Upon being introduced to Nancy Spero’s work, “one quickly realizes this is an artist that attracts attention and commentary where it wasn’t always so,” wrote Jon Bird, a long-time scholar of her work and that of her husband and collaborator Leon Golub. Bird’s statement was read by Hans Haacke at a public tribute to the late activist-artist Sunday afternoon at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Bird and several of the scheduled speakers did not make it to the event, due to the ash cloud still spreading over Europe after last week’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption.
Spero passed away last fall. Some people have said that there should have been more tributes to Spero immediately after her death and greater recognition of her impact on contemporary art. But the friends, family and peers who gathered on Sunday seemed simply focused on celebrating her and her work, with little energy spent on what else could or should have been.
Over a career that spanned some 50 years, the pioneering Spero produced art that commented on war and violence, contemporary society and global politics, and, most of all, created a space for women in places that had previously eluded them. Instead of using the existing history as dictated by men, said Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr at the event, Spero wrote a history for women. She did so using images and text (creating her own hieroglyphic alphabets), often working in collage and executing her ideas in lengthy scrolls. Spero’s seminal scrollwork, Torture of Women (1976), will be published in book form by Siglio Press this month, and Prestel will release a monograph of her work later this year. A retrospective exhibition of Spero’s work at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris is slated for 2010.
Spero’s son Stephen Golub opened the afternoon; originally the welcome remarks were to be given by his brother Paul. Most absent speakers were represented by stand-ins. Some participated in other ways. A statement by Hans Ulrich Obrist recounting, among other things, his and Nancy’s wry proposal for a homeless fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, was read by art critic and scholar Molly Nesbit. Bartomeu Marí, in Barcelona, appeared by video recording. In the middle of the schedule of speakers, Nora York sang the aria known as “Dido’s Lament”; accompanied only by Andrew Schwartz on bassoon, her low, repeated croon of “Remember me” was particularly haunting.
Though physically present, Kiki Smith honored the artist in a recorded statement as well. She called Spero and Golub heroes for her generation of artists. Recounting her first experiences with Spero’s work, when she was a young artist, Smith said, “I thought this work had everything going against it.” It was small; it was made by a woman and it used text; and it was a paper-on-paper collage. But it was, in its very make-up, subversive. “What I perceived as vulnerability was really her tenacity,” she said. “Now that we live in a world of globally [aware] citizens, her work reminds us … not to be silent.”
Speakers at the Spero tribute talked about the ground-breaking nature of her work and praised specific pieces and moments. Donna de Salvo, the chief curator at the Whitney Museum, spoke on the narratives Spero created in her Hours of the Night (1974, now in the Whitney collection), mixing images of women with words like “body count,” “lick” and “torture in Vietnam.”
They also memorialized the human being and friend behind the art—the woman “Nancy.” Her fantastic laugh. How genuinely touched she was by acquisitions of her work. A letter to art critic Lucy Lippard, in a statement by Lippard as read by Samm Kunce, reveals both the fierceness of Spero’s mission and her affinity for other people: “Dear Lucy, The enemies of the liberation of women in the arts will be crushed. Love, Nancy”
Twining Spero’s passions for feminism and the anti-war movement, Lippard’s statement went on to say that Spero’s images of hunter-goddess Artemis with her fist raised (Artemis, Goddess and Centaur (1983)), “was our Guernica.”
Appropriately for an artist whose work incorporated so much language in the form of both invented codes and visual images, in a motion to be heard that was more a fearsome bellow than a mere cry, Spero herself had the last word. A brief, undated video clip was projected on the Great Hall stage:
“I was dying for people to ask me what I was working on,” says Spero in the video. “Not that many people were asking me what I was working on. But they do now, so that’s good.”