No Images of Man: On Nancy Spero
A more complete exhibition than the one at the Centre Pompidou would undoubtedly give a better articulated sense of how protest and celebration intertwined in Spero's work through the decades, of how the antagonistic fury of the '60s and '70s was subsumed (but not subdued) into the Dionysian art of the new millennium. "Woman in Motion," a smaller show in Paris, at Galerie Lelong, with a dozen or so works, offers at least a few more glimpses of Spero's direction in the '80s and '90s. But the Pompidou show, with its emphasis on her early work, draws more attention to the protest. Protest is as muted as possible in the unspecified existential gloom of the work from the late '50s. There is something tragic about these faceless lovers, as if they are surmounted by a destiny that surrounds them like a cloud of poison. Spero's discovery of a political reason for tragedy, in her antiwar drawings of the mid-'60s, brought new clarity. New energy too: the difference between the two bodies of work is the difference between a postcatastrophic state from which escape is no longer possible and a situation in which a shrill warning still might help make a difference.
In 1969 Spero found a new focus for her imagination: the figure of the French writer and director Antonin Artaud. He was the inspiration for two works: the "Artaud Paintings" (on paper, of course) of 1969–70, a series of ninety pieces from which Storsve has selected fifteen; and the "Codex Artaud" (1971–72), a series of thirty-seven collages of which seven are on view. Spero saw Artaud as "having uttered the most extreme expressions of dislocation and alienation in the 20th century. He represents himself as the victim par excellence. While violent in gesture and language, he is masochistic and passive. Nevertheless, he plays the part of the female victim." Spero's identification with Artaud was aggressive, even vengeful, in the sense that she understood that he would have seen it as a violation; a misogynist, he "would have hated a woman re-using his language and shifting his implications."
Lyon rightly calls the Artaud works "the pivot" of Spero's career. The "Artaud Paintings" look back at the anguished protest of the "War Series" and the anomie of the work of the '50s, in some measure combining them, but still within the confines of work entirely painted (and also written) by hand. "Codex Artaud" looks forward to Spero's later work. Its scroll-like accumulations of sheets show her chafing at the limits of the pictorial rectangle and reaching toward a different conception of pictorial space that is scattered and nonhierarchical. Also, the hand of the artist is put at a remove. The texts are not handwritten but typed, usually on a "bulletin typewriter" meant for preparing notices to be read at a distance, and the images are not painted directly onto the paper but collaged onto it; the images are also often repeated with small variations, anticipating the use of printing in her later works.
A codex is quite simply a book (as distinguished from earlier textual forms), but the word is usually used to refer to handwritten books such as those of the Middle Ages. The name "Codex Artaud" calls attention to the booklike status of the works as carriers of text and image on multiple pages, but their display on the wall contradicts this. A scroll, unlike a bound book, can be displayed at once in its entirety. It exists somewhere in between the distinct forms of the book and the self-contained picture. Of Spero's work in this new format, The Nation's art critic at the time, Lawrence Alloway, wrote, "It expresses ideas no less ambitious than painting and on a scale comparable to sculpture. There has been a dilation of drawing to room size, as in the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt.... Spero expands collage to environmental scale without losing that subtle fragmentation of diverse parts central to the tradition of collage."
There is something a little bit perverse about packing such an expansive work back into the delimiting form of a book, but it's hard to be too critical of another recent publication that does just that. Torture of Women (Siglio; $48) reproduces one of Spero's most important works of the 1970s, along with several texts including an interpretive essay by Diana Nemiroff, the Canadian curator who acquired Torture of Women for the National Gallery of Canada. In book form, spread out over some 100 pages of reproductions, the fourteen panels become far more readerly than they must be when displayed on walls; the exquisite balance between image and text is upset. By the same token, the unavoidable reaction of averting one's eyes, and skipping over some of the horrifying stories of political torture taken from a 1975 report by Amnesty International, becomes harder to maintain. I won't quote any of the stories here, but I instead reproduce Spero's citation of the Babylonian tale of the god Marduk and his defeat of the female monster Tiamat—a text also used in part in her 1986 work Marduk: "marduk caught tiamat in his net and drove the winds which he had with him into her body and whilst her belly was thus distended he thrust his spear into her and stabbed her to the heart and cut through her bowels and crushed her skull with his club. On her body he took his stand and with his knife he split it like a flat fish into two halves and of one of these he made a covering for the heavens."
As Spero juxtaposes ancient myth with contemporary crimes of the state in Vietnam, Chile, Uruguay, Iran and elsewhere, one might be tempted to imagine that she is pointing to the grim notion that hatred of women, a recurrent male need to take his stand on her body in order to create the glorious mantle of the sky, is an unchangeable archetypal pattern destined to be reproduced in different forms. Nothing could be further from the truth. The accusatory vehemence of Spero's testimony, and the subdued visual presence of the goddesses and other female figures who serve as witnesses, remind us that judgment has yet to be rendered and suggests that one day it will.