No Images of Man: On Nancy Spero

No Images of Man: On Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero began using only the female figure in her paintings to push back the limits of her world.


"The limits of my language," Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared, "are the limits of my world." One of the most notorious limits of our language, and one that has done much to limit our world, is "man" being the embodiment of humanity. That the pronoun "he" can represent indifferently "he" or "she," that "man" represents "man" or "woman": these are grammatical traces of the phenomenon that Simone de Beauvoir made the starting point of The Second Sex more than sixty years ago: "humanity is male and defines woman not in herself but relative to him."

Seen in this light, when Nancy Spero began using only the female figure in her paintings in 1976—paintings that by this time were more like what most people would call drawings—she was doing more than simply adjusting her pictorial style or focusing her subject matter. As Spero explained a few years later, "I decided to view women and men by representing women, not just to reverse conventional history, but to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women." That is, she was trying, in the way that was open to her as an artist, to change language, to pictographically use "she" or "woman" as her universal term. Her goal was not to overturn the hierarchy and put women on top, because she knew from experience that the effort to make a particular term play the part of the universal could lead only to violent contradiction; rather, she was doing it speculatively, as a thought experiment, in order to see differently, to push back the limits of her world.

The idea of eliminating "man" from painting was not new; what was original was Spero’s realization that this could be done by interpreting "man" to mean "male." In 1959 New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition called "New Images of Man," focusing on the figurative expressionism that was an important part of the postwar scene, thanks in part to the work of Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti. For Paul Tillich, writing in the catalog of that exhibition, the assumption was that when, "in abstract or non-objective painting and sculpture, the figure disappears completely," the reason is that man is "losing his humanity and becoming a thing amongst the things he produces." The new figurative artists, he suggested, acknowledge this danger and protest against it. Among the younger artists included in the MoMA show was Spero’s husband, Leon Golub; her work would have fit just as well.

For the most influential tastemakers in New York, the exhibition was a fiasco, the ideas behind it indefensible; abstraction was the only way forward. As Christopher Lyon writes in Nancy Spero: The Work (Prestel; $85), a comprehensive study of the artist, "The event was attacked by critics as a retrograde exercise and was a professional disaster for Golub, who was ferociously criticized by William Rubin, then a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and later the powerful director of the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture." Rubin, the champion of such contemporaries as Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, singled out Golub’s work as "inflated, archaizing, phonily expressive, badly painted."

As hard as this must have hit Golub, it could have affected Spero no less acutely. In interviews Spero never hesitated to admit that much of the anger that fueled her early work was caused by the feeling that her art was being ignored, that she was being silenced by an unsympathetic art world—a "very painful, personal experience." At this point, not only an artist but also a wife and mother in a world not yet shaken by The Feminine Mystique, she might have stifled whatever resentment she must have felt that her husband had been chosen for the prestigious museum show and not herself. But seeing the high price Golub had to pay for this recognition would have been doubly painful, adding guilt to her other hard-to-acknowledge feelings. Perhaps it was then that Spero began to question the language according to which, as Tillich’s almost comically gendered language would have it, "Whenever a new period is conceived in the womb of the preceding period, a new image of man pushes towards the surface and finally breaks through to find its artists and philosophers." Whatever the case, Spero would later show that it was possible to make important paintings, not with new images of man but with no images of man.

On the face of it, Spero’s sacrifice of the male figure was hardly as radical a restraint on her pictorial language as that achieved by some abstractionists, but in her hands the artistic consequences of this reduction were enormous. Ironically, some women had a harder time with her work than men did. In the 1980s young feminist critics enamored of the new photographically based art of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger dismissed Spero’s hand-rendered, historically grounded, woman-centered imagery as promoting essentialism, a charge the artist hotly denied: "I try to indicate the range of differences as coded in a variety of female images," she maintained. "I try to emphasize this diversity, sometimes with shocking contrast and disjunctions." Although Spero rightly thought of herself as bucking most of the artistic trends of her time—above all abstraction, in the 1950s, when she was a young artist finding her way, and later, in the ’70s, conceptual art—her wager that she could expand her art by reducing it to an essence was the consummate Modernist move. Piet Mondrian, for instance, never felt that by eliminating representation, by eliminating lines other than horizontal or vertical, and colors other than the three primaries plus black and white, he was narrowing his art. On the contrary, through this "elementarization" he hoped to make his art as universal as possible, and in such a way that he could practice it with complete freedom and spontaneity. Spero’s gamble in sacrificing the image of man was much the same, and like Mondrian’s it paid off.

* * *

Unfortunately, the exhibition of Spero’s work on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through January 10 (curated by Jonas Storsve) showcases only part of her achievement. Though billed as a retrospective, it’s not. A viewer’s first reaction might be disappointment at the show’s scale: there are just four rooms with sixty-two works, all on paper. But for such a small show, it’s very big. The more attention you give it, the more its density and breadth become apparent.

The restriction to works on paper is not the problem. It reflects a turn in Spero’s career nearly as important as her decision to eschew the male figure. In 1966 she stopped working on canvas and started working on paper—though she continued to refer to her works as paintings. For two decades paper was her exclusive medium, until she began making site-specific wall paintings in the late ’80s. Lyon calls these latter works "peripheral monuments," evoking "images glimpsed at the edge of vision, fragments that seem to be remnants of a vast ruined fresco, of which just a few figures survive." Usually they were temporary, painted over at the end of an exhibition. Planning for the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou began while Spero, who died in 2009, at 83, was still alive; perhaps if she were still with us she would have supervised the installation of one or more such wall works. I can’t help wondering whether they can be remade without her—or will they be known henceforth only through period photographs?

More surprising, especially for viewers looking for an overview of Spero’s work, is the show’s near-exclusive focus on the early and late phases of her career and its neglect of what came in between. As if to illustrate the truism that there are no second acts in American lives, Storsve stages only the first and third acts of Spero’s career. There are fifty works dated between 1956 and 1974 and ten finished between 1997 and 2002, with just one each from 1978 and 1986 to fill in the gap. In sum, fifty of the sixty-two works on display date from before the period when women became the universal protagonists of Spero’s art.

However questionable this may be from the standpoint of showing Spero’s development, it dramatizes the enormous change her work underwent over the years. In the first three rooms, covering the period through the 1980s, color and imagery are sparse; in many of the works through 1960 the figures—pairs of lovers, a mother and child—almost disintegrate into a brownish-gray haze. Of the paintings from these years, Spero recalled, "The figures would become obscure and they would merge with the background." But it seems more accurate to say that, at least in some of them, the figures are so buried in the surrounding murk that they become its background. By the mid-’60s, this gloomy haze had lifted. The works of this period, with few exceptions, are dominated by the white of the paper. The imagery and inscriptions that were becoming more important components of the works seem to sit uneasily on these sheets in a frail and transitory state. The images are like discrete, punctual cuts or holes in the continuity of space.

In the fourth room—which is dominated by the vast, thirty-nine-part (some 280 feet long) cycle Azur (2002)—there is a new density of imagery, and with it the grandeur evoked by a rich sense of color. By this time, Spero was working with an alphabet of hundreds of female hieroglyphs, some of her own invention, many drawn from the furthest reaches of cultural history. No longer reactive to a text, cut free from any narrative, the figures mingle in uninhibited visual converse. The work illuminates the actual space of the room, taking on "the fragile, naked radiance of what is newly born and utterly alone." The words are those of Pierre Schneider, speaking of the late cutouts of Henri Matisse. I’m not evoking a comparison with Matisse simply in order to lend Spero some of the reflected luster of a great name—she hardly needs it—but because her effort to unmoor painting from the Western tradition finally did converge with Matisse’s earlier one. It’s a surprising connection. When MoMA mounted a Matisse retrospective in 1993, Spero was scathing about the way, at a certain point, "Matisse seems to disengage from experimentation and assume the position of the maître," resulting in an art in which the "world is extraordinarily unreal, sealed, everything is under control." Spero complained as well that "in many works the model appears to be featureless," assuming this featurelessness entailed disposability. Matisse explained it differently. "The face is anonymous," he said, "because the expression is carried by the whole picture." Spero, too, often sought such anonymity in her work. "I am not interested in individual physiognomies or personifications," she wrote. "The work deals with the rhythms, stylizations, often distorted or exaggerated variations or contrasts of body types from disparate cultures." Expressive anonymity was part and parcel of both Matisse’s and Spero’s efforts to liberate painting from the constraints of the easel picture and allow it to interact more freely with architecture; it also grew from the concerted effort each of them made to inform their work with a kind of total art history in which the European classical tradition would be only one strand.

And isn’t Spero, after Matisse, the great painter of the dance? She depicts two sides of female experience—torment and victimization, on the one hand, but also activity, untrammeled movement, the celebration of one’s own energies, on the other. Although her work never forgot the victims, not for a minute, with time the celebratory, even utopian side of the equation took precedence. Still, the solemnity of the luxuriant color of late works like Azur suggests that even the celebration of sensuality can be mindful of all that has to be overcome in order for that celebration to be justified. But there is lightness too, albeit less than in Spero’s late wall paintings, with their more transparent colors amid expanses of white that remain unbounded. (In this they are nearly the antithesis of the long scroll-like forms Spero made in the 1970s, which are works dominated by the white of the paper, where the extendibility of the format mainly evokes the possibility of elaborating more numerously and in greater detail the crimes being protested.) Matisse, speaking of his chapel in Vence, explained, "This lightness arouses feelings of release, of obstacles cleared, so that my chapel is not ‘Brothers, we must die.’ It is rather ‘Brothers, we must live!’" Spero’s late work embodies this same sense of release. "Sisters, we must live!" could be its motto.

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.

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