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Nancy Spero (American, 1926–2009)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1945 to 1949 and in Paris at the Atelier André Lhote and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1949–50). While a student in Chicago, Spero was fascinated by artefacts at the Field Museum of Natural History, especially objects from New Guinea and the New Hebrides and totems from Alaska.

From the late 1950s Spero was consistently concerned with showing how the idea of woman as man’s inferior had become inherent in male-dominated Western history. Her early dark oil paintings, such as Lovers (1962–5; priv. col., see 1985 exh. cat., p. 14), stress male and female erotic desire as a way of briefly unifying sexual polarities. Yet in these schematic and sensuous scenes, the woman is pictured only in the isolated roles of mother, lover and prostitute. In 1966 her dissatisfaction with the commercial demands of New York galleries led her to stop making easel paintings, and she began to work on paper, portraying the violent abuses of imbalanced power relations between the sexes, and the horrors of the Vietnam War, in her subject-matter. Her almost childlike gouache and ink paper works (e.g. Crematorium Chimney and Victims, 1968; priv. col., see Kuspit, p. 90) interpret the male phallus as a symbol of destruction.

Spero’s use of the printed and typed word in her collages of the 1970s, first appearing in her Codex Artaud series (1971–3), more explicitly underlined the patriarchal system’s isolation and rejection of those it saw as outsiders. In the 1980s she promoted the possibilities for reordering history and reformulating women’s identities through her collages employing the ancient format of the scroll and depicting the human body in pictographic language.

Andrea Liss
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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