Nancy Spero

“I decided to view women and men by representing women, not just to reverse history, but to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women. Collaged figures are superimposed in fast rhythms, accentuating individual destiny. I use collage in my recent work to increase the tempo of the actions of women in narrative and history.”

- Nancy Spero interview with Jon Bird, New York, 1986

Nancy Spero has always worked on the margins of the art world, independent of the major movements of her time. Her art is figurative, political, and emphatically feminist. Her rebellious stance towards mainstream art is reflected in her subject matter and in the modest materials she works with – sheets of paper, glued end to end to form scroll-like panels, hand-printed and collaged with cut-out painted figures and typed or printed words and sentences.

Nancy Spero received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949. While a student in Chicago, she was fascinated by artefacts at the Field Museum of Natural History, especially the objects from New Guinea, the New Hebrides and Alaska. She studied in Paris at the Atelier André Lhote and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from1949–50 . Between 1959-1964 she was back in Paris working on a series of “Black Paintings” which made existential statements about the self in dark, heavily-worked paintings. She gradually became dissatisfied with the laboured process of oil painting. She left Paris in 1964 to return to the United States. After five years of relative isolation in Paris, and newly politicized by the war in Vietnam, she turned to drawing. She produced a series of quick gouache-and-ink sketches of giant, insect-like helicopters and anthropomorphic bombs, which eject their victims.

By the beginning of the 1970s, Nancy Spero changed her style. She began to draw ideographic images inspired by ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, and Celtic sources. These she combined with wire-service photos and contemporary texts to create a visually spare but morally and psychologically intense narrative style. Spero saw an analogy between her own efforts to find her voice as an artist and the struggle of all women to be heard in a society that privileges masculine experience.

Torture of Women is her first explicitly feminist work. In this work she adopts a narrative form borrowed from the codex or frieze and turns it into a cry of outrage against acts of violence.

© Christopher Felver/CORBIS/MAGMA