Artist and activist Nancy Spero (American, 1926–2009) produced a radical body of work that confronted oppression and inequality while challenging the aesthetic orthodoxies of contemporary art. Among the first feminist artists, Spero drew on archetypal representations of women across various cultures and times in an attempt to reframe history itself from a perspective that she termed “woman as protagonist.” Organized by artist and curator Julie Ault, Paper Mirror traces the full arc of Spero’s artistic evolution, bringing together more than 100 works made over six decades in the first major museum exhibition in the US since the artist’s death in 2009.
Spero began her career as a figurative painter in Paris during the 1950s; for her, choices of material, form, and subject were always political. In the 1960s, faced with the atrocities of the Vietnam War, she concluded that painting had become “too conventional, too establishment.” Abandoning canvas for paper, Spero’s The War Series (1966–70) conveyed her outrage in depictions of sexualized bombs that personified the gendered brutality of the conflict. From 1966 onward, she worked primarily on paper―pinning her fragile compositions directly to the wall―and women’s history gradually but emphatically became the central subject of her art.
In her scroll-like compositions of the early 1970s, Spero appropriated the French poet Antonin Artaud’s language of “cruelty” to evoke her self-described “loss of tongue” as a female artist in a male-dominated art world. Placing fragments of text alongside female figures derived from a vast range of sources across history, Spero probed the gendered relationship between language and power. Using hand printing, she recycled and transposed a recurring cast of figures that dance, glide, leap, run, and tumble from one work to the next. Collaged together from mythology, folklore, art history, literature, and media―and presented in increasingly experimental formats, from scrolls to friezes and room-sized installations―Spero described her works as “ephemeral monuments” to the full range of women’s experience: tragic and triumphant, degraded and powerful, victimized and liberated.
Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror surveys the full scope of Spero’s career, including her Black Paintings of the 1950s; the War Series of the 1960s; the Artaud works of the 1970s; the Licit Exp and Hours of the Nights series of 1974; as well as numerous works from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The MoMA PS1 presentation of the exhibition will include the artist’s monumental work Notes in Time on Women (1979–81), a 200-foot-long frieze from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, on view for the first time in more than a decade. Also featured is the large-scale installation Maypole: Take No Prisoners (2007), the last major work the artist completed before her death, originally realized for the Venice Biennale. Installed in MoMA PS1’s first-floor Duplex gallery, the work consists of a 20-foot vertical steel pole from which images of decapitated heads are suspended by ribbons and metal chains. Created during the Iraq War but derived from Spero’s earlier drawings that responded to the Vietnam War, Maypole provokes inquiry into the cyclical nature of history, war, and its victims. In addition, the exhibition includes a selection of documentary films by Irene Sosa, which feature original footage of Spero at work.