Nancy Spero lived her life by the motto ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ – ‘As I breathe, I hope’. The retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery proves that even after her death in 2009 this resolution remains, in 50 years’ worth of work that continues to call for justice. Spero’s uncensored psychodramas have not received such a comprehensive display in the UK since her 1987 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. There are monstrous mothers, bleeding victims, jubilant deities and ejaculating men. In the central space, a palette of murky brown and green gives way to an ecstatic release of colour. Everywhere there are words – scratched in paint, stamped in typeface or cut from newspapers. The fragments crescendo like musical notes into an exhibition of feverish intensity.
The show opens with Maypole: Take No Prisoners II (2008), Spero’s final work, in which a host of victims’ heads hangs from steel chains and silk ribbons that speak to the ceremonial pomp of militarism. The installation was originally conceived for the 2007 Venice Biennale (this version was reconfigured the following year for an exhibition at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid), and in both instances Spero hoped that the faces she had ‘cannibalized’ from her 1960s responses to the Vietnam War would resonate with the Anglo-American involvement in Iraq. Today, the gently swaying severed heads (hung at head-height) take us to the recent revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Maypole is more a three-dimensional drawing than a sculpture, befitting an exhibition that began under the title ‘Oeuvre sur Papier’ (at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, curated by Jonas Storsve). Spero trained at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1945, when it was a centre of German Expressionism, before spending a year at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and at the studio of André Lhote. Painting remained an uncertain part of her practice until 1966 when she renounced oil on canvas as too ‘masculine’ a medium, in a gesture prompted by her marginalization from a male-dominated art world. Later in life, rheumatoid arthritis set into her hands, causing her to turn to print-making, producing epic works such as Azur (2002), an 85-metre-long panoply of iconic women, positioned at the heart of this exhibition. Throughout these shifts, paper was a delicate, almost live surface to which Spero returned. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her 1961 poem ‘Face Lift’, ‘skin doesn’t have roots, it peels away easy as paper’– an image that took on a horrific immediacy following the iconic photographs of napalm victims.
The earliest work here is the ‘Lovers’ series, which was begun in 1960, when Spero was living in Paris with her husband Leon Golub and their three young sons. The dark, brooding gouaches seem in line with the dominant painterly trend that made the picture plane into a site for introspection, yet titles such as The Great Mother and Birth (both 1960) demonstrate that subjective experience was also being turned to universal ends. Scrawled white letters drift above the gloom – ‘les anges’, ‘merde’, ‘fuck you’ – giving voice to a young mother torn between tenderness and disgust. Spero abandoned this series in 1964 when the family returned to New York and she began her war work. But these angry, scatological paintings were also made by ‘thinking as a mother’: the phantasmatic dimensions of war, as Mignon Nixon has argued, are written onto its machinery, in ‘sperm bombs’, and sexualized helicopters that relate to the infantile drives. In Female Bomb (1966) a poly-breasted torso explodes into a mushroom cloud of heads. The rapid washes of paint – a menstrual red flows between the legs while blue lines erupt from the neck – is at odds with the delicately drawn heads that ask the viewer to scrutinize these unpalatable scenes. Tongues jut from their mouths as a symbol of Spero’s defiance. As she wrote at the time: ‘I was literally sticking my tongue out at the world – a woman silenced, victimized, and brutalized.’
The tongue is a motif for the war resister or ‘screamer’, but also for the idea of ‘speaking in tongues’. A highlight of this exhibition is the ‘Codex Artaud’ series (1971), in which Spero acts as a ventriloquist for the French theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud. Typewritten bulletin text is set against excerpts from his published writings, transcribed with her right hand (she was left-handed) in order to distance herself from her handwriting. Bands of paper have been glued end to end like an Egyptian papyrus, and Spero’s characters, including the Egyptain goddess Nut, are interspersed like hieroglyphs. Mimicking a male voice could be an attempt to lend her own authority, yet Artaud (a self-confessed ‘madman’ who was given electro-shock treatment) is an effeminate choice given his propensity for hysterical rantings. Every citation is faithfully attended by the signature ‘Artaud’, and the endless iterations of his name become like an incantation to invoke his spirit as Spero finds her voice through identifying with a marginalized ‘other’. In one work, the letters of his name are endlessly typed out – five As, followed by five Rs and so on – until ‘Artaud’ becomes a defiant cry. As Hélène Cixous has written, Spero’s work registers as ‘paintscreams’ as the artist ‘signs the scream in paint’.