Vol.5, Number 1, March 2009
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NANCY SPERO AND DEBORAH FRIZZELL
NANCY SPERO WAS BORN IN CLEVELAND, OHIO, IN 1926 AND RECEIVED A BFA FROM THE SCHOOL OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO IN 1949. AS A FEMINIST ARTIST AND ACTIVIST, NANCY SPERO’S CAREER HAS SPANNED FIFTY YEARS. SHE WAS A FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE WOMEN’S COOPERATIVE A.I.R. GALLERY IN NEW YORK CITY’S SOHO DISTRICT IN 1971. HER CONTINUOUS ENGAGEMENT WITH CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL CONCERNS IS RENOWNED.
DEBORAH FRIZZELL IS ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ART HISTORY AT WILLIAM PATERSON UNIVERSITY IN NEW JERSEY (USA). IN JUNE 2007, SHE ACCOMPANIED NANCY SPERO’S ASSISTANTS, SAMM KUNCE AND MARY-BETH GREGG, TO VENICE TO DOCUMENT THE INSTALLATION, MAYPOLE/TAKE NO PRISONERS, IN THE ITALIAN PAVILION OF THE 52ND VENICE BIENNALE, CURATED BY ROBERT STORR.
> NANCY SPERO'S WAR MAYPOLE/TAKE NO PRISONERS
...And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,...
From “Dulce et decorum est,” Wilfred Owen, 1918
Nancy Spero’s studio comprises the entire floor of a loft in Greenwich Village, a deep space divided only by a partition that once separated her working space from that of her late husband’s, the painter Leon Golub (1922-2004). As I entered Spero’s studio to see what she was working on for the upcoming Venice Biennale, I glimpsed the borderline defining her space and Leon’s old painting space which had remained empty since his death in August 2004, except for the looming presence of his mural-scale painting, Gigantomachy II (1965). Nailed into the brick wall, the scarred raw linen surface of Gigantomachy II seethes with a tangle of brutish, wretched bodies, Olympian gods and giants, battling to the death for dominance.
Studio of Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, Greenwich Village, New York, 2007, with mock-up for Spero’s Maypole/Take No Prisoners, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York, and Golub’s Giantomachy II (1965), courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. Photograph by Samm Kunce.
On Spero’s side of the studio, long work tables nudged end-to-end are piled with stacks of cut-out female figures of different sizes, hand-printed, with lush as well as muted colors, on delicate papers. These “paper dolls,” as Spero calls them, are a part of her cast of female characters whose images she culls and reworks from many sources –from her own paintings as well as art books and magazines. They are the artist’s cross-cultural iconography of the histories and mythologies representing women from pre-history to the present, waiting to be collaged on painted and printed sheets of hand-made paper.
On the border between these two worlds, Spero’s and Golub’s, a make-shift pole had been newly erected reaching to the ceiling. From the top of the pole hung red and black ribbons looping down to form a scallop of gravity before ascending upward to be caught by monofilament attached to the ceiling; on the descending ribbon ends were tied graphically hand-printed cut-out paper heads, severed and still screaming. Some of the double-sided heads were mask-like profiles howling with distended tongues, some were full-faced horrors, medusa-like furies. It was an unholy mix: a liltingly delicate springtime rhythm truncated, mocked by beheadings, grisly trophy victims.
This diabolical studio mock-up, Maypole/Take No Prisoners (2007), was Spero’s installation proposal for the main entry hall of the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini at the Venice Biennale, opening in June of 2007. Spero envisioned the double-sided heads cut out of sheets of aluminum that would be sanded down and primed with interior house paint; on this severe, scumbled, and ugly surface, she and her assistants would paint and hand-print her nightmarish images. On a work table nearby were arrayed little cut-out paper images of heads that the artist had painted or printed years ago to use in her scrolled collages, but these were remnants that had not yet found a context. Their fierce, raging psychic energy was compressed by their tiny size.
Soon they were destined to be enlarged, blown-up to human scale and laser transferred onto soft latex polymer plates for inking and hand-printing on the primed aluminum sheets. In Venice these heads would dangle from red and black ribbons as well as steel chains attached to a thirty-foot aluminum pole anchored to a low circular steel base. Spero explained that her exhibition space in the Italian Pavilion would be the majestic entry hall with its thirty-foot-plus skylight; Maypole would occupy the threshold linking the garden path with the streamlined 1930s art deco Pavilion, while on the vertical axis her Maypole would link the earthbound visitors circumambulating with the sky above, with the cycles of light and darkness. The image in the mind’s eye of this extended double axis, its literal and symbolic merging on the threshold, was unsettling and eerie, to say the least.
As the weeks passed and spring approached, more heads were added to the mock-up in the artist’s studio, and curiously, the ribbons, chains, and heads began to thrust themselves, or so it seemed, in a trajectory toward Golub’s Gigantomachy II. The grotesque dance of the bobbing heads no longer formed a contained circular motion but a wild ellipse, a planetary-like movement toward the gravitational pull of Gigantomachy II. This gradual movement signaled a remarkable artistic dialogue artist to artist. Spero had wrenched her graphic, expressive heads off the surfaces of paper and painted walls and spilled them directly into external reality, into the space of the outer world, initially, in an exchange with Golub’s battling giants and gods. Spero’s ideas percolated and developed a specific gravity of form interacting with the living presence of Gigantomachy II. And yet, this intimate artistic chemistry would be a subtext; ultimately, Maypole would be imagined and translated for the space of the Italian Pavilion in Venice.
I was reminded of a conversation with Golub about his and Nancy’s divergent working methods and approaches to some of the same themes to which they both were profoundly committed during their fifty-three years together: witness and commentary on the historical pervasiveness of political terror, abuse of power, an interrogation of history and contemporary moral conscience, and how to use all the means of art to point to these realities in the world, whether by metaphor or transcription. Golub suggested a subtle on-going process:
We have gone on in our separate ways, but always observing the other. I’ve observed how she approaches these subjects. She observes how I approach it. And so actually, we’ve had a huge interchange over the years. Influences and cross influences. How different her delicate figures are against my brutes! My monsters, in a certain sense, they’re monsters but human. At the same time, there’s always been an interchange. So her delicate figures have some curious interaction with my figures and mine with hers. 
Spero engaged Golub’s brutes of history in combat on a formal and psychological level with her sculpture Maypole, in part, by extending the borders of graphics, painting, and the use of fabric within an airborne, kinetic three-dimensional form. Previously, Spero had made only two sculptures, Mummified (1950) and Coffee Table Sheela (1985), intimate works on a small scale. Maypole is very much a public sculpture that requires the space of the polis, the space of appearance and dialogue, activated by the viewer/citizen. It is as public an object as the medieval executioner’s stakes on which the severed heads of the condemned would fester and rot in rows on the civic square for all to witness.
Spero’s terrifying heads first appeared in her early dark oil paintings, Les Anges, Merde, Fuck You (1960) and Nightmare Figures II (1961). These heads were stormy demons, disembodied, taunting and cursing with hyperbolic fury. Like the painted metal cut-out heads dangling on the Venice Maypole, red tongues flicking, these nightmare-black angels spit and snarled, their streamlined “wings” flapping at their sides. Some had deathly white heads outlined in black as they swooped downward or upward. Often these dark angels were doubled, with two menacing heads careening in opposite directions, Janus-headed, reinforcing the metaphor of the doorway or threshold from one realm to another, beginnings and endings, images Spero would deploy in Maypole. The artist recalled these haunted beings as revelations: “In the early 1960s, I have these strange creatures, saying ‘merde’ and ‘fuck you.’ They’re very angry images. These snake-like- or worm-like figures are a precursor of the War Series [1966-1970]; they’re screaming and their tongues are sticking out. I think the anger came from a feeling that I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t have an arena in which to conduct a dialogue. I felt like a non-person, an artist without a voice.”
These gruesome heads emerged again in Spero’s series of War Paintings (1966-1970), made in the midst of the Vietnam War and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Affected by the horrific images of the war broadcast nightly on television and the racial violence erupting in the streets, the artist created gouache, collage, and ink paintings on paper, such as Kill Commies/Maypole (1967), Male Bomb (1966), and Female Bomb (1966). The paintings were executed rapidly, and thematically linked sexual obscenity, racism, and the devastation of war. Spero painted, with both a finely tuned delicacy and boundless rage, the defecating, phallic bombs, anthropomorphic helicopters pointing like forefingers to targets below, mutant humans spewing paroxysms of death and chaos, combined with the scatological language of war and political/speak of governments: “pacification” and “search and destroy.” Spero found a public voice in a pivotal form pointing directly to political reality:
When we came back from living in Paris [since 1959] in 1964, I really reacted to the Vietnam War and to the media coverage of it in the newspapers and on T.V. I wanted to do something immediately. I was so enraged. Coming back from Europe, I was shocked that the U.S., which had this wonderful idea of democracy, was doing this terrible thing in Vietnam… I wanted to make images to express the obscenity of war, the collusion of sex, male power and the power of the military. I started working rapidly on paper, angry works, often scatological. I thought the terminology and slogans like ‘pacification’ coming out of the Pentagon were really an obscene use of language. “Pacification.” They would firebomb whole villages and then the peasants would be relocated into refugee camps… In some of these paintings, the image of the helicopter has breasts hanging down and people are hanging on with their teeth, like a circus act. There are bloody bodies, skulls, and remains. I collected all kinds of horrific images… The helicopter is eating and shitting on people, just like an efficient war machine. On one helicopter, half helicopter and half B52, I quoted a pilot: “I laid my stuff all over it.” This was the terminology of the pilots, the terminology for bombing.
By rendering a symbolic and visceral response to the trauma and displacement of war, the artist unhinged her figures from the course of ordinary life and inserted them into a whirlpool out-of-time. Instead of being inextricably embedded in a picture plane of viscous oil paint, her figures on flat white paper, sometimes collaged, were hurled into uncertainty, spatially and temporally. Spero explained her methods and the development of condensed imagery:
In the War Series angry screaming heads in clouds of bombs spew and vomit poison onto the victims below. The bomb was the first image, thinking about Vietnam and how I could express this evil… Phallic tongues emerge from human heads. The bombs are phallic, too, the trunk of a bomb, a male torso with an elongated penis. Then there were male and female bombs… There were scatological images, human bodies dragged through mud, smeared with a brown mixture the color of shit and blood. I used a lot of bloody colors and spit. The paintings are fragile but they are very angry… The act of erasing bodies was so violent that the paper was shredded. I rubbed away at the paper but to get it to shred I had to spit on it.
Spero graphically depicted the transition into debasement -- mutating excrement, urine, and vomit – a result of an inchoate, savage violence taking on a life of its own in cycles of sexualized destructive impulses. In her War Series, Spero painted grotesque female as well as male bombs, and she did so from the point of view of a woman raising three sons on the home front. The artist’s physicality of approach to materials echoed a psychic struggle:
They were manifestoes against a senseless obscene war, a war my sons could have been called up for, though they were very young… These works were exorcisms to keep the war away. It’s a kind of exorcism… I’m the courier, I carry the message from the past and present.
Golub recognized the significance of Spero’s collaged and painted images of war: “… And as action, spontaneous and casual, the collage became a carrier of indignation, harking back to street art, graffiti, burlesque, the carnival, the dance of death.” And it is difficult not to see the dance of death recreated in Spero’s kinetic sculpture, Maypole.
To show us the faces of death, Maypole’s double-sided heads are a mix of frontal, profile, and three-quarter views. By these variations, the artist sets up another way to psychologically engage the viewer. There are difficulties in registering consistent “readings” of frontal and profile images. A profile view may signal detachment from the viewer, a mask, belonging to a missing body in a shared space, “he” or “she.” The frontal face may signal intent, a latent or potential glance directed at an observer, “I” or “you,” existing in a space contiguous with the viewer. Because Spero schematically generalizes, abstracts, and cuts images out of context, and then reinserts them into the new Maypole context in three-dimensional space, the images can fluctuate among “I,” “you,” or “she,” concurrent with their implied trajectories. The same frontal or profile image may be hand-printed in many different ways, so that a variety of “readings” and directional movements are suggested, having the effect of shifting emotional states and an eerie free-for-all movement. The duality of frontal and profile may also mark a congruity between good and evil, sacred and profane, active and passive. These paradoxes multiply within the axes of the Maypole itself, which ostensibly marks the anticipation of celebration, community, and the fertility of spring, while in fact it dangles images of violent death directly into the pathway of the living.
On site in the Italian Pavilion over the course of a week, Spero’s long-time assistant, the artist Samm Kunce and artist Mary-Beth Gregg, along with a Biennale crew, erected the huge pole and attached the nearly two-hundred heads on ribbons and chains suspended from the pole and ceiling. During the meticulous planning stages in the studio, Spero and Kunce had considered in their calculations of the 360 degree radial expanse, the orientation, scale, sightlines, light sources, and architectural elements which figure in conception and execution, aspects which painters of discreet objects are not obliged to consider. Arising as well were the practical issues of the logistics of working in the main entryway, possible technical difficulties, vandalism, the coordination of assistants, and the skillful negotiation with Biennale staff.
Maypole/Take No Prisoners, installed as a disjunctive threshold under the sky-light, set in motion kinesthetic and optical experiences congruent with a human’s height, reach of the arms, and scope of the eyes’ range. The falling light from above and the breezes from the garden became active formal elements heightening the symbolic and phenomenological elements of the Maypole. As a temporal element, cyclical but unpredictable, Spero’s use of the sky-light emphasized the Maypole’s shining beauty from a distance and yet illuminated at close range the terror of recognition in the hanging faces. A clatter rose from the breeze’s movement and the shimmer of metal from afar beckoned the visitor to enter. Inside, agonized faces rained down from above in an embodiment of the bitter realities of war.
Today it’s the same, absolutely the same as it was 40 years ago, only worse. The government hides everything from us today… The Maypole is full of victims; the blood is coming out of their heads. They’re decapitated… I responded to the debacle in Iraq as I did during the Vietnam War, by trying to express the obscenity of war.
As I photographed the installation unfolding -- watching the interaction of Kunce, Gregg, and Gina Miccinilli, an American sculptor also assisting in the process – other artists from the Biennale and their assistants walked in and watched as the heads multiplied and clanged. We nodded silently in acknowledgment, knowing we recognized a kind of mysterious accretion of powerful energies unleashed. A young man passing through predicted that during the opening festivities no one would be “sipping cocktails under Spero’s Maypole.” I noted, in an unscientific way, that most visitors tended to take one of two paths as they entered the doorway and confronted the Maypole: when they registered exactly what was in front of them, either they made a quick dodge to the periphery to escape into the gallery with Sigmar Polke’s paintings or they halted and then moved intently toward the axis, looking up to the heads silhouetted by the sky at the center of the maelstrom, where they lingered for quite awhile. The art critic Jerry Saltz made note of this trajectory: “The Italian pavilion begins with Nancy Spero’s chilling Apocalypse Now-like maypole of cutout heads. Two rooms later comes the climax of the whole show, the gigantic quasi-abstract paintings by the old magician-artist, Sigmar Polke. Nothing that comes after reaches these heights.”
In the Los Angeles Times, critic Christopher Knight summed up his reaction to the discomforting paradoxes Spero dared to bring forth:
Inside the front door, Nancy Spero's "Maypole/Take No Prisoners" dangles ribbons and severed profile-heads in painted metal on chains from a tall steel pole rising into the skylight. (Welcome to the show!) The maypole is an ancient pagan form, part playful axis linking earth and sky and part communal symbol of authority. Spero's grim yet marvelous version greets summer with the clanging of bloody, spewing faces, blown by the breeze and festooned with tassels.
Veteran art critic for The Guardian, Adrian Searle, recognized the communicative artistry and the discomfiting encounter achieved: “Look at the maypole of angry, spitting, snarling, crying, screaming faces by Nancy Spero, now over 80, in Robert Storr's Italian Pavilion show. Searle noted especially Spero’s unabated inventiveness and her vitality of vision, which he found astonishing.
Indeed, in 2008 alone, Spero has had major works, each from different periods in her career, on view at New York museums, including works from the museums’ permanent collections: Hours of the Night (1974) at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Notes in Time (1979) at the Museum of Modern Art. In addition, The Hours of the Night II (2001), lent from the collection of Ulrich and Harriett Meyer, Chicago, was featured in the exhibition “Collage: The Unmonumental Picture” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” the comprehensive, historical exhibition of international feminism and its legacy at P.S.1, Contemporary Art Center Long Island City, included several of Spero’s paintings: Woman Breathing (1978), selections from the War Series, and panels from Codex Artaud (1971-1972). Most recently, her retrospective exhibition (July 4-November 5, 2008) at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) in Barcelona, Spain, ranged from Spero’s earliest works on paper made while she was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to her new reinterpretation of Maypole/Take No Prisoners.
My deepest gratitude to Nancy Spero for the opportunity to witness and to document her remarkable Maypole, and to the artists Samm Kunce, Mary-Beth Gregg and Gina Miccinilli. -- Deborah Frizzell.
[i]Wilfred Owen, The Poems of Wilfred Owen (New York: Norton, 1986), 117.
 Golub quoted in conversation with the author, Deborah Frizzell, “Interview with Leon Golub,” New York Art Magazine 6, no. 7/8 (July/August 2001): 31.
 Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, trans. Ross Guberman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 71-81. See Kristeva’s discussion of the etymology of the Greek “polis” with regard to Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy, anchored in both dialogue and action within the polis as opposed to detached, solitary rumination, isolated from the larger society.
 Author’s notes of conversations with Spero in New York, 1/17/03 and 1/20/03.
 Author’s notes of conversations with Spero in New York , 2/8/03 and 2/19/03.
 Author’s notes of conversations with Spero in New York, 2/8/03.
 Author’s notes of conversations with Spero in New York, 3/26/03.
 Leon Golub, “Letters,” Artforum 7, no. 1 (March 1969): 3-4.
 See Meyer Schapiro, “Frontal and Profile as Symbolic Forms,” Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text, (Paris and The Hague: Mouton, 1973): 37-49.
 Author’s notes of conversations with Spero in New York, 7/18/07 and 7/26/07.
 Jerry Saltz, “The Alchemy of Curating,” artnet.com, July 17, 2007, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/saltz7-17-07.asp, accessed 7/25/07.
 Christopher Knight, “Venice Biennale: Eclectic Art in the ‘Present Tense,’”
L.A Times, June 29, 2007.
 Adrian Searle, The Guardian, June 12, 2007, http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/visualart/story/0,,2100857,00.html, accessed 6/14/07.