PRINT May 1976

Nancy Spero

IN THE EARLY 1960s NANCY Spero painted a series of Stygian lovers: they are paintings of great intensity, but the present phase of her art begins after this. When she switched from painting on canvas to working on paper, her particular sensibility meshed with an appropriate method of work. She replaced whole forms masked in chiaroscuro with ideographic signs that released her power of linear definition. She made a series of war drawings, which is to say antiwar drawings: the first cycle concentrated on the A-bomb, the second on helicopters that “looked like very primitive bugs,” to quote the artist. On one hand the insectlike appearance of helicopters is familiar and has a popular sanction. On the other hand, Spero intensifies the metaphor far beyond its technological wit: the occasion of these works is the Vietnam war, so that she implies the perspective of the victims faced with and having to interpret the advanced war technology of another culture. Hence the comparison of something manmade to something natural.

At the College Art Association in 1975, Spero spoke on “Ende and the Beatus Apocalypse of Gerona.” Ende was a 10th-century nun, and Spero discussed her “visionary stylized depictions of the Apocalypse,” including subjects such as “the wars of angels and demons” and “the horrific fate of nonbelievers.” The helicopter series includes references to the dumping of prisoners from aircraft in flight to intimidate the survivors. They spill out like “nonbelievers,” but are actually victims of the technology with which the spectators of Spero’s art are of necessity associated. This is what Spero means when she noted that “my work cannot be related to the salvation scheme of the medieval period. But in its dislocation and stylization, my work has certain parallels to medieval prototypes.”

As a modern artist, however, Spero’s work is non-consolatory and antihierarchic. The imagery of the nuclear bomb lent itself to the expression of both millenial fears and primal human states. Human tongues, for instance, are used in two ways in the bomb series. In some drawings the tongue extends aggressively from the bomb itself, like a lizard’s, as an image of fatal reach; in others the tongues are those of the victims, turning to lick the bomb, their destroyer. This abject, regressive image expresses pungently the 20th-century knowledge of the possible collaboration of victims in their own fate. The denotation of catastrophe does not exclude connotations of sexuality, based on the phallic projectile and mushroom-cloud. Spero commented on Ende’s Apocalypse and the “ease and violence of passage between the natural and the supernatural”; the multivalence of her bomb imagery is a “faithless” equivalent of this.

The “dislocation and stylization” that Spero named in her art are inseparable from work on paper, in terms of drawing, writing, and collage. Her pictorial images are ideographic, visually like the objects they refer to but, at the same time, coded like a writing system. Sometimes her apocalyptic shorthand is like the interlinear figuration of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, sometimes like the compressed signs of Egyptian inscriptions. In her Antonin Artaud paintings, which began in 1969, the ideographs alternate unpredictably with passages of text, rendered first on small sheets written left-handed; later, in the Codex Artaud group, 1971–72, she used long scrolls with the quotations set in large bulletin type.

Once Spero adopted the long and thin scroll format, the principle of “scatter” was extended to the visual field of the work itself. The clearly bounded rectangular area of the page is exceeded by the patching together of paper of different size and quality, so that the surface changes and the contours jerk. Thus the apparent fragmentation of her signs, condensed or shattered, becomes a structural part of the work itself. (Incidentally, this is one reason why her works are not easy to photograph: their physicality resists translation.) Her preservation of the discreteness of signs and surfaces is a brilliant adaptation of the procedures of collage, with which she has been increasingly resourceful. Collage, after all, posits a work with multiple sources (bits and pieces not originated by the artist’s hand in one process).

She operates with a compilation of bits, prepared as a stockpile for future use. The elements are personally prepared, but unassigned: they may consist of isolated images or words, of groups of figures or sentences. These parts enable Spero to work in a kind of non-verbalized way: she can bring to each unit the intensity and care that drives her, but its meaning is in suspense. Ultimately the separate elements will be brought together, but they originate at different points in time. When they are clustered into the final spatial form, they have the authenticity of the artist’s total attention combined with resistance to readymade meaning. Spero works in series, which means that she can count on the continuity of intensely felt themes without having to give the whole argument each time.

The Codex Artaud deals with male and female, verbal and visual polarities. First is the fact of Artaud’s writings; next comes Spero’s use of them in collages. She treats his texts as considerably more than passive readymade objects; they are perhaps closer in spirit to extended quotations in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, where the preexisting materials have thematic functions. However, Artaud’s words are set by Spero in a context which is not fully verbal, so, to that extent, his texts are seen like objects, as things. Spero herself was aware that what she was doing would not have been acceptable to Artaud: on the contrary, had he lived, denunciation would have been his response. To this extent, Spero’s quotations are a trespass; on the other hand she discovered in his impotence an equivalent of her feelings of helplessness as a woman. Artaud and Spero share the eloquence of the wounded. She not only selects those passages most analogical of her feminist position, but presents an archaeology of Artaud, a library of shards. To the verbal remains she adds figures of the damned and of idols. This is to challenge the scatological cacophony of Artaud by her own imagery of hybrid vitalism. Such uncommon tension of mutuality and irreconcilability also rests on the fact that Spero has chosen for her unilateral joint-work a man whose humanity reaches at times the vanishing point, but whose extremity is precisely a demand on our humanity.

The unpredictable sequences of Spero’s forms are implacably antihierarchical. The pictorial alternative to graduated large-medium-small ranking of forms is usually allover texture, but to Spero such continuity is bland. She organizes her work on the basis of clusters and unexpected tangents. This loose array is partly the result of dispersal and partly of the scalar similarity of the elements, as in writing. The effect is sometimes centripetal, as if the discrete marks were flying apart or slipping away at random. But this is deceptive. Her stretched web of correspondences can be compared to avoidance patterns, to the laws of the ways in which people circumvent contact with one another or in which animals avoid predators. The point is that common patterns can be discerned in all those taking evasive action, and they warn us against taking Spero’s art as “formless.” The staccato vectors of her pages seem an analogue of such maneuvers: relationship does not depend here on the visual criterion of complementary parts in a higher unity. Her works are patterned, not on the basis of formal unity, but on antagonistic relationships and evasive action. Hence the recoil of visual and verbal elements, the fragmentation of images and the elision of sentences.

After the Codex Artaud, Spero produced a major piece that demonstrates the fundamental unity of discourse that is, after all, present. It is the sequence of the Hours of the Night, in which solar myth and insomnia combine in a cycle of interconnecting signs. It is clear that both visual and verbal forms are different points of emphasis on a continuous spectrum, not alternative forms. Thus Spero’s work can be viewed as a capacious sign system that avoids the divisive presupposition of pictorial and literary properties on which, even today, much art writing rests. The precedents for such a synthesis include Egyptian and medieval art, as Spero is fully aware. However, the references are not archaic: feminist themes are affirmed; “ars et scientia” are confronted; political torture is recorded. Some of her drawings look like defoliated herbals, the garden suddenly seamed. Perhaps the closest analogy is to the Grotesque, if we take this word as a technical term for classical decoration, usually on pilasters, panels, or small domes, in which human, animal, floral, and manmade forms commingle in a common morphology. Spero’s hybridized and fragmented images are a naked form of the Grotesque. She has reinvented the genre, not as an art historical act, but as an involuntary homage to the primacy of the ideographic in art produced under stress.

Quotations from the artist come from two sources: her own text “Ende and the Beatus Apocalypse of Gerona,” College Art Association, January 23, 1975, and an “Interview with Nancy Spero,” by Carol DePasquale, March 8, 1975, both unpublished.