Nancy Spero: Tell it slant

Nancy Spero
From Victimage to Liberation: Works from the 1980s & 1990s

Galerie Lelong
528 West 26th Street, NY, NY 10001
January 2-February 16, 2013

Nancy Spero, Picasso and Frederick's of Hollywood, 1990, handprinted collage on paper, 2 parts: 17.25 x 109.625 inches (43.8 x 278.4 cm) each© The Estate of Nancy Spero. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York

Nancy Spero, Picasso and Frederick’s of Hollywood, 1990, handprinted collage on paper, 2 parts: 17.25 x 109.625 inches (43.8 x 278.4 cm) each. © The Estate of Nancy Spero. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Are you more drawn to the identity of the artist as trickster?
LG: Sure. No more Mr. Nice Guy!
NS: Emily Dickinson said, “say it at a slant.”[1]

Hito Steyerl makes an analogy between the indeterminancy of missing persons and the 1935 thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger that became the primary means to visualize the “paradoxical superposition” of matter in quantum physics. For Schrödinger, a cat is both dead and alive in a closed box; until the box is opened, any potential state is as real as any actual state. As Steyerl describes it: “To acknowledge the roll of the observer in actively shaping reality is one of the main achievements of quantum theory. It’s not radiation or poison gas that ultimately decides the fate of the cat, but the fact that it is identified, seen, described, and assessed. Being subject to observation provokes the second death of the cat: the one that ends its state of limbo.”[2] (…or the second life of the cat, as both are possible.)

Is then the condition of “missing,” she contemplates, a state of being both dead and alive? Few accept the death of a loved one without evidence of physical remains – remains that are, as Steyerl notes, both wanted and dreaded – the conditions within Schrödinger’s state of limbo exposed. Steyerl, along with artists Harun Farocki and Rabih Mroué, speaks of poor images – those that “cannot give a comprehensive account of the situation [they are] supposed to represent” but instead reveal “the conditions that brought them into being.”[3] These are not the kind of images that present quantifiable evidence. But, concedes Steyerl, “if whatever [the poor image] tries to show is obscured, the conditions of its own visibility are plainly visible: it is a subaltern and indeterminate object, excluded from legitimate discourse, from becoming fact, subject to disavowal, indifference, and repression.”[4]

Nancy Spero, Argentina, 1981, handprinting and typewriter collage on paper, 26.5 x 40.5 inches (67.3 x 102.9 cm) © The Estate of Nancy Spero. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Nancy Spero, Argentina, 1981, handprinting and typewriter collage on paper, 26.5 x 40.5 inches (67.3 x 102.9 cm).
© The Estate of Nancy Spero. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Since the late 1960s and early 1970s when Nancy Spero created the War Series, Artaud Paintings and Codex Artaud, she strove for the validity of the poor image before its appearance in a new millennial discourse of resistance: the image that is hastily executed and viewed from peripheral vision – “slant” – glanced at rather than observed from a fixed and diagnostic point of view. Her images are mixed, messy, and their relations one to another are indeterminate. They travel historical time in a syncretic blend of eras and cultures. Movement is both a potential and a perpetual condition that promises more than a heroics of absolutism. Spero was, after all, working in the back alleys of the art world, obscured first by the avenues of Abstract Expressionism, then Minimalism and Conceptualism – grand boulevards where the figure had gone missing.

When he took my story away from me,
When he said it could never be spoken,
He might as well have cut my tongue out –
Or buried me alive.

In 1987, Spero wrote: “For many years when the work was not out, not acknowledged, I was silenced, lost my tongue, so to speak. Women talk but they do not speak in so far as they are, for the most [part], historically silenced.”[5] And so, in the frenetic tantrum of an Antigone determined to speak, she raged against the war in Vietnam, then stuck out her tongue through Artaud’s outcast libations. Spero abandoned oil on canvas – the medium of refinement – in favor of paper – article of the broadside and political pamphlet. She collected her imagery directly from news and popular culture but also from history. From 1973, she worked solely with images of women, collaging them into narratives of oppression and victimization but also of fighting, stomping, dancing, skating, and tumbling across a lively narrative of defiance.

Nancy Spero, Invocation, 1995, handprinting and printed collage on paper, 19.5 x 96.5 inches (49.5 x 245.1 cm)© The Estate of Nancy Spero, Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Nancy Spero, Invocation, 1995, handprinting and printed collage on paper, 19.5 x 96.5 inches (49.5 x 245.1 cm).
© The Estate of Nancy Spero, Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Judith Herman in her seminal study Trauma and Recovery (1992) refused to distinguish between trauma caused by conflict and war and that caused by sexual violence. Spero has consistently and persuasively implicated collusion between these two tongues of domination. And as we see in an exhibition at Galerie Lelong – Nancy Spero, From Victimage to Liberation: Works from the 1980s & 1990s – the artist refused to go underground with her protest. If she weren’t invited onto center stage she would craft her own, keeping the female figure present and active. In Antigone’s Claims (2000), Judith Butler considers the legacy of women’s relation to family and state. Antigone speaks at great risk but is her fate – to be buried alive – any different than the fate decreed by the restrictions on her speech and actions? Is she not, in other words, already dead, her tongue cut out – the restriction against speech akin to being buried alive?

Nancy Spero, The Underworld, 1997, handprinting and printed collage on paper, 63 x 19 inches (160 x 48.3 cm)© The Estate of Nancy Spero. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

Nancy Spero, The Underworld, 1997, handprinting and printed collage on paper, 63 x 19 inches (160 x 48.3 cm)
© The Estate of Nancy Spero. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

In the small gallery, protest images decry the arrest, mistreatment, and often disappearance of women. In Argentina and South Africa (both from 1981), transcripts from Amnesty International reports typed in all caps on a bulletin typewriter are over-printed with women collapsed, crawling, but also angrily protesting across a solid ground the color of bloodstained earth. In El Salvador (1986) a mother shelters her infant as she runs across the lower quadrant of the sheet while another woman exhausted opens her mouth to the night blue of the paper sky. Repetition of the figures represents the urgency of the messenger but also momentum and multitudes. Desaparecidos – during Argentina’s Dirty War an estimated 30,000 citizens disappeared – this state of limbo, between life and death, has become a prevalent tactic of repression, eliminating as it does the right of habeas corpus.

It is difficult to remain intact through anger and despair and so Spero refused to lock her characters into predictability. In the main gallery, their entrances and exits, pitfalls and ascensions, reiteration and juxtaposition assure a dynamic diversity with complex layers of meaning. Who could pin down the significance of a limbed and tentacled organ menacing a stylized pin-up while Picasso’s bulbous monster stumbles across the open field of Picasso and Frederick’s of Hollywood (1990)? Humor entered Spero’s script, along with reverence and jubilation while retaining always…a sense of endurance. In contradiction to repeated attacks of goddess worship and ahistorical narratives, Spero referenced specific countries, particular women, and documented crimes against women partisans of the resistance movement – the hanging of Masha Bruskina by the Gestapo in 1941 being evident in Invocation (1995). And, yes, she also collapses time offering an extended procession of mourning while Nekhbet, the Egyptian vulture goddess, gives life to the heroine’s memory by recognizing the injustice committed.

In Sophocle’s narrative, Antigone is lead alive into her tomb and closed there in limbo, both dead and alive until the box is opened and it is observed that she has hung herself. In this way, Masha Bruskina can be read as a twentieth-century Antigone, just as Spero infers there will no doubt be more in the twenty-first. But for Spero life and death co-exist without vanquishing one or the other. In the vertical scroll of The Underworld (1997) a naked figure dances jubilantly across a red field. Below her on a checkered plain slither human-headed snakes with protruding tongues while a woman kisses the devil’s ass. Above a gorgon floats across a gold-emblazoned sky that envelopes the figure’s head and upraised arms. The paradoxical superposition of matter is the coexistence of rage with rejoicing; in overcoming the specter of silence…tell it slant.

Kathleen MacQueen, February 7, 2013


[1] John Roberts, “Nancy Spero + Leon Golub” in Everything Magazine 33 (2000), 2-6. Emily Dickinson’s advice was actually to “tell it slant”: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise // As Lightning to the Children eased / With explanation kind / The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind —

[2] Hito Steyerl, “Missing People: Entanglement, Superimposition, and Exhumation as Sites of Indeterminancy” in The Wretched of the Screen (an e-flux journal) (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 139-40.

[3] Ibid, 256-8. The poor image, in other words, speaks to the conditions of its making, of “the edges, gaps, and rifts of rugged and glossy images, of low-resolution monads left in fractional space, registering their tectonic profile, feeling their bruises, fully confident that the impossible can and indeed will happen.” Hito Steyerl exhibited her video installations at e-flux gallery, 311 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002, from October 4, 2012 – January 5, 2013.

[4] Ibid, 256.

[5] Nancy Spero, “Substitutes for My Body” in Artforum (March 1988), 103-105.

7 comments

  1. Kathleen, Thank you for doing justice to the Nancy Spero exhibition, which I admired greatly but did not feel competent to write about.

  2. Incredible. Thanks.

  3. Thank you Ashana and Elizabeth! I was writing in the shadow of some fabulous critics and visual historians including Jon Bird, Jeanne Siegel, and Jo Anna Isaak but the recent exhibition by Hito Steyerl was fresh in my mind and I started there! Then worked through my own response to silence, KMQ

  4. I’ve been a big admirer of Spero’s work since the Centre Pompidou 2010 exhibit of her work. Her rejection of oil on canvas was so important for me as a rejection of dominant (often patriarchal) art world conventions. I wish I could be in New York to see this show, thanks so much for sharing.

  5. I think use of any medium is o.k. but it is so important to understand that medium functions as both means and meaning! some of which is imbedded in history along with the artist’s intention…For example, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hans Arp created needlepoint works “to avoid any reminiscence of canvas painting, which we regarded as characteristic of a pretentious and conceited world.” You can see them at MoMA’s exhibition: “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.”

  6. Kathleen,
    This is a beautifully written piece. The use of Antigone is quite powerful. I can remember the great sadness and shock I felt while seeing for the first time her “Torture in Chile” series. But it was unclear whether the sadness came from the image and the explicate articulations of the means of torture used in Chile, or the fact that it was not being stopped. It seemed that the articulation/depiction alone was enough to have stopped it. But as we know, with few exceptions, this is not the case. Spero brought attention to this socio-psychopathology–the inability to hear what is said (see what is depicted) is the echo of the silenced tongue.

    Also, per the comment about rejecting painting as a rejection of art world conventions… definitely this is the case, but also works on paper are somehow more intimate and I think this makes her work more powerful–perhaps an aesthetic, as well as political choice.

  7. Jill, Yes, the silenced tongue and the deafened ear…I think the use of paper also reflects the fragility of the subject matter and, yet, also its flexibility, immediacy, and resonance. Thanks for your comment!