New York

Nancy Spero

The timely resurrection of Nancy Spero’s passionate antiwar imagery—produced nearly four decades ago against the backdrop of the conflict in Vietnam—seemed a thinly veiled reminder that history repeats itself. To view Spero’s “War Series 1966–70” without simultaneously considering the current political climate simply wasn’t possible; and the remarkable fact that these vibrant, scatological gouache-and-ink paintings on paper had never been shown in the United States raised larger questions about artistic production and censorship during political crises past and present.

These works were designed to agitate, and time has done little to wear away that effect. Fuck, 1966, features a hoard of repugnant, ravenous missiles each branded with a corporate-looking f.u.c.k. logo gobbling down the naked, bloodied bodies of unarmed civilian victims; in Love to Hanoi, 1967, a malignant nuke belches toxins and proclaims l.o.v.e. t.o. h.a.n.o.i. x.x.x. u.s. Spero’s methods (spattering, slinging, rubbing) are nearly as base as the frenzied images she wrestles into being, and her loosely running pigments and feathery paper take on aspects of the body (say, blood and skin) that are at once abominable and exquisite. While the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was what initially propelled the artist into action, her subject was actually the primordial behavior of the human animal during every such “engagement.” Heavily coded signifiers such as the swastika were regularly employed in ambivalently charged tableaux such as Eagles, Swastikas, Victims, 1968, not in order to draw literal equations between one isolated event and another (i.e., the Holocaust and Vietnam) but instead to suggest that abuses of power are part of an ongoing and necessarily imbricated narrative.

While certainly influenced by ghastly (and theretofore unthinkable) images from the “first televised war,” Spero’s medusa heads and totemic phalluses are closer kin to hieroglyphics (the artist continues even now to utilize this iconic style, though a few years after the “War Series” she dispensed with the male image, coming to focus exclusively on representations of women, real and mythic). Indeed, there is no such thing as an inanimate object for Spero, who renders helicopters as big, bone-crushing bugs and bombs as carnal behemoths shooting strange brews of, say, shrapnel and sperm. Her bombs (male, female, or androgynous) erupt into mushroom clouds that are equally noxious and ecstatic—an orgasmic nihilism exponentially more far-reaching than any single petite mort—relentlessly reminding us that violence is very often bound up with sadistic sexuality. Yet even as she points to the ferocity of human beings in general, Spero’s depictions of the fairer sex typically depend on a more complicated inner logic. While the “male bombs” unleash terror with extravagant singlemindedness, in Female Bomb, 1966, for instance, there’s a more ambivalent creative/destructive kind of combustion. A multibreasted “great mother” figure—usually a symbol of nourishment and care—is torn asunder as knife-tongued A-bomb harpies shoot from her trunk.

Spero’s allegorical works suggest that war encourages the fierce return, in both sexes, to self-gratifying infantile oral, anal, and genital stages (with bodies reduced to tongues, assholes, and pricks). While these scenes are undeniably linked to a historical event, they’re also filled with a hallucination’s pathos (as in Clown and Helicopter, 1967, where a Christlike jester rides a glowing helicopter with a cross in one hand, a cannon between his legs, and a halo at his head). In this respect, the (continued) power of “War Series 1966–70” derives not only from its uncanny illumination of apparently inevitable—if lamentable—historical repetitions but also from Spero’s palpable willingness to deliver a passionate politics infused with body, bias, and hyperbole: in other words, the personal.

Johanna Burton