Nancy Spero: 7 Essential Works

Politics, ancient art, female suffering, violence, and mythology are all important themes in Nancy Spero’s art.

Apr 13, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

nancy spero essential art works


Nancy Spero was born in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When she was a student in Chicago, she would visit the ancient artifacts in the collections of the Field Museum of Natural History. Imagery seen in her works was inspired by the ancient culture of Egypt, Babylon, and medieval Europe, as well as goddesses and myths. Her involvement with the feminist movement also had an impact on her art. Historical violence against women influenced her work. Here are seven pieces discussing themes essential to Nancy Spero’s art.


1. Nancy Spero’s Lovers

nancy spero lovers
Lovers by Nancy Spero, 1962 via Tate, London


Nancy Spero’s Lovers was inspired by classical and ancient art. She studied the topic with her husband and fellow artist Leon Golub. They examined ancient Etruscan and Roman sources. Spero’s  work Lovers is part of her Black Paintings series which she made in Paris. Spero and Golub moved there with their children in 1959. They stayed and worked in Paris for five years. The name Black Paintings can be explained through the technique that Spero used to create them. First, she covered the canvas with gold foil and then painted over it with black color. By rubbing some spots with turpentine, she exposed the golden layer underneath the black. Through drawing and painting some spots again, Spero emulated the effect of ancient art that inspired Lovers.


The two lovers depicted in the painting are facing each other and seem intertwined through their legs. Their position is supposed to illustrate how the experience of love is characterized by both isolation and togetherness. The work seems to suggest that love needs distance as well as the feeling of closeness. According to Spero, the figures were inspired by Tarot cards and depict a spiritual and sensual connection. With Lovers, Spero hoped to create an image of poetic ritual.


2. The War Series

nancy spero male bomb war series
Male Bomb I by Nancy Spero, 1966 via MoMA, New York


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Politics and violence are recurring themes in Nancy Spero’s art. Her War Series is far from timid and it is indeed supposed to shock the viewer. According to Spero, the obscenity of the war should not be lost in the images. As the military of the United States became more and more involved in the Vietnam War, Spero reacted by creating The War Series.


The series consists of more than 150 paintings made on paper. Instead of oil on canvas, which Spero used for her earlier works, she began to work with paper. This transition was motivated by Spero’s wish to lessen the degree of importance and permanence of her work. From 1966 on, Spero worked almost exclusively with paper. The material’s fragile and transient qualities emphasize the series’ imagery of vulnerable bodies subjected to violence.


Aggressive, violent, bodily, and sexual aspects characterize The War Series. It includes depictions of skulls, bleeding, dismembered bodies, and bombs. Therefore, it demonstrates the horrifying consequences and suffering caused by the Vietnam War. Spero discusses the theme of gender in the series by creating male bombs. Male Bomb I is an example of these depictions. It shows a naked male body with exposed genitals and two seemingly violently moving heads spewing blood or having snake-like tongues.


3. Codex Artaud

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Codex Artaud V by Nancy Spero, 1971, via Courtauld Institute, London


Codex Artaud is based on the writings of Antonin Artaud. Artaud was a French poet, actor, and theoretician interested in mysticism. He is best known for his Theatre of Cruelty. The concept of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty revolves around the suppression of humans through civilization. Theatre was supposed to free them from their repressed feelings by getting rid of the barrier between the audience and the performers.


The Codex Artaud series consists of 34 scrolls which include images created by Spero combined with texts written by Artaud. Spero was fascinated with the anger and alienation of Artaud’s work. She incorporated it into her own art since she struggled with similar emotions caused by her experiences of living in the United States and working as a female artist. She described Artaud as masochistic and passive despite the violence of his gesture and language. Spero found the extremity of his work unparalleled and used it to deal with the pain caused by her rheumatoid arthritis.


For Codex Artaud, Spero continued her work with paper and the discussion of the material’s fragility. The works of the series consist of collages made of drawings, images, and texts. Artaud’s texts were written with a typewriter. According to Rachel Warriner, the totemic figure visible in Codex Artaud V is reminiscent of Egyptian iconography and pieces in the collection of the Field Museum that Spero used to visit.


4. Torture of Women 

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Torture of Women (Panel 1) by Nancy Spero, 1974-1976, via Siglio Press


Like Codex Artaud, the Torture of Women series integrates text and images into collages. It consists of several panels. According to Nancy Spero, the Torture of Women series is her first feminist work. It took the artist two years to make it. Spero combined images of myths and ancient art with texts that included reports of torture victims, a definition of torture, and news reports about missing women. The work illustrates the institutional violence against women and the oppression they had to endure.


The first panel of the series is characterized by large yellow hand-printed letters spelling Explicit Explanation. Spero took the words from the Commentary on the Apocalypse by the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana. Once a tool officially used by governments, torture usually stays hidden today, even though it still takes place. The lack of explicit pictures represents the invisibility of the victims of torture methods. Spero’s work intends to break the silence around the topic. The first panel displays Amnesty International’s definition of torture from their 1975 Report on Torture.


5. Notes in Time 

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Notes in Time by Nancy Spero, 1979, via MoMA, New York


Notes in Time is another feminist work by Nancy Spero. When Spero became involved with the feminist movement in the 1970s, she also explored the topic in her art. Notes in Time is a feminist illustration of history and it includes themes characteristic of Spero’s work like mythology. She did not want to portray women as victims and included heads of female figures with stretched-out tongues. The tongue can be seen as representing the woman’s weapon, speech, and sexuality. It also depicts a woman running with a comically large penis. I can be interpreted as the female figure carrying the heavy burden of patriarchy, but it is also supposed to be rather fun, which is how Spero described it herself.


The first panel of Notes in Time depicts a quote reading Certainly childbirth is our mortality, we who are women, for this is our battle. Spero drew attention to the quote’s unexpected nature by saying that childbirth is usually seen as something that makes parents immortal since the child and their genes continue to live on even when the parents are dead. The whole series includes 94 quotes that Spero found in books and magazines. The images were inspired by goddesses as well as pop culture. She also included a letter from a female artist who wrote about how happy she was about getting a divorce.


6. Marduk

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Marduk by Nancy Spero, 1986 via Courtauld Institute, London


Marduk is a political and feminist work that addresses violence against women. The work’s name is based on a god from ancient Mesopotamia called Marduk. The three blue panels tell the Sumerian myth of how Marduk catches the goddess Tiamat in his net, stabs her, disembowels her, crushes her skull, and splits her body into two halves. The work also includes news reports about how women who were involved in political activism got abducted and tortured in countries like China and Turkey. It features newspaper headlines like USSR Holds Woman in Mental Hospital, Paraguay: Thirty Years of Human Rights Abuse, and Reagan’s Silence on Abortion Terror. Marduk juxtaposes contemporary violence against women with a mythological story, thereby creating, as Rachel Warriner calls it in her text This Fragile Thing – With Bite: Nancy Spero’s Feminist Scrolls, a historical continuity.


7. Nancy Spero’s Sheela-Na-Gig

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Sheela-Na-Gig by Nancy Spero, 1991 via MoMA


Nancy Spero started to integrate the figure called Sheela-Na-Gig into her scrolls in 1983. The mysterious figure can usually be found as an architectural element inside or outside churches with Romanesque architecture in central and Western Europe. Most of the figures can also be found in Ireland. Its historical meaning is unclear. Even though there are many hypotheses, the meaning of the name is just as uncertain as what the figure stands for. Some speculated that the figures were supposed to protect a building from evil and the devil, while others saw them as fertility symbols. Nancy Spero’s interpretation aligns with the latter explanation as for her the Sheela-Na-Gig was the goddess of fertility and destruction.


The Sheela-Na-Gig is one of many goddesses Nancy Spero included in her art. Since she had a strong interest in mythology and female archetypes which she liked to juxtapose with depictions of contemporary women to create a continuous narrative through time, goddesses such as Tiamat and Artemis appear in her work. Even though Nancy Spero’s interpretation of the Sheela-Na-Gig as a fertility goddess might not be historically accurate, the artist used figures like these because they seemed sexually empowering. Whether or not the Sheela-Na-Gig has historically been a positive symbol of female sexuality, Spero wanted to emphasize the figure’s role as a protagonist and subject rather than an object of the male gaze.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.