Nancy Spero: Art as a Continuum

ART21: What was the inspiration for your work, Black and the Red III?

SPERO: When I showed Black and the Red III in Malmö, Sweden, it was a continuum—a band—all around the gallery. It was an enormous room, and the plan was that I was going to hang the work, push-pinned to the walls, however I wanted, and then do an installation. At that time, when I was doing installations in the 1980s and ’90s, I used a black-and-white letterpress plate to print the images and then, instead of using metal plates to print on paper, I used polymer plates to print onto the wall. But seeing this huge space in the gallery in Malmö, I just took a deep breath, and I put the paper around in a single band. Then I continued along, printing on the wall, like a trompe l’oeil, to reiterate the images in the work printed on paper that I had push-pinned to the wall. I literally took the rhythm and the images from Black and the Red III and continued that on the wall.

ART21: Was that a spontaneous improvisation?

SPERO: Like this installation, a lot of my work through the years has been truly ephemeral—printing on walls, which are painted over after a show. It’s like theater or dance. When the show is over, it’s finished. It’s gone. It only remains in the memory or in photographs. When you call, “Strike!” you stop, and the installation’s finished. There are no more showings of it, and it’s gone.

ART21: When did you make the adjustment from printing and painting in a conventional sense to working in a linear format?

SPERO: I really had started that, in a certain way, with the Codex Artaud in the early ’70s. It was the largest piece that I did back then. It was twenty-five-feet long, and it was on a number of panels, either glued together or push-pinned together to make it look like one. I started thinking about an extended linear format in the early ’70s and then continued from there.

ART21: And before that, your work was more traditional?

SPERO: Over the years, the work has evolved from the more traditional oil painting or drawing format of either the rectangle or the square. My art—I have let it continue and extend. It’s an extension—where one might look at it and then have to move their whole body, if it’s long enough, because one can’t twist their head all the way around.

I never thought of my work in terms of being radical, although I tried to make it radical—that is, to shift the premise of what goes for pictures on a wall. I wanted my work to say something other than the usual—the usual format for an artwork being a rectangle, a square, or anything flat, framed, and attached or hooked on the wall. That was accepted practice, mainline thinking. So, I decided to experiment—to extend the square or rectangle that was straight ahead of the viewer, and to have something that one would have to look at with peripheral vision engaged. Your eye wouldn’t just rest on the work right in front of you. You would have to get down and go look at it carefully.

ART21: There are a lot of other colors in Black and the Red III besides just black and red.

SPERO: Yes, but it’s mostly black and red. With that piece, the color came out even before I decided on that title or what I was going to do. I wanted to paint, and I wanted to shift from dancing all over the place to do something more geometrical—to get it down to a patterning and a control in the space that looked less coded than one might otherwise think if I added black and red. In a continuous line on the wall, it was like a message. The figures that were black and red were taken from Greek vases, the ancient Greek vases on which the images were black on red.

ART21: Did the figure of the dildo dancer come from those Greek vases?

SPERO: I don’t know if the image of what I call the dildo dancer was from a vase, but in any case, I transformed it. You see: she’s holding a dildo in each hand. I loved that figure when I first saw it; it was so full of vitality. Everything I show here is exaggerated; it’s all from my imagination—all of these highly sexualized poses and activities, all either murderous or joyous. I like the idea that I can have that freedom. I’m really grateful.

ART21: What about these figures up here, the Egyptians?

SPERO: Oh, these are the ancient Egyptian musicians in procession. Ancient art has influenced me, and I’ve taken great liberties in using the format of the Egyptian papyrus and writing, and the imagery of the ancient Greeks. I start geometrically. The backgrounds are repetitive with patterning. I try to keep it rather contained and controlled on my part. These pieces are printed that way in the studio and then printed on the gallery walls as a continuum. These images are in other pieces of work that I’ve done, but in different combinations. You keep seeing them pop up.

ART21: Are certain figures your favorites?

SPERO: I have over five hundred images in my art at this point to choose from, to reuse. Originally, the images were mostly from art books. And a lot came from magazines, contemporary media. I have my stars. The dildo dancer is one, and so are the ancient Egyptians and the musicians. They occur and re-occur. The musicians can be playing or dancing, either for a melancholy or happy occasion, and in a procession. I do a lot of storytelling, but it’s without a real narrative.

ART21: Were you hanging out at the Metropolitan Museum, to discover these ancient figures?

SPERO: No, no. It was from books, mostly. I have a bunch of books on ancient art and Egyptian art.

ART21: What was the inspiration behind the installation, Cri du Coeur, which also has Egyptian figures?

SPERO: Cri du Coeur was the first piece I did after [my husband] Leon died. A cri du Coeur is a cry of the heart, something of intense emotion, almost like praying or pleading with heaven. Since it was about mourning, I wanted to emphasize a kind of prayerful looking up—looking up to heaven or God knows what—looking down, in a gallery with very tall rooms. I decided that it should be on the ground, like a funeral procession. And I decided that was what I wanted to do in Cri du Coeur.

ART21: Did you always want to be an artist?

SPERO: I suppose I felt doomed to be an artist early on, because of the way I drew all over the books that I needed for school, from ancient history to math. I was more interested in drawing in the margins than actually doing the work. I went to the University of Colorado for a year or two. I didn’t like it at all. I was worried about being an artist. That was the only thing I felt I could do—draw and paint—and it was the only thing I wanted to do. Yet, for some strange reason, I felt that it wasn’t of use to society. Where I even got that idea is beyond me.

I went back to Chicago and, luckily, there was a space at the Art Institute. At that time, the students were in the Art Institute itself—in the museum—and I was able to look at the work. What was really interesting, and what may have influenced me most, was a show of tapestry. The tapestry had a real narrative and a format with repetitions. I was excited by that, but I didn’t really use it until much later in my career.