Nancy Spero: Politics and Protest

ART21: When did your attention turn to political subject matter?

SPERO: I think my political instincts came by having a partnership with Leon Golub. He always had one foot in the political in his art, whether it was overt or not. And I think that drew me to him, and to his theories and his art, and that aspect of his thinking influenced me a lot. I had been apolitical in my art until I knew him. When we came back from Paris and saw that we had gotten involved in Vietnam, I realized that the United States had lost its aura and its right to claim how pure we were. We had entered a war when it was uncalled for. And why? It was specious reasoning from Washington, as far as I was concerned. I realized how guilty we were as Americans. I felt a responsibility, and that was working on me when I started The War Series. I had been wanting to change the way, and what, I was painting.

I had been doing black paintings of lovers—oil on canvas, drawings or paintings on paper. And then I saw all this on television, not even censored, open: images of bombing and strafing of Vietnamese villages by helicopters. I remember a terrible image of a woman running from her house, which had been set on fire. The helicopters were flying low, strafing people who were running from their houses. And we were the ones causing this. I felt then that the symbol of the Vietnam War was the helicopter, and that became my primary subject matter.

The images of the severed heads in the war paintings are from my imagination. I had read about men who cut off their victims’ heads and stuck the heads onto the spikes of an iron fence. Or they cut off the ears. Terrible stuff. It was to make tangible the booty of war—what a warrior would take from a battlefield, dismembering his victims and using those parts as decorations for himself.

ART21: You lost your innocence, watching the war on TV.

SPERO: That’s a perfect way of putting it; that’s so great. By seeing all this on TV, I really lost my innocence as an American citizen.

ART21: How does The War Series relate to your current work, Maypole: Take No Prisoners?

SPERO: The latest work is over here. It’s in progress. I actually have cannibalized my own work. I had this idea for a number of months about what I would do next—to liberate myself from what I have done, and to think about what I really want to do in the future. But I hope that my art is a continuum and that it moves through the years like a melody.

In doing the Maypole, I was thinking about one of the paintings I had done in The War Series. I had done a maypole with bloody severed heads hanging from gaily-colored ribbons. And then I was invited to be in this show, and I thought, “What in the devil am I going to do?” I tried sketching certain things, and I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do for this project. Then I thought about the maypole.

ART21: You’re making Maypole for an exhibition?

SPERO: Actually, this is for the Venice Biennale. I think it’s going to be in the front, in the Italian pavilion, in the first room.

ART21: What connects all these works?

SPERO: There’s a terrible similarity running through all this stuff. So, instead of going into photographs or any other kind of media, I just dipped into what I had reacted to, forty years ago. It’s horrific, trying to show the insanity and brutality of war. I couldn’t do it in a realistic fashion, so it got kind of surreal. Even though I was responding to Vietnam, all these grotesques—these surreal images—are my response to war. That was my subject matter, and it still is. For the most part, one wouldn’t realize it was about Vietnam. You know, as they say, “It’s art because I say so”—so, it’s Vietnam because I say so, or Iraq because I say so.

ART21: Why are the heads of women?

SPERO: I guess I decided, at that point, that I would put my art where my head was. I was part of these women artist groups and had a real interest in what it meant, that I was a woman artist in the world. So, I exclusively painted women. Later, I kind of retrogressed and did both men and women, although . . . strange, I saw the Maypole as mostly women’s heads, but I don’t think it had been quite done that way. I think I had painted male victims as well as female.

ART21: But you’re thinking of them now as women?

SPERO: Now I’m thinking of them as women. But I think a lot of them were quite masculine, and I think they were at the time when I painted those images. They were of both men and women.

ART21: You are often working with your paintings and drawings in space, with many panels that get installed around the perimeter of the gallery.

SPERO: I did this in Torture of Women. I had fourteen panels that I push-pinned to the wall around the gallery—mostly about the torture of Central and South American women political prisoners, and the conditions in which they were jailed and abused. I was zeroing in on the subject, investigating as a woman the condition of women. What does it mean to be a woman political prisoner? And, again, what does it mean to be a woman artist?

ART21: Do you consider what you do, as an artist, a form of protest?

SPERO: I guess, maybe, my art can be said to be a protest. I see things a certain way, and as an artist I’m privileged in that arena, to protest or say publicly what I’m thinking about. Maybe the strongest work I’ve done is because it was done with indignation. Considering myself as a feminist, I don’t want my work to be a reaction to what male art might be or what art with a capital A would be. I just want it to be art. In a convoluted way, I am protesting—protesting the usual way art is looked at, being shoved into a period or category. But I don’t want to tell anyone they have to do this or that. I do what I do, and I’m not standing up for women’s art.

ART21: Which works in particular do you feel are about protest?

SPERO: The War Series paintings are certainly a protest. And the Codex Artaud is an art of protest.

ART21: Is protest the subject matter that keeps you going, as an artist?

SPERO: That is very tough, trying to figure out the subject that interests me or keeps me going. Certainly in the past, when I did the lovers, I always described them as existential. Something that’s existential is not just man’s fate; it’s also woman’s fate. It’s everyone’s fate. It’s the human condition.

ART21: There is often a subtlety to the kind of protest in your work.

SPERO: Yes, it doesn’t have to be just straight up or literal protest, like carrying a sign. I think Barbara Kruger might be an overt example of protest art. I feel I never want to tell anyone they have to do this. I do what I do, and if people want to take something from it, I am thrilled. That gets my message out to the world. I’m interested in messages. When I joined A.I.R. Gallery, being able to put my art into the world, I felt that I had these messages to get out.

ART21: A.I.R. is an all-women gallery. That was significant for you. When did you start to pay attention to issues concerning gender and art?

SPERO: Coming back to New York from Paris, I heard about a group of artists and writers who were meeting—both men and women—to investigate how artists worked, what the politics were, what was going on in the art world. For the most part, the women coming into that group did not speak up much. But I heard about WAR (Women Artists in Revolution), a group of women artists who realized that women’s voices were not being heard. I joined that group. I researched. I picketed against the Vietnam War. And I became interested in women artists and how the art world was set up—how mostly male artists got attention—and what it meant to be a woman artist. That shifted my art a lot, toward the political.