Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was a painter who, through her artwork and her direct political engagement, made sexism, racism, violence, and the abuse of power the main themes of her career. In the 1960s much of her work related to the Vietnam War; the War Series (1966-70) depicted rudimentary, phallic bombs and helicopters against plain white backgrounds. This technique, of drawing or painting isolated images on sheets of paper, sometimes with stamped typography and collage, became her signature. As, in the 1970s, she began to concentrate solely on the experiences and oppressive treatment of women, she developed a simplified vocabulary of forms: goddesses, gods, animals, monsters, and disembodied heads. Her work Torture in Chile(1974), for example, was a pale image of heads, geometric constructions, and snakes, hung below the printed words “Torture in Chile women reaching the Buen Pastor Jail have been subjected to the most brutal tortures live mice and insects introduced into vaginas hair pulled out by the handfuls nipples blown off or burnt genitals destroyed by electricity.”
Spero’s political interests in the 1970s ran parallel to the subjects that she was exploring in her artwork. In 1969 she joined the Art Workers Coalition, an organization that worked to address iniquities in the art world and in society in general (one of its main causes being an end to the Vietnam War). She also became active in Women Artists in Revolution and, in 1972, co-founded Artists in Residence (A.I.R.) Gallery, a cooperative exhibition space in New York for women artists.
Spero has received awards from the College Art Association, the Women’s Caucus for Art, Skowhegan, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.
Nancy Spero, Atom Bomb (1966). Gouache and ink on paper, 24" x 36" (Copyright: Estate of Nancy Spero, Images courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York).
Kline, Katy, and Helaine Posner. Leon Golub and Nancy Spero: War and Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT List Visual Arts Center, 1994.
Spero, Nancy. Nancy Spero. London: ICA, 1987.
———. Nancy Spero: The War Series: 1966-1970: Galerie Lelong. Milano: Charta, 2003.
Spero, Nancy, Jon Bird, Jo Anna Isaak, and Sylvère Lotringer. Nancy Spero. Contemporary Artists. London: Phaidon, 1996.
Spero, Nancy, Manuel J. Borja-Villel, Rosario Peiró, Mignon Nixon, B. H. D. Buchloh, and Hélène Cixous. Nancy Spero: Dissidances. Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2008.
Spero, Nancy and Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Nancy Spero. Conversation Series Cologne, Germany; 11. Köln; New York: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König; D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers Distributor, 2008.
Spero, Nancy, Kiki Smith, and Jon Bird. Other Worlds: The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith. Gateshead, Eng.; London: Baltic; Reaktion Books, 2003.