Nancy Spero’s death the Sunday before last invites reflection upon what it means for an artist to be politically engaged at this time. Today the New York artworld appears to be more at home with the post-feminism of Lisa Yuskavage, Marylin Minter and Vanessa Beecroft. It may well be that, above all, it is Nancy Spero’s importance in the history of political engagement and feminism for which she will be remembered.
Her dismembered and spewing “female bombs” were a personal and unflinching personal protest of war. Before self-identified feminism in art, these images laid the ground for that feminism. In 1976, upon seeing her relentlessly descriptive series Torture of Women, Donald Kuspit wrote that Spero was “haunted by the death of women.”
I was too young to have seen Spero in an exhibition context at this time, but by the time I was able to she had become a legend. My strongest experience of her work was at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Nancy Spero’s piece, Homage to Ana Mendieta, was a simple gesture – the stain of hands smearing blood upon the wall – but huge in largesse. Ana Mendieta “fell out of her window” in 1985 after a fight with her husband the artist Carl Andre. The artworld was divided over the outcome – Andre stood accused, but it could never be proven. Homage to Ana Mendieta was mournful, defiant and accusatory, the Whitney lent its walls to a political statement that would not leave those walls out of the picture. Spero’s homage was a message from and about a political situation, and inside of this situation it was as though other feminist gestures were taken up by these hands as well, appearing small in the force of its message.
Because of its apparent interest in political effects, negative critical response of the 1993 Whitney Biennial was strong and it was the topic of the first October Roundtable. Since that time it seems that political engagement by artists today is increasingly one of creating a nostalgic community grounded in loss. I felt this very strongly when viewing Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Voz Alta Video documenting a commissioned memorial for the 1968 student massacres in Mexico. It feels to me like the way things are, that we can’t think about the political anymore without wrapping it up into the past and feeling the loss of it.
Around the world, people showed up in sad and quiet protest of America’s invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, in Iran, the death of a single woman was lifted onto a field of green in the hopes that once again in the name of democracy this patriarchal gesture could matter. What can be said of art and politics in our time? Is there room for feminism in it? Does Nancy Spero’s death force us to mark the end of an era, and are we to acknowledge that “the art world has lost its conscience?”