Social, political, and feminist activism has clearly been the impetus for Nancy Spero’s lifetime of work. Her art has been sustained by her involvement in protest of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and, particularly, for the last four decades, the women’s movement.
Spero was born in Ohio in 1926 and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949 and went on to study painting in Paris. During the years between 1959 and 1964, Spero had her first major solo exhibitions in Paris. These shows included a series now known as the “Black Paintings” theme continued in her work as she further explored social and political protest and her growing awareness of the subjugation of and violence towards women. Coupled with her growing feminist perspective in art form, she also became more aware of the absence of women’s art in a culturally male defined art world.
Upon her return from Europe in 1964, Spero was deeply disturbed by the horrific images of violence emerging out of both the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. She joined with Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam and it was this involvement that began Spero’s political activism and produced one of her most famous collections of work, “The War Series.” She dedicated her time and her art during the years between 1966 and 1970, which are a particular expression of her rage at the oppression and violence of the war. This same rage continued and showed in her paintings such as, “Torture in Chile” (1974) and “Torture of Women” (1976). These were direct protests against both the historical repression of women and the brutality directed towards women by Latin American dictatorships.
As her art focused on the struggle of women everywhere, she began to ascertain the particular struggle in the United States as the art world consistently and continuously resists the work of women artists. Thus, she became one of the co-founders of the A.I.R. (Artists In Residence) Gallery in New York City in 1972, the very first collective of women artists in the U.S.
In the years since then, Spero’s art has depicted women in many forms, but always from the basis of the political, and with the necessity to move the female figure away from the entrenched “male gaze” – creating a woman’s art, from and for a woman’s vision. Her insistent political engagement with women’s issues has given us such color prints as “We Are Pro-Choice”(1992), As an American-Jewish woman, Spero’s work has also focused historically on Jewish women, including those whose bodies and spirits were violated during Nazi Germany. Spero has spoken up for the tortured and “disappeared” women in the male dominated, war torn cultures of Latin America. Nonetheless, Spero’s artistic vision, has often given these same women forms which embrace incredible freedom and are celebratory in their expansiveness. Nancy Spero has said, “Even when the work is celebratory, I still hope it has subversion to it, in that all the protagonists are women. That it is we who are the activators. That is not the usual way of the world but it’s symbolic of the way the world could be.” Nancy Spero’s work is featured in many galleries including the Whitney Museum, the Jewish Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem and at the NYC MOMA.