For more than five decades, Nancy Spero (1926–2009) pioneered a feminist art practice that fiercely defied the social expectations imposed on women. Using a lexicon of appropriated imagery, Spero envisioned, as she observed in 1987, “all manner of processions, conflicts, interruptions and disruptions.” Her hybrid artworks made in protest against war and in celebration of the liberated female body constitute Nancy Spero: Unbound, an exhibition organized in conjunction with a concurrent presentation of Francisco Goya’s prints, which Spero first encountered as an aspiring young artist.
Spanning the artist’s entire career, Nancy Spero: Unbound includes one of her earliest surviving works: a lithograph dating from around 1950, depicting ecstatic dancers whose outstretched limbs resist containment. In 1966, when Spero initiated a truculent series of drawings to protest the Vietnam War, she began to work primarily on and with paper, a material she preferred for its versatility and economy. She subsequently introduced the use of collaged images made from cutouts of her prints. She also joined paper sheets end to end to create vertical and horizontal scrolls, often composing on a monumental scale.
The expressions of ecstasy and protest that defined Spero’s early practice gave way to representations of the female subject as an “activator” in works derived from found and altered images, sometimes with accompanying quotations. Late in life Spero explored her visual lexicon in new and even more expansive sites, drawing and printing directly on the wall and revisiting her Vietnam War–era imagery to create one of her last major works, Maypole: Take No Prisoners II (2008), a towering, multi-part sculpture that serves as the exhibition’s arresting centerpiece.