“It’s horrific,” Nancy Spero (1926–2009) told an interviewer with “Art21,” “trying to show the insanity and brutality of war.” She was speaking about Maypole: Take No Prisoners, her installation for the 2007 Venice Biennale that has been re-created at Galerie Lelong. The work’s central structure invokes the rites of spring, with red and black ribbons (as well as a few chains) extending from the top of a metal pole bolted to the floor. But Spero has made this pagan symbol of rebirth into a Goya-esque monument to senseless death: hundreds of drawn and painted faces on cut aluminum, many contorted in screams or grimaces, dangle on the ends of the ribbon strands. The work’s brutal force as an image is amplified as one moves around the installation, dodging the hanging depictions of agony.
Maypole developed directly from “The War Series” (1966–70), paintings and works on paper that Spero made after returning from Paris to the US with her partner Leon Golub. Kill Commies / Maypole (1967) could be considered a preparatory drawing for the installation. What’s really shocking is not the gory imagery per se, but the awareness that such imagery could be reanimated some forty years later and still feel topical. “The War Series,” installed in a side gallery, features primal figures rendered in urgent, smeared strokes that convey the pathos of the Vietnam War. In many, helicopter gunships serve as menacing icons. Yet as with the maypole installation, the most arresting images offer contrasts between horror and hope: in one searing piece a nursing mother and her child hover above a helicopter’s rotor, surrounded by military-style stenciled letters: peace. —William S. Smith
Pictured: Nancy Spero: Kill Commies / Maypole, 1967, gouache and ink on paper, 36 by 24 inches. © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts. Licensed by VAGA New York. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.