from a perspective that she termed “woman as protagonist.” Organized by artist and curator Julie Ault, Paper Mirror traces the full arc of Spero’s artistic evolution, bringing together more than 100 works made over six decades in the first major museum exhibition in the US since the artist’s death in 2009.
Spero began her career as a figurative painter in Paris during the 1950s; for her, choices of material, form, and subject were always political. In the 1960s, faced with the atrocities of the Vietnam War, she concluded that painting had become “too conventional, too establishment.” Abandoning canvas for paper, Spero’s The War Series (1966–70) conveyed her outrage in depictions of sexualized bombs that personified the gendered brutality of the conflict. From 1966 onward, she worked primarily on paper―pinning her fragile compositions directly to the wall―and women’s history gradually but emphatically became the central subject of her art.
In her scroll-like compositions of the early 1970s, Spero appropriated the French poet Antonin Artaud’s language of “cruelty” to evoke her self-described “loss of tongue” as a female artist in a male-dominated art world. Placing fragments of text alongside female figures derived from a vast range of sources across history, Spero probed the gendered relationship between language and power. Using hand printing, she recycled and transposed a recurring cast of figures that dance, glide, leap, run, and tumble from one work to the next. Collaged together from mythology, folklore, art history, literature, and media―and presented in increasingly experimental formats, from scrolls to friezes and room-sized installations―Spero described her works as “ephemeral monuments” to the full range of women’s experience: tragic and triumphant, degraded and powerful, victimized and liberated.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)