History painting has for a long time occupied the apex of the pyramid of genres in the visual arts. But ironically, it was during the 20th century, when we had a wealth of historical disasters, that history painting lost its prominence. In part, this shift explains painting’s diminished hegemony in the face of newer media. For those of you who are painters in the room—I am one too—I do not announce that as a fact that I celebrate, but simply as a reality that painting has now got competition from many other media. It is also a reflection of the conflict of ideologies that were a characteristic of the 20th century, of revolutions that ate their own, and therefore made it harder to commemorate history as the record of history kept shifting in accordance with ideological points of view, positions, dominant characteristics, or tendencies. And of course separating history painting from pure and simple propaganda has always been difficult. We now look at the paintings that David did of Napoleon and grandfather them into a category of art when in fact they were nothing more than pure propaganda, though beautifully, expertly done. Then of course, there is the corresponding dearth of unimpeachable heroes. History painting has generally required heroes given its affirmative aspirations and usually heroic scale. Anti-heroic history painting is something that we have only just begun to see in our time.
In the 20th century, the contenders for history painting that merit continued attention are relatively few: the Mexican muralists, particularly Orozco; Picasso’s Guernica, but not his paintings of Korea. Of a kind that is anti-heroic in scale but truly heroic in other ways is Jacob Lawrence’s migration series. There is also the work of Nancy Spero’s husband Leon Golub, whose anti-heroic mercenaries, white squads, and other pictures tried to show what power looked like when it was out in the world doing what it did in secret, but he tried to make it less secret. Gerhard Richter’s October cycle and September paintings, which are single TV screen-sized paintings, are also history painting, and also belong to this anti-heroic impulse, to the desire to portray bad history. In commemorating bad history, you are not commemorating heroes, you are not bringing people together around the things about which they agree, but rather the things about which they disagree, and it changes the nature of history painting fundamentally.
Nancy belongs in this latter group, but she contributed something to it that no one else before her has attempted, and that no one has since done as well. Her earliest works were concerned with archetypes, with primal imagery. She spent as much time in the Field museum in Chicago as she did in the Art Institute. The first images were a mixture of observed bodies and archetypal bodies extracted and distilled from the things she saw: both primitive art, so called, and ancient art, so that they were sort of great mothers, or good mothers and bad mothers, if you want to go in the Melanie Klein direction. Or maybe they are just Gorgons.
The next group of paintings was of lovers, intimate pictures of the way men and women are together in the dark. These pictures were not much seen when they were made, and have been brought forward in recent years by artists and art critics who are interested in her work. In a sense, they have rewritten the history of Nancy’s life because what she was known for is what comes next: a series of paintings motivated by the Vietnam War, and a series of work that comes after that that is intensely political in character in a way that her earlier work was not. The early paintings about the war attempted to gender war, to show how masculine aggression turns into bombs and weapons and phallic tools of destruction. One can argue about these things, but one cannot deny that the images themselves are immensely compelling. And if I say we argue about it, it is because we’ve had a significant number of women warriors who are keen on bombs too. Maybe the old gender politics don’t work quite so well.
What followed next was very surprising indeed. It was a series of paintings, first in visual images and then a series of scrolled images, or long, wide images, where she took the texts of the unclassifiable French writer Antonin Artaud. It was a case of perverse ventriloquism for an emerging feminist to choose an outright misogynist man to be her Charlie McCarthy. Through Artaud, she found a way to represent the betrayals and unreliability of language, and language in its most visceral nature. The featured character in many of these things is the tongue. The tongue is phallic, but it is also many other things: very specifically, it is meat. It is language as flesh, language as body, and words as vomit.
The next group of works that she created built out of this. She began to change the focus and correct, if you will, the sexual politics of the Antonin Artaud impersonation by making works in which only women appeared. No men at all. And from 1973 onward, that was pretty much the case. There are occasions when men do appear, but mostly in the form of quotations, and usually not to their advantage.
Nancy developed a format at this time that was like nothing one had seen. She was interested in scrolls, but she was also interested in murals. A mural is a big heroic architectonic thing, and a scroll is the antithesis of that in certain respects. On the other hand, one can use scrolls like friezes. One can cover walls with many pieces of paper and have the same effect as a mural, but always contrasting the fragility of the paper support with the solidity of the institutional walls, or built walls, that surrounded it. This format freed her from the rectangular shape of western painting so that she could move ideas through space and time—and she was very much interested in time. It created a dispersal of information and imagery that allowed her to be dialectical, a word not as popular now as it used to be, or dialogical, a word that is now more popular thanks to Bakhtin. She was never saying one thing, and she was never saying any one thing from one point of view, unlike so much art that is rhetorical in some of the ways that hers was. She was always saying multiple things. She was always arguing in pictures, and allowing arguments to transpire. She was, in a word, a postmodern aux lettres, and quite specifically: she dealt with a lot of letters. She dealt with a lot of French letters, too.
There is a term left over from the 1930s called “prematurely anti-fascist,” which is what people on the left said about other people on the left when they jumped the gun and went after Hitler before Stalin said it was OK. In a way, Nancy was prematurely postmodern. She was aesthetically incorrect as well. Rather than follow the direction of so much art at this time that was text and image-based, she was interested in what a hand could do as well as in what mechanical devices could do. She was interested in contradictions more than she was interested in certainties. She freely mixed conceptual and textual art with perceptual and pictorial art. Most especially, she freely mixed the analytic, that is to say the consideration of the world as it appeared to her, as she could learn about it through media and so on, and the expressive, the world as she felt about it, or as others felt about it. It is not for nothing that I chose a work of hers as the first work in the Venice Biennale, which was predicated entirely on the idea that these separations, these dichotomies, were impossible.
Nancy pursued all of these things in the midst of a very full life. She was the mother of three sons. She worked at night because that is what people who have children have to do if they are to tend to the children during the day. She also worked at night because in a sense many of her subjects were nocturnal. They are the things that are cast in shadow, the dark times of public life. It is also because some of the things that she made were shocking, and she didn’t want to have them lying around with young children. So she would make them and then roll them up. In any case, she found a way to do what was extremely difficult when she started in the 1940s and 50s, and that wasn’t much easier by the time that she was in full gear, in the 60s, which is to carry on a full life as a member of a household and at the same time a full life as an artist. That included a great deal of public activism, particularly in feminist causes, particularly as one of the founders of A.I.R. Gallery, and activism in anti-war movements of all kinds. It also had to do with working in public formats. If you come up here on the subway, you will see at 66th Street, right there by Lincoln Center, a marvelous Nancy Spero mosaic in which you have Sarah Bernhardt and dancers from Attic vases and a whole lot of things going on. You have the business of taking these very fragile images and putting them in a variety of places, such that finally, when she was unable to draw any longer, she used stamps. She would go into buildings and stamp up the walls. She would fill buildings with this sort of Pandora’s box of imagery.
Nancy found a way to combine all of the things that were important to her, that is to say the life of women, the way in which history bleeds into the present, the way in which fragile things can be very fierce. At the end of her life, that was her work’s principle dichotomy: fragility and fierceness. She was also very funny.