Nancy Spero

About the Artist

You snake, I ate the true belief
Good Lord that fruit inside of me
Oh Adam, please, you must believe
That snake put it in front of me
PJ Harvey - Snake

The American artist Nancy Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1926. In her 20’s, she attended the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1949 and following her American studies with a year at the École Des Beaux Arts in Paris.

 Spero is known for depictions of women and family that trouble or subvert dominant narratives. The theme of “mother and child” is frequent in her early work of the 1950s; indeed, it is a common theme throughout much of Western art history, with Spero following in the footsteps of Da Vinci and Picasso. While it is usually a theme treated in a celebratory way, Spero’s "mother and child” works are dark, hazy images, with the title figures only barely discernible through the oily, visual smog. Spero is suspicious of attitudes towards women and their mistreatment at the hands of men through history, and this is apparent in her  feministFeminism essentially comprises a number of social, cultural and political movements, theories and philosophies concerned with gender inequalities, and equal rights for people of all genders. Especially since the late 1960s, when the feminist art movement can be said to have emerged, women have been particularly interested in what makes them different from males — what makes women artists and their art different from male artists and their art. This has been most prominent in the United States, Britain, and Germany, although there are numerous precursors to the movement, and it has spread to many other cultures since the 1970s. Feminists point out that throughout most of recorded history males have imposed patriarchal (father-centered) social systems (in which they have dominated females). Although it is not the goal of this article to recount the development of feminist theory in full, the history of feminist art cannot be understood apart from it. Feminist theory must take into account the circumstances of most women's lives as mothers, household workers, and caregivers, in addition to the pervasive misconception that women are genetically inferior to men. Feminist art notes that significant in the dominant (meaning especially Western) culture's patriarchal heritage is the preponderance of art made by males, and for male audiences, sometimes transgressing against females. Men have maintained a studio system which has excluded women from training as artists, a gallery system that has kept them from exhibiting and selling their work, as well as from being collected by museums — albeit somewhat less in recent years than before. (Artlex.com)  artwork.  (See Nancy Spero at Artnet, Mother and Child (1) for an example.)

Roman SculptureShe and her husband, fellow artist Leon Golub, lived in Italy from 1956-57. During this time, she began to draw inspiration from Roman depictions of the human  formIn its widest sense, total structure; a synthesis of all the visible aspects of that structure and of the manner in which they are united to create its distinctive character. The form of a work is what enables us to perceive it. Form also refers to an element of art that is three-dimensional (height, width, and depth) and encloses volume. For example, a triangle, which is two-dimensional, is a shape, but a pyramid, which is three-dimensional, is a form. Cubes, spheres, ovoids, pyramids, cone, and cylinders are examples of various forms. Also, all of the elements of a work of art independent of their meaning. Formal elements are primary features which are not a matter of semantic significance — including colour, dimensions, line, mass, medium, scale, shape, space, texture, value; and the principles of design under which they are placed — including balance, contrast, dominance, harmony, movement, proportion, proximity, rhythm, similarity, unity, and variety. (Artlex.com)  (like the one seen at left), incorporating the  aestheticsThe branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and value of art objects and experiences. It is concerned with identifying the clues within works that can be used to understand, judge, and defend judgments about those works. Originally, any activity connected with art, beauty and taste, becoming more broadly the study of art's function, nature, purpose, and so on. (Artlex.com)  of the ancient world into her artwork. The use of empty  spaceSpace can be the area around, within or between images or elements. Space can be created on a two-dimensional surface by using such techniques as overlapping, object size, placement, colour intensity and value, detail and diagonal lines.  in the ancient works she encountered can also be found in her drawings and prints from that time.

During the 1970s, while American  feminismFeminism essentially comprises a number of social, cultural and political movements, theories and philosophies concerned with gender inequalities, and equal rights for people of all genders. Especially since the late 1960s, when the feminist art movement can be said to have emerged, women have been particularly interested in what makes them different from males — what makes women artists and their art different from male artists and their art. This has been most prominent in the United States, Britain, and Germany, although there are numerous precursors to the movement, and it has spread to many other cultures since the 1970s. Feminists point out that throughout most of recorded history males have imposed patriarchal (father-centered) social systems (in which they have dominated females). Although it is not the goal of this article to recount the development of feminist theory in full, the history of feminist art cannot be understood apart from it. Feminist theory must take into account the circumstances of most women's lives as mothers, household workers, and caregivers, in addition to the pervasive misconception that women are genetically inferior to men. Feminist art notes that significant in the dominant (meaning especially Western) culture's patriarchal heritage is the preponderance of art made by males, and for male audiences, sometimes transgressing against females. Men have maintained a studio system which has excluded women from training as artists, a gallery system that has kept them from exhibiting and selling their work, as well as from being collected by museums — albeit somewhat less in recent years than before. (Artlex.com)  was truly coming into its own, Spero began her study of the treatment of women throughout history in earnest. Later works by Spero would return to these themes but would add a  minimalistMinimalism is a twentieth century art movement and style stressing the idea of reducing a work of art to the minimum number of colors, values, shapes, lines and textures. No attempt is made to represent or symbolize any other object or experience. It is sometimes called ABC art, minimal art, reductivism, and rejective art. (artlex.com)  sensibility. In these later images, we see a greater emphasis on  lineA mark with length and direction(-s). An element of art which refers to the continuous mark made on some surface by a moving point. Types of line include: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, straight or ruled, curved, bent, angular, thin, thick or wide, interrupted (dotted, dashed, broken, etc.), blurred or fuzzy, controlled, freehand, parallel, hatching, meandering, and spiraling. Often it defines a space, and may create an outline or contour, define a silhouette; create patterns, or movement, and the illusion of mass or volume. It may be two-dimensional (as with pencil on paper) three-dimensional (as with wire) or implied (the edge of a shape or form). (Artlex.com)  and empty (blank) space. One such example is 1981’s Birth, a sparse  compositionArrangements of elements in a work of art.  depicting human-headed snakes approaching a birthing mother, while a faint image of a Greek goddess sits in the background, to the side, observing.  (Birth can be seen at Artnet.)

It was in the late 1980s, after the creation of Goddess and Centaur (the work presented on the ARTSask website), that Spero began to expand her vision to include the architectural spaces her work inhabited. As part of this vision, she began to include  installationAn art work specially designed to fit in or to make use of a specific type of space. It usually consists of more than one element and relates to the space in which it is displayed.  techniques into her  drawingDepiction of shapes and forms on a surface chiefly by means of lines. Colour and shading may be included. A major fine art technique in itself, drawing is the basis of all pictorial representation, and an early step in most art activities. Though an integral part of most painting, drawing is generally differentiated from painting by the dominance of line over mass. There are many sorts of drawing techniques, varying according to the effect the artist wants, and depending on whether the drawing is an end in itself — an independent and finished work of art -- or a preliminary to some other medium or form — although distinct from the final product, such drawings also have intrinsic artistic value. Preliminary drawings include various exercises (e.g., contour drawing, gesture drawing, figure drawing, drawing from the flat), as well as sketches and studies, cartoons and underdrawings. (Artlex.com)  and print-making practice, incorporating the architectural spaces into the works themselves. The large, blank surfaces that Spero saw on the gallery walls have allowed her to create works that consider the spaces they inhabit, draw lengthy, historical narratives across their surfaces, and impregnate them with meaning.


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