Nancy Spero (1926–2009) made it her mission to challenge both the political and aesthetic norms of 20th-century American society. Two key targets are the glorification of war and the domination of men, which she countered in works – primarily on paper – drawing on women’s roles in history and myth. This large-scale survey includes more than 100 works, made throughout the course of Spero’s six-decade career.
An expression of her revulsion at the Vietnam War, Spero’s War Series (1966–69) reimagines the bombs dropped by US forces as grotesque, phallic creatures. These 150 drawings were the first major work Spero produced after deciding in 1966 to abandon oil on canvas, declaring the favoured medium of the Abstract Expressionists ‘too masculine’.
Language – the way it genders power or expresses violence – is a central theme in Spero’s art. Early experiments with language drew on the writings of Antonin Artaud; sources subsequently expanded to include war slogans, medieval manuscripts and the contemporary vernacular. Letterpress prints of short phrases, such as ‘body count’, ‘acid rain’ and ‘explicit explanation’, function both as standalone works and elements of larger collages.
Spero frequently derived the figures in her works from mythological depictions of women, from a vast range of cultures, seeking to reclaim their symbolic meaning. This collage depicts one of the enigmatic stone carvings known as Sheela-na-gigs, found on churches throughout northern Europe; they have variously been described as wards against evil and fertility charms.
The sky goddess Nut is often depicted in ancient Egyptian art arcing over the earth like an acrobat, her nude body adorned with stars. Spero adopted her image in a range of works in the early ’90s; in this frieze-like composition, Nut appears several times, alongside a range of ancient female figures both real and mythical, from musicians to Maenads.