National Museum of Women in the Arts
Nancy Spero
August 24 1926 - present
Photograph of Nancy Spero , 2003, by Abe Frajndlich, courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York, NY, USA
Place of Birth:
Phonetic Spelling:
NAN-see SPAIR-oh
Minority status:
White non-Hispanic
Work Type/Media:
Drawings and prints, Painting, Installation Art
Artistic Role(s):
Calligrapher, Collagist, Graphic Artist, Installation Artist, Painter, Printmaker
Feminist Art
Artist's Biography:
Born in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, Nancy Spero earned her Bachelor of Arts from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1949. She traveled to Paris in 1950 to study at the École des Beaux-Arts and Atelier André Lhote, and in 1951 married existentialist painter Leon Golub with whom she had three children. During her time in Paris, Spero produced a series of paintings of prostitutes, lovers, and mothers. In light of the popularity of Abstract Expressionism, American dealers considered her figurative work unfashionable, and Spero struggled for early recognition. Spero, however, continued painting figurative subjects, refusing to conform to contemporary trends. She extended her time in Europe, living in Ischia, Florence, and Paris, where she continued to paint and develop her thematic interests.

In 1964, Spero moved to New York where she and Golub shared a studio. She continued drawing and painting figurative subjects, but abandoned traditional work on canvas, choosing instead to work on more ephemeral surfaces such as rice paper and other fragile handmade papers. Reacting to political issues such as the Vietnam War and the atomic bomb, Spero began her War Series, a collection of gouache and ink drawings that represented the horror of war using imagery that suggested masculine power and violence.

Her interest in political and gender issues developed into an interest in the role of female power and influence in society. Working with collaged images of women derived from primitive art forms, and adopting a horizontal scroll format, Spero’s work began to address more overtly feminist concerns. Using mythological notions of the Great Goddess, Spero sought to strip away layers of repression of female power. Her “Dildo Dancers,” which are appropriated from an ancient Greek vase, represent the inherent power of female sexuality as something to be celebrated, not ignored.

During the 1970s, Spero created Codex Artaud, a series of works using misogynistic fragments of text from Antonin Artaud. She continued developing her political feminist themes, and in response to Amnesty International case files that documented abuse toward women in various cultures, produced Torture of Women, a collection of images collaged with text or footnoted to direct the viewers to more detailed information. Her powerful portrayals of feminist themes continue to interest and sometimes shock viewers with the horror of misogyny, violence, and war embedded in contemporary culture.

Other Occupation(s):
Feminist, Teacher
Place(s) of Residence:
New York
Where Trained/Schools:
École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France (1950-1951) Atelier André Lhote, Paris, France (1950-1951) School of The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA (1945-1949)
Related Visual Artists:
wife of Leon Golub student of Paul Wieghardt friend of Sylvia Sleigh friend of May Stevens colleague of Howardena Pindell
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Hiroshima Art Prize, Hiroshima, Japan (1996) Skowhegan Medal for Works on Paper, The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME, USA (1995) Grant, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, USA (1977)
Earliest exhibition:
Résurgence, Galerie Breteau, Paris, France (1962)
NMWA exhibition(s):
Presswork: The Art of Women Printmakers
Inside the Visible
Partners in Printmaking: Works from SOLO Impression
WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution
From the Collection: Contemporary Figurative Prints
Artist retrospective(s):
Leon Golub and Nancy Spero: War and Memory, List Visual Art Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA (1994) Nancy Spero: Works Since 1950, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY, USA (1989)