Chicago

Nancy Spero

The Renaissance Society

Nancy Spero’s “black paintings” were made mostly between 1959 and 1964, when the artist, then in her 30s, was living in Paris with her husband, the painter Leon Golub, and their children. In that the paintings are expressionistic they seem anticipatory, heralding the stylistic concerns of today, and it is in fact only in the last few years that this work has found its audience. (A second show, this one with a catalogue, recently opening at Carnegie-Mellon, in Pittsburgh). But the fact that the 25 images of lovers and mothers exhibited here are prophetic does not entirely explain their haunting power. To reduce them to early rumblings of resentment fueling the radical feminist scrolls that Spero began on her return to the U.S., in 1964, is tempting but insufficient. Yet it is probably as impossible to avoid such teleological thinking as it is to see these paintings without the overlay of the work that followed, or without the inflection of current expressionism.

As a sustained series, the products of five years of work, the black paintings capture a mood of existentialism and a sense of monumentality. In an oeuvre that is remarkably consistent despite its stylistic shifts, even its intentional lack of style, they constitute an initial attempt to articulate without words. That is, they represent what one critic recently labeled (in reference to a Spero scroll from 1981, The First Language) “the language of female images.” Although the paintings may not have been heard when they were first produced, they have more than regained their voice, becoming enormously eloquent even as they tell about relationships as shifting, precarious, and ambiguously defined as those between lovers.

Clearly autobiographical on a metaphorical level, the series was painted at night; the paintings often took months to complete. Most often the subject is two reclining figures merged into one at their hips or linked by extended legs. Compared with the bright colors and smooth surfaces of ‘60s Pop art and Minimalism, these paintings must have looked very black indeed. For some critics the black is gloomy, murky, relating tales of sexual conflict. On closer inspection, however, the dominant smoky atmosphere is exquisitely nuanced, revealing mustard, pink, and sand; grays of every imaginable hue from ash to fog emerge from the scraped and repainted grounds.

Even the flimsiest delineations of bodies take on a substantial, mythic presence as couples are locked together by painted threads in relationships premised on imbalance. In one painting two figures reach toward each other in a cloud of gray paint, an aura that simultaneously erases and enfolds them. In another, they flyaway like the ecstatic airborne pair in Oskar Kokoschka’s The Tempest, 1914. These lovers are male and female but often seem androgynous, so that it is difficult to determine who is who, or to read the poses for signs of dominance. Across scumbled, heavily worked surfaces Spero inscribes movement in the form of a quick flickering line that catches a moment. The line is a language inscribing gesture, a gesture charged with emotion, suggestive of the erotic without representing it; these gestures in turn are language, as hands tremble, support, reach, grab, and bodies pull up, turn away. There is much tenderness in these intimate interactions, which occur in places as small as a bed or as vast as a nighttime sky. Almost always the figures threaten to fade back into ash, or into the past from which they appear to arise.

The surfaces of the black paintings look carbonized, as if the works were really as old as the ancient statuary to which they refer. Shadows of antiquity permeate this claustral world of lovers whose faces seem carved in stone; in one large painting the male figure wears the ringlets of the charioteer at Delphi, while his companion wears a terra-cotta mask. Even the small, sandy paintings of the Mediterranean series, a group of work from the same period also shown here, are statuesque, combining delicate emotions of motherhood with noble poses. One scene on a beach shows a family of pink babies bookended by proud parents, immobile protective figures like sphinxes. Yet Spero’s mothers can also be fierce giants, like the one with four breasts, or another who towers over her two miniature sons with all the authority of a conquering Egyptian. Elsewhere, the powerful figure of a prostitute becomes the threatening exception to this predominantly domestic group. The most persistent art-historical allusion is to the Etruscan sarcophagi Spero had seen in Italy. These references lift her reclining lovers out of everyday life and into the realm of shade, and the gentle melancholy in this group of work recalls those earlier effigies of spouses fused together in death.

There is a paradoxical sense of time, or rather of timelessness, in this series of paintings by a young woman living away from home with small children. Spero has spoken movingly of why she rejected oil painting when she returned to the realities of American art-world politics in 1964, and to the more devastating reality of the war in Vietnam. That she can now reclaim her earlier work and make it public announces a desire, not to give up an outsider status, but to disclose and join multiple dialogues. Dark angels, small winged creatures, appear throughout the panels of Spero’s 1971 Codex Artaud; these black paintings, as contradictory and complicated as the relationships they depict, are in a sense the dark but forceful angels of her own career.

Judith Russi Kirshner