in conversation: Nancy Spero / with Stephanie Buhmann November 2003
Born in Cleveland in 1926, Nancy Spero is regarded as one of the most influential women artists of her generation. She studied at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago and the École des Beaux Arts in Paris before moving to Europe in the late 1950s. After spending five years in Paris, Spero returned with her husband, artist Leon Golub, and three young sons to New York in 1964, where she became highly involved with feminist movements that focused on the rights of female artists. From 1966 to 1970 she worked on her groundbreaking War Series, a collection of angry manifestos against the Vietnam War. Though it took decades for this important body of work to receive the critical acclaim it deserves, its content and imagery is as powerful today as ever, nailing the problems of current politics on its head. From October 23– December 6, 2003, a variety of works from War Series will be exhibited at Gallery Lelong, New York. The Brooklyn Rail’s Stephanie Buhmann met with Nancy Spero to discuss both the past and the present, as well as her experience as a woman artist.
Stephanie Buhmann (Rail): When reading about you or following your interviews, one hardly finds any information on the early years. Out of curiosity, did you have a sense of direction when you graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago? Were there any female artists you admired or even considered role models?
Nancy Spero: At that time I didn’t really have any women role models. I wasn’t thinking about feminism. I went to art school because it was the only thing I was really interested in. For me, it was all about making art. It was the only thing that I really wanted to do and the only thing that I seemed to have some talent in. In those days, in Chicago, it wasn’t such a glamorous thing to be a visual artist.
Rail: Was your family supportive?
Spero: We were two girls, my younger sister and I. I always had the impression that my father didn’t care, because we were girls. But it was contradictory too, he wanted us to have a fine education and we were sent to top public schools. When I applied for the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, my father didn’t mind, but also did not show any support that I have a career in art. Anything that wouldn’t lead me too far from home seemed to be fine. My mother, as I recall, seemed to go along with my father.
Rail: So he considered art school as entertainment for women before getting married?
Spero: I think so, it wasn’t taken seriously. It would have mattered had I been a man.
Rail: But you took yourself seriously as an artist and remained dedicated when starting a family of your own?
Spero: I did, because for one thing, I felt that I couldn’t do anything else. But when I graduated in 1949, it was hard for me to say "I am an artist!" Such a bald, bold statement!
Rail: In 1959, you moved with your family to Europe, where you lived in Paris for five years. Was it during this time abroad that your sensibility for foreign politics heightened?
Spero: Yes and no. We did not participate but were highly aware and sympathetic to the Algerian cause. We felt that it was France’s problem, France’s war. Leon was more politically in tune than I was, though his art wasn’t political either; it dealt with violence and aggression, but in more general terms.
Rail: When did you start to focus on political issues?
Spero: When we came back from Paris in 1964 we were immediately confronted with the Vietnam War through the media (even as we were simultaneously trying to track my cousin who was in the summer Olympics!). That’s when I became really upset about what was going on in Vietnam. That’s what changed my whole perspective on the work that I was going to do. I started to paint the war in this crazy way. In the beginning, I focused on bombs, helicopters, though I didn’t really know much about helicopters then, and I started saving photos of bombs and helicopters. You know, nothing was really covered up the way the government hides everything from us today. They found out that they couldn’t permit this kind of stuff to leak out to the public, because there will be hell to pay. That’s when I stopped painting the Black paintings, which took forever to paint and I could only do five a year at the most. The war paintings I would make very rapidly and angrily.
Rail: So the elements of speed and immediacy come into play?
Spero: Yeah. With the War Paintings, I had to figure out how to paint "manifestos" against the war and the violence. From 1966–70 I worked fast and furiously. No more laboring over oil paint and canvas. I used gouache, watercolors, drawing inks, and paper.
Rail: And your imagery became very aggressive and metaphorical.
Spero: Very. Everything changed.
Rail: Did you consider these works as an installation or as single pieces?
Spero: Single manifestos, but I could have imagined them together when being thumb-tacked to a bare wall. But when I was working on them, no gallery was interested anyway. The works do have a crazy history because of this. I mean I gave some away as anti-war manifestos and of course, I couldn’t sell any. Some got lost and misplaced. But the others are in very good condition, because they were in the drawer for so long!
Rail: Did you show the work to any art dealers or curators?
Spero: Once. When I told artist friends of mine that I thought that I should really show the War Paintings (and not only in anti-war shows), they told me that Leo Castelli was nice about looking at artists’ work. So I made an appointment, but he didn’t see me. Castelli’s assistant, Ivan C. Karp [who later founded the gallery OK Harris] looked at the work. He was a small man and then I was much taller than I am now. I was even wearing high heeled boots. He told me to put my drawings one after the other on the ground. There were a lot of these empty stands that galleries often use for sculptures and I asked if I could put my paintings on them. But he said "no, no" and pointed to the ground. So I was forced to genuflect every time I would change the drawings. I did this a few times and then he got very impatient and asked me what I was showing him this stuff for. And then he said: "Come over here," and took me to the wall. There was a small picture of a spray painted light bulb, it was retouched. He said: "Do you see this? This on the wall? That’s the way art should be. Untouched by human hands." I was so insulted. I collected my paintings and rode home with them in the subway. That was the only time that I took them to a gallery. They didn’t get shown until very much later.
Rail: When did you finally receive some positive response for this particular body of work?
Spero: In 1983, when I gave myself a simultaneous mini retrospective in three kinds of alternative galleries, Lucy Lippard wrote up these shows in the Village Voice and her doing that generated enough interest. She had really liked the War Paintings and a man, who had read her review, bought a painting. So in the end it took over fifteen years to get there. But a lot of artists have worse problems than I do… So I was thankful when these almost forgotten works, which were pretty much all I was doing for five years, were finally acknowledged.
Rail: Looking in particular at the depictions of the bombs as phallic symbols, it seems that here, your strong focus on the painful consequences for the women, especially the mothers, becomes a central issue.
Spero: Yeah, and that’s what I think about now. Just dreadful. Woman as sexual victim, political victim, economic victim. Women as mothers who see their sons go to war and who don’t want them thrust into this carnage. I think today, although the government covers it up, there is a growing awareness of these issues in the military.
Rail: When thinking about all these different artists organizations during the Vietnam War, do you feel that artists today don’t collaborate enough?
Spero: The art world is too much a glamour factory. My friend Dustin Spear, during the war in Bosnia, made three long black dresses, which cover the whole body. She would silently stand on different street corners, wearing these dresses. It was her anti-war protest, a very powerful image. But I think that she’s never really received credit as a mourning mother. The mother of the collective.
Rail: Let’s talk about WAR (Women Artists in Revolution), a radical group of women artists, which you joined in the early 1970s.
Spero: When we came back from Europe, we had three young sons. With Leon and even a male dog that made five men in the family. That was pretty heavy duty. During the late sixties, I started to hear about radical women activists, such as the radical feminist collective The Red Stockings, who were not focused on the arts, but in radical actions. So there was all this exciting stuff going on. That’s when I really got interested in these feminist groups. At first, a friend took me to AWC (Art Workers Coalition) meetings, which were made up of men and women and then I heard about an offshoot, a women group called WAR (Women Artists in Revolution). I loved it. I was so angry at that time about so many things, especially about not being able to get my art out, to get people to look. I thought, "WAR"— that’s it. We started to organize some actions and protests and wrote manifestos. For example, a few of us marched into the Museum of Modern Art and demanded equality for women artists. Then, I joined another, the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists. It all went very fast in those days.
Rail: Was it just through these groups that you began to have access to other female artists?
Spero: Yeah. Before, I was pretty much by myself. I felt that being women artists connected us all. We shared our stories about how we were working, our histories, and how hard it was to gain recognition. For example, in 1968 Joyce Kozloff and I published "The Rip Off File" listing incidents of women artists being discriminated against. We were an isolated bunch. When we met, we often started by cooking together, what we called mealtime and then, after clearing off the table, we would bring our painting materials out and would begin to work. I just liked that a lot, the communal environment, the knowledge that we all did understand the isolation forced upon us as women artists, of being shunted aside. Then, Barbara Zucker had the idea that we should open a gallery for women artists. In the fall of 1972, A.I.R., New York’s first women’s gallery opened.
Rail: Looking in particular at the exhibition programs of New York’s major museums, which almost exclusively feature male art stars, it seems that not much has changed for women artists in this respect.
Spero: Not at all and nobody is picketing. The last time some women were picketing was in front of the SoHo Guggenheim. [On June 24, 1992, the Guerrilla Girls collaborated with the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) for a joint action outside of the SoHo Guggenheim Museum, which planned to inaugurate its new galleries with a show of four or five white, male artists. The women demanded the inclusion of nonwhite, non-European, non-male artists in the museum’s opening show and urged more diverse, community-responsive curating. In response, the Guggenheim hastily added one female artist, Louise Bourgeois, to the exhibition list.] Well, most women would have held their nose and turned away in disgust if being asked to join this particular show. To this day, the problem remains that women artists are not considered as important as their male colleagues.
Rail: Looking back at your rich and creative life, how do you feel about time?
Spero: Well, I measure time now through my artwork. It’s so funny. When I think about political events or recent history, I try to remember on which one of my series I was working at that moment. What was I working on, why was I working on that at this particular moment, and did it make any sense in terms of what was going on worldwide? And you know in the end, being a woman artist, I always liked that it was such a struggle. I loved it. I thought, "I don’t care, I don’t give a damn, that’s what I really like doing, so be it." This is so contradictory! This recital is another reporting of an artist’s disappointments (and recognitions and self-recognitions that one gains or is aware of). Today’s reality is different. I have had or will have solo museum exhibitions in London, Paris, Munich, Hiroshima, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, New York, Chicago, etc., plus permanent and temporary installations in approximately fifteen museums. I’m saying this not to boast but to point up how an exhibition like the War Paintings brings up the bad old days— and the good old days. One can’t kid oneself— it’s still an unrelenting struggle!