I knew I wanted this post to be about a feminist artist. There are many feminist artists I could talk about like Georgia O’Keeffe who painted flowers that resembled female reproductive organs, but I wanted to focus on someone that many do not know: Nancy Spero.
Nancy Spero was born in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio (1). Spero is known for her powerful drawings and collages in her later life but I want to focus on her turning point: when she went against what she learned from the Art Institute of Chicago and decided to take a stance on her beliefs.
During the Vietnam war, many American citizens felt the threat of an atomic bomb. Near the end of the war, people found comfort in material items and home-life: The nuclear family (2). Spero started out as an ideal mother in the nuclear family. She and her husband were painters, but his works greatly overshadowed hers. This “hiding behind the nuclear family,” coupled with more troops sent into Vietnam sparked a change in Spero’s artwork. She quit her simple oil paintings and switched to watercolor and ink (1). The use of watercolor and ink was not thought to be a proven art form until the 1970s when Spero’s feminist work became popular for its content more than for its material (4).
With this transition, came Spero’s involvement in women’s rights and peace war efforts. Spero joined Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam in 1964 and then the Art Workers’ Coalition in 1968 (3). However, at both places, she did not feel that women were represented enough, so she turned to women’s groups, such as Women Artists in Revolution. Spero focused on finding other women artists ready to fight oppression (3).
“I was literally sticking my tongue out at the world” (1)
After Spero said this quote in 1974, she dedicated herself to only depicting women in her artwork (1). This was a huge feminist stance in art, but it made her famous.
The Bomb, painted in 1968, was part of Spero’s “The War Series” in which she depicts atomic bombs, and helicopters in a slightly sexual and disturbing way (3). The sexual quality has two meanings: one, that men are being hurt by the war effort. And two, that men are causing the war. These two depictions are shown in much of Spero’s war art in which a masculine war is self-damaging.
When examining this watercolor and ink piece, a male figure has two snake/devil penises and an atomic bomb devil cloud as a head. Critics of The Bomb talk of the decision to have these “male heads” repeating throughout the piece as showing the negative impacts of men. Men are the source of death in war because of the masculinity of war and man’s involvement in continuing war and not being as involved in anti-war efforts. This is a very feminist take by Spero because many men did get involvement with the anti-war effort(2). But her strong feminist actions made her have a lot of followers in her anti-war movements (3).
The fact that these male devil-heads are on the penis and the cloud show Spero’s opinion that men are the source to both problems of death in war and oppression of women (5). While the “exploding bomb” head is a depiction of the war, when paired with the two penises, it can be interpreted that men use their sex (aka 2 penises) to rule more than their brain (exploding head).
Many critics found Spero’s work to be “childish” and un-profeshional, but Spero gave hope to women artists by what they put on a canvas, not how well they do it (3).
Nancy Spero wanted a public reaction. She wanted to change America. And Spero indeed moved right along with the times from an anti-war protest, to a sexual and feminine revolution (2)!
1. Mancoff, Debra N. 50 American Artists you should know. “Nancy Spero” p. 116-117.
2. Krome-Lukens, Anna. In-class lecture. 2015
3. About Nancy Spero. “Women art revolution.” Stanford University – Digital Collections. https://lib.stanford.edu/women-art-revolution/bio-nancy-spero
4. Cohen, David. Art Critical: The Online Magazine of art and ideas. 2003. http://www.artcritical.com/2003/12/04/gallery-going-a-version-of-this-article-first-appeared-in-the-new-york-sun-december-4-2003/
5. Spero, Nancy. The Bomb. 1968. 1968. gouache watercolor and ink on paper, 34 x 27-1/4 inches