Where Is The Torture of Women?

Louisiana’s Nancy Spero retrospective mishandles the legacy of a significant feminist artist.

Nancy Spero, Bomb, Dove and Victims (from ’War Series’), 1967.

Last week, just before Denmark’s borders were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, I caught the train from Stockholm to Humlebaek and Louisiana’s Nancy Spero retrospective. What fascinates me about Spero is her struggle with being an artist in contradictory and tumultuous times, not unlike ours. Her proposal during the 1960s and 70s was to hold traditional figurative painting up to those decades’ political and feminist content. This was quite original at the time, and, astonishingly, Spero seems to have accomplished it without compromise. I think the reason for this was that she also put herself at stake in her works. She was a woman in a patriarchal tradition and an artist in political times, but she always confronted the contradiction of those positions without cynicism or irony. Arguably, this conviction is why her work has remained significant.

Therefore, it was a great disappointment to realise that the presentation at Louisiana is a heavily diminished version of the exhibition that was put together by Museum Folkwang in Essen in 2019 and shown later that year at the Nordic Watercolour Museum in Skärhamn on Sweden’s west coast. Moreover, I found the presentation to be quite poorly installed, in a corridor-like sequence of rooms, making it difficult to approach the more complex works with the requisite concentration.

Nancy Spero, Who Needs, 1990.

The exhibition begins with a selection from Spero’s ‘War Series’, which she made between 1966 and 1971 in response to the American war in Vietnam. At this time, she had been working as an artist for almost two decades, but without receiving the same level of recognition as her husband, Leon Golub. ‘War Series’ came as a decisive step away from the traditional painting on canvas that she had been working on during the 1950s and early 60s, when she and her family were living in Italy and France. After moving to New York, Spero began painting with watercolours on regular cheap paper, and created images of exploding bombs and ejaculating penises intended to “shock” the audience and raise public opinion against the war – and against male oppression as such. It’s easy to imagine the aggressive scratches of paint as physical inscriptions of the imperialist violence that Spero disavowed.

Yet, ‘War Series’ was hardly a sudden revelation. Rather, it seems to me to be part of a consistent search for new subject matter and image solutions that persisted throughout Spero’s career. Her return to a more self-reflective approach is foreshadowed in works such as the ‘Paris Black Paintings’ from the early 1960s (which are not shown here) and reaches fruition in her work on the French author Antonin Artaud from the early 1970s, which is installed in the subsequent galleries. In contrast to ‘War Series’, this is not protest painting, but an attempt to approach Artaud’s experience of being silenced – of having his “tongue cut out” – with which she, as a woman artist, strongly identified.

Nevertheless, ‘Artaud Paintings’, which Spero began in 1969, aren’t actually that far from ‘War Series’. Collage and handwritten texts are incorporated into the compositions, which are often based on geometrical elements. Yet, the pictures have a similar expressive, “shocking”, quality. Codex Artaud (1971–1973) is completely different. Here, Spero cut and pasted pieces of paper into something resembling ancient scrolls. On the rolls, which are sometimes hung vertically and sometimes displayed as horizontal friezes, she attached typewritten poems and small characters reminiscent of hieroglyphics or concrete poetry. The idea was to break with the stereotypical male gaze and create a new form of visual art that could encompass experiences which had earlier been dismissed or pathologised. Artaud became Spero’s entrance into a new form of “peinture feminine,” which she developed during 1970s in a number of works on violence and abuse of women.

Nancy Spero, detail from the series ‘Black and Red III’, 1994.

To my dismay, Louisiana has chosen to omit Spero’s feminist works from that decade, such as the fourteen panels in the series ‘The Torture of Women’ (1973), which according to the catalogue were included in the original exhibition. These works grew out of the formal inventions of Codex Artaud, as well as out of Spero’s increasing involvement with the women’s movement and her role as a founding member of New York’s first female-separatist gallery, AIR (Artists-in-Residence) in 1972.

Instead, the presentation continues with Spero’s work from the 1980s and 90s when she became deeply preoccupied with historical images of dancing women and female goddesses. On the outside of a screening room built for the exhibition, the series ‘Black and Red III’ (1994) has been installed as long friezes covering the construction from floor to ceiling. The work consists of colour-saturated stencils depicting an all-female cast beaming with power and poise. With their archaic design, these powerful and vibrant friezes are meant to provoke a way of seeing that is less indoctrinated by the patriarchal and bourgeois values of modern society. Unfortunately, without Spero’s earlier renderings of the violence against women, these pictures risk coming across as frivolous and all-too timely attempts at ‘female empowerment.’

Generally speaking, it seems to me that the activist culture of the 1970s is often presented in a one-dimensional way, centring on how political forces ran rampant at the expense of art. There might be some truth to this, but it isn’t the whole story; the conservative backlash of the 1980s is not a fact of nature. Nevertheless, art that expresses political solidarity while being subtle and profound is routinely marginalised in contemporary discourse. I don’t know if such mechanisms are in play here; I can only note that Louisiana doesn’t do much to counter the stereotype, despite being handed an obvious opportunity.

Nancy Spero, Ballade von der ’Judenhure’ Marie Sanders, 1991.

Spero’s depictions of men’s violence against women are represented by a few later works displayed in a smaller adjacent room. This is quite astonishing, considering that she most surely was one of the first artists in history to tackle this subject in a systematic and pervasive way. The advantage of the secluded placement, however, is that it is possible to consider the works in peace and quiet. Which is necessary, as these are works in which the torture and execution of women – real historical women such as Masha Bruskina and Marie Sanders (whose tragic death is portrayed by Bertolt Brecht in his poem ‘Ballade von der “Judenhure”’) – are set against mythological and contemporary instances of women’s oppression rendered in texts partly, I think, inspired by wall posters during the Cultural Revolution in China.  

The result is exceptionally dense, juxtaposing different variant readings and documents through collage and layered colour prints which at times seem dangerously close to collapsing under their own historical and material weight. If this reflects Spero’s experience in making them, then it must have been emotionally and intellectually exhausting. I imagine she couldn’t work in any other way, which is arguably what makes her such a significant artist. Unfortunately, those who can make it to Louisiana won’t experience a retrospective that truly accounts for the complexity of her work. Spero was not a product of the anti-war movement, as this exhibition might suggest, but of a continuous struggle between a political and feminist ethos, on the one hand, and a humanist tradition in the visual arts, on the other.

Installation view from Nancy Spero Acts of Rebellion at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek.