New York

Nancy Spero

Willard Gallery

A year ago I spent an afternoon that ran into evening with Nancy Spero looking at nowhere near all of her work. We unrolled several scrolls that ran almost the length of the room, including Codex Artaud, 1971–72, Torture of Women, 1976, Torture in Chile, 1974, and The First Language, 1981—all previously exhibited in and around New York, notably at A.I.R., a feminist cooperative with which Spero has been involved since its inception over a decade ago. The poetry of these scrolls has something to do with the rarefaction of the paper, but much more to do with the innate grace that moved Spero in the placement of the images, texts, collage elements, and various stamp transfers that make up their prismatic narratives. In the wake of the many swerves, rebellions, and ideological monoliths that have claimed the art of this century, the criteria for placement and for scale have, perhaps alone, abided. Spero’s scrolls of consciousness trickle through history and linguistics, through mythology, through polemic, through the records of barbarisms both contemporary and atavistic, with a sure syntax and a rhetorical modesty.

A large drawing file held a couple of hundred watercolors, most memorable a large number of erotic-fantastic war images, some predating the escalation of the Vietnam war, others concurrent with it: phallic missiles sailing in and out of mushroom clouds, clouds raining bodies, helicopters bleeding figures. Most of these were realized on translucent paper, often puckered by the pigment, in the poisoned colors (a diaphanous chartreuse, for instance) of intellectualized outrage. The drawings are an intellectual’s pornography.

In choosing the pieces for this show it would have been difficult to go wrong. The long scrolls were not included, but they have been on view in recent years. Room had to be made for a group of large, rarely seen paintings, and for new works on paper, mini-scrolls, unprotected and tacked to the wall, which feature the stamped shapes of female figures derived from classical Greek and ancient Sumerian relics and records, and show an unprecedented extroversion. Spero has lately been the object of heightened interest, partly because her body of work of the last 25 years provides a sought-after stylistic link with the figurative pictorialism of several younger painters. Archaic quotation is a constant for Spero, and her gloomily erotic “Black Paintings,” realized in Paris between 1959 and 1964, have an imagistic intensity and a psychological opaqueness that span the considerable distance between, say, Susan Rothenberg’s emblems in grisaille and the febrile spellbinders of Francesco Clemente.

Lisa Liebmann