"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."