Nancy Spero


Graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949, Nancy Spero (born:1926) and her husband, political painter Leon Golub, moved to Paris: an ex-patriot protest against the repressive Cold War political and cultural paranoia of McCarthyism. In the mid 1960s, they returned to New York and a country at war. Spero said: “I started to think about how to address the war. I would do it in such a way as to show the collusion of sex and power, and I would do it in such a way as to shock the viewer. I wanted to be obscene, because the war was obscene.” Also reacting to, and resenting the fact that women’s voices were being dismissed by the art world, she attacked the Vietnam War in a spirit of defiance—both against the sadistic obscenity of the male exercise of power and the rejection of women’s art production, establishing herself as one of the primary feminist artists of her generation.

In 1974, Spero produced a seminal feminist artwork entitled “Torture of Women in Chile” about Chilean women political prisoners. This piece marks Spero’s decision to use only images of women in her work, as the subject and context within which to investigate and re-imagine power relations in the world. She embarked on a far-ranging revisionist history of the generative role of women in society, conjoining images as diverse as the Venus of Willendorf, the Neolithic Celtic Sheela-na-gig, the Greek Goddess Artemis, female athletes, go-go dancers, Egyptian women with lyres and flutes, Aboriginal female figures and acrobats. These figures are represented in an emphatically celebratory fashion, often raging, dancing, swooping and charging through the length of parchment hieroglyphic scrolls. The political radicalism of this artistic practice stemmed from Spero’s deliberate effort to distance her art from Western male-centric emphasis, relying instead on both ancient and contemporary “outsider” forms of visual language to re-imagine and reclaim the history of women’s lives. Her vibrant, engaged body of work has inspired generations of younger women artists, in the United States and around the globe.