New York

Nancy Spero

Few contemporary artists could call an exhibition “Cri du Coeur” (Cry of the Heart) and expect the phrase to be read unironically. But Nancy Spero has no compunction about agonized honesty, and her command of compositional and emotional synergies now appears quite effortless. As a caption for her new project’s central image, an acknowledgement of previously private motives, and an open letter to her audience in wartime, Spero’s outcry was wrathful, lyrical, heartbroken. Paradoxically, however, her mastery of the work of mourning made the work of art uplifting.

Cri du Coeur, 2005, an unframed frieze of hand-printed paper twenty-six inches high, bordered the gallery at floor level. Spero has long been dedicated to the frieze—with its linear, episodic, narrative structure, suggestive of processional dances and turning pages—and to archaic representations of the female figure, which she recasts as archetypical Everywomen. Here that role was played by an assembly of mourners borrowed from the tomb of Ramose of Thebes (ca. 1411–1374 BC). A dense, overlapping throng, the women read both as individuals and as a unified group—literally melded, and fused—with subtle differences marking their Egyptian profiles, cascading tresses, big almond eyes, and, most important, the supplicating gestures of their raised hands. Recurring like an obsessive thought, the women might have embodied Spero’s collectivized alter ego, notating a lifetime of concern with the representation of women as sufferers from, resisters against, and witnesses to violence. Reaching their hands toward the white void of the upper walls, lifting their eyes although they themselves are anchored to the base of the wall, the Theban ladies, one imagined, were keening in sorrow, pleading for help, calling for justice.

Running in a dark line along the base of the wall, the frieze seemed a kind of metaphysical fissure, a revelation of the abyss. The sense of social downfall or cosmic prostration was visceral. But the low placement was also grounding, fundamental. In places, the image was entirely abstracted to scorched-earth black, while other passages were stained with midnight blue and dried-blood red. At intervals, the paper was cut away from around the figures, so that they stood out against the wall like paper dolls. And, subtly, the progression of color around the room allowed for hope. The left-hand wall, as one entered, was a block of unrelieved black, but turning the right-hand corner into the neighboring space, the palette lightened to sunny yellow touched with spring green. Still, the figures faced left, toward the dark “beginning,” while simultaneously pointing in the opposite direction toward a group of older, framed works in the small adjacent gallery, which likewise ponder death and distress—the smaller frieze Mourning Women, 2000, for example, also employs Ramose’s weeping maidens.

If, however, Spero’s titular “cry” referred to the Thebans’ implied lamentation, it also connoted rather more than that. Any follower of Spero’s career will likely know that her husband of fifty years, the painter Leon Golub, died in 2004. The cry is thus certainly for him, and this piece of intimate knowledge made the show particularly touching and generous. By giving public shape to her private loss, Spero performed an act of cultural leadership, memorializing Golub’s career and their partnership in a way that honors the terrible isolation of spousal bereavement, but also admits everyone who knew Golub or values his work—and by extension, everyone who grieves for a particular beloved—into the circle. Spero’s vision is not, by any means, unrelentingly somber, but her art is way beyond the easy relief of happy endings.

Frances Richard