"The one thing that artists must possess above all other qualities is immense courage." (Jean Rouch) For more than half a century, Nancy Spero’s courage propelled a practice of enormous imagination that moved across painting, collage, printmaking, and installation, constructing what Spero once called a peinture féminine that could address - and redress - both the struggles of women in patriarchal society and the horrors perennially wrought by American military might. Spero's art is ambiguous, using a complex symbolic language incorporating goddess-protagonists drawn from Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and pagan mythologies.
Her career was also fueled by her enduring dialogue with her husband Leon Golub, whom she met in the late 1940s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From 1959 to 1964 the couple lived in Paris, where Spero produced the Black Paintings, somber, figurative works, marking Spero's first consistent oppositions to the prevailing conventions in art making.
It was with the War Series (1966-70), produced during the Vietnam war in New York, that Spero established her politicization of painting. She constructed a picture of conflict as orgy, its grotesque realism being all the more disturbing for what Spero once described as its "weird combination of the celebratory and the horrendous".
Spero joined the Art Workers Coalition in 1968, Women Artists in Revolution in 1969, and became a founding member of the women-only cooperative Artists in Residence Gallery (A.I.R.).
The series of scroll works Codex Artaud (1971/72), which have been described as the first works of Post-Modernism, used collage to juxtapose text and image, the linearity of their elements recalling hieroglyphics, pieces of text taken from Antonin Artaud's writings exposing her "anger and disappointment at the art world and at the world as a whole".
Following the Artaud series, Spero began to work on her pioneering and critically lauded scroll works: Hours of the Night, 1974 (Whitney Museum of American Art), Torture of Women, 1976 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and Notes in Time on Women, 1979 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
I am speaking of equality, and about a certain kind of power of movement in the world, and yet I am not offering any systematic solutions.
Nancy Spero, quot. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Galerie Lelong
LEON GOLUB (1922, Chicago - 2004, New York)
Leon Golub first came to prominence during the 1950s as a part of the Monster Roster, whose work depicted monsters and human/animal hybrids. At this time he realized that contrary to the tenets of the prevailing Abstract Expressionists, representation of actions and events was crucial in experiencing the modern world. Leon Golub and Nancy Spero were leading figures in activist artists' groups such as Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam (1960s-70s) and Artists Call Against American Intervention in Latin America (1980s).
Leon Golub's work is about power and the recurring misuse of power through violence as an expression of organized, often state-sponsored, oppression and brutality. A fundamental tension is at the heart of his paintings, a tension between the figures and the canvas as well as between the role of the artist and the wider background of society. Golub described his work as "a definition of how power is demonstrated through the body and in human actions, and in our time, how political and industrial powers are shown...“
In the Napalm series, produced during Vietnam war, the body emerged as the symbol of conflict - the central source of pain and distress. The relationships between black and white soldiers in the Vietnam and Mercenaries paintings echo the racial tensions in the US. The Mercenaries and White Squad series, begun in 1979, reference the subversion of war into acts of terrorism and torture, seen by many as linked with America's interventionist foreign policy, while the Riot paintings illustrate the violence in urban everyday-life.
In his last years Leon Golub broke with structured, confrontational images, but his language still remained sardonic. Dogs, lions, and cyborgs are now representing elements of aggression, the eerie, and irrational.
I have pictured some of the events and some of the kinds of experiences that undercut our current world pictures, that is to say the effects of power and domination, the uses of interrogation to control dissidence or opposition, how such behaviours effect the consciousness and psychic responses of victimizers and victims and also to indicate some of the public and private behavioral gestures of men acting out real time reactive scenarios.
Leon Golub 1948-1996, Do Paintings Bite?, hrsg. von HU Obrist, Cantz 1997 and Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2000