Nancy Spero: Works 1954 – 1986

09.05.87 – 14.06.87

Curated by Jon Bird and organised in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA, London) and the Orchard Gallery (Derry), this was Nancy Spero’s first retrospective in Europe. She presented a series of paintings, drawings, and paper scrolls created over the previous thirty years. Throughout her career, Spero constantly challenged the absence and denial of the female voice from the prevailing social and symbolic order as both language and representation.

The earliest works in the show – such as the Black Paintings – were oils on canvas produced in Paris in the early 1960s. Inspired by mythic, archaic, and classical prototypes, ‘many breasted Great Mothers and Prostitutes with hints of the powerful investments of ancient fertility rights’. [Fruitmarket Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1987]

After moving back to New York in 1965, Spero abandoned her stretched canvases and matriarchal imagery for a series of drawings on paper that represented the sexualised violence, military hardware, and destruction provoked by the ongoing war in Vietnam. They featured ‘war machines like praying mantises, phallic helicopters, bombs shitting fire, blood and napalm, black mushroom clouds of heads with their tongues extruded in pain or servility’. [Fruitmarket Exhibition Catalogue, 1987]

The later works consisted of paper scrolls handprinted and collaged by the artist that allowed her to expand the scale and format in which she was working, whilst denying a sequential or narrative reading. With reference to different sources, Spero developed a range of exclusively female images, which represented ‘descriptions of extremes of misery and oppression blended with images of women not simply as helpless victims but as contrasting symbols of anger, defiance and ultimately freedom and Victory’. [Fruitmarket exhibition guide, 1987]

As the Directors of the touring partners wrote, ‘Through the ‘black’ paintings of the 1950s, to the triumphant and iconoclastic lyricism of Spero’s Goddess scrolls and totems, the exhibition marked her steady fusion of the subjective, with the apocalyptic.’ [Mark Francis, Iwona Blazwick and Declan McGonagle, ICA/Fruitmarket Gallery/Orchard Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1987]

Marieta Guzman – Fruitmarket Archive Intern, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2022


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