Nancy Spero



Not on display

Nancy Spero 1926–2009
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1635 × 2040 mm
Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996


In 1959 Spero, her husband the artist Leon Golub (born 1922) and their small children moved from Chicago to Paris, where they lived and worked for five years. The paintings she made during this period, of which Lovers is one, are known as her Paris Black Paintings because of the particular technique involved in making them. After painting a layer of black over a surface of 'gold oil', she then rubbed out parts of the image with turpentine, redrawing and repainting to create ancient-looking effects. This was in part inspired by the classical and ancient art she and Golub had studied together in their shared studio in Chicago. Many of the paintings in this series depict couples of indeterminate gender which, for Spero, represent 'the opposite of the idealised notion of the androgynous as a spiritually unified entity' (de Zegher, p.14).

For many years I have returned to a double image which has assumed diverse

forms - in a series of 'le couple' or 'the lovers' - existentially expressed through

the inspiration of Tarot cards. This theme embodies a rapport, a contact of two

beings in a ritual or sensual sense … I would like to believe I am creating images

of poetic ritual.

(Spero, p.122)

In this particular version of Lovers a sketchily delineated couple face each other as though in dialogue, their bodies disappearing and fusing into each other via their laps. Their mutual gaze both separates and unites them, as they fuse into each other's bodies as well as the larger painted ground of the canvas. Spero ultimately came to see these paintings as being about the isolation we all experience in love - the necessity for distance and separation within the state of connection with another. The tension between these two elements (figures separated and yet joined) expresses the poignancy of this eternal lovers' conundrum.

Spero recalls that after becoming a mother in Chicago she ceased to be noticed as an artist, but in Paris, where the issue of her status as wife or mother seemed irrelevant, she discovered a more open-minded response to her work. On returning to the USA in 1964, during the period of the Vietnam War, she began to make overtly political work which cried out against both the senseless and obscene violence of war and the fact that historically women's voices have not been heard. She became active in the American women's art movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, and joined various women artists' action and discussion groups. Her work from this time on brings female figures from historical and mythological sources into contemporary contexts and has come to be known for its feminist content.

Further reading:
Catherine de Zegher, Nancy Spero, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1998, pp.4-5
Jo Anna Isaak, Jon Bird, Sylvere Lotringer, Nancy Spero, Nancy Spero, London 1996, pp.9-10, 122, reproduced p.11
Nancy Spero, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1987, reproduced p.40

Elizabeth Manchester
September 2000

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Display caption

'Lovers' belongs to a group of works known collectively as the Paris Black Paintings, which Spero created relatively early on in her career. In them female presences or ethereal lovers are suspended in dark, indeterminate spaces. The works are pervaded by an impression of melancholy which reflects the artist's existential outlook. A sense of profound alienation from society, and a political radicalism, have informed much of her work. In particular, Spero has commented on the position and depiction of women in western culture by drawing on classical mythological, anthropological and popular imagery. She has always maintained a forcefully feminist perspective, on the historical past as well as the present.

Gallery label, September 2004

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