“I make (myself): envoi”: Nancy Spero’s Contemporary Poetics

David Berridge


I try, in everything I do… to bring it in to today, to show that it all has reverberations for us today. And then it makes sense.

––Nancy Spero

At the Paris Pompidou Centre opening of Nancy Spero visitors were greeted by a series of photos of Spero herself that went around the gallery in chronological sequence, as if the artist had become the sole figure in one of her own friezes, where female figures from throughout history are choreographed into long paper scrolls.

An accompanying video of the artist at home with her family emphasized both a vivid intelligence and a body crippled by arthritis. It could have been distracting from the show itself but, as Roel Arkestijn observed in his introduction to Codex Spero, a collection of the artist’s writings and interviews spanning nearly sixty years, "neglecting to show Spero’s assertive personality leaves out an essential aspect of her significance as an artist."1

The photos and video were absent at London’s Serpentine Gallery’s re-working, where the only image of Spero herself is a 1995 video playing in the gallery’s reception, one made for Serpentine co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It project, in which Spero pins images of Sheela-na-gig on a clothesline alongside her underwear.

Instead, at the Serpentine opener (absent from the Pompidou) is the installation Maypole: Take No Prisoners II (2007), first made for the Vienna Biennale, where screaming heads with stuck-out tongues, often appropriated and reprinted from Spero’s early work, are appended to ribbons and chains unfurling from a central pole, both celebratory and macabre. With the artist’s death in 2010, and with the portraits from Paris still in my mind, it functions here as Spero’s memorial.


1 Roel Arkesteijn, Codex Spero/Nancy Spero: Selected Writings and Interviews 1950-2008 (Roma Publications, De Appel, 2008), 5.

I walked past these tortured heads into a selective retrospective of Spero’s work, one offering a tour through the multi-year projects by which she organized her practice: the early black paintings from a 1950s Paris sojourn; paintings and typings in response to Artaud; sperm bombs and female helicopter "exorcisms" of the (Vietnam) War paintings; the chronicling, by using Amnesty International reports, of the torture and abuse of women. In the gallery’s central atrium, large friezes utilized Spero’s "alphabet of hieroglyphics," her library of female figures from prehistoric fertility goddesses to contemporary models and street protestors.



Spero’s Black Paintings may not be black at all. As Spero observed: "the paintings began to get darker and darker because I would repaint the damn things for months at a time."2 Titles such as Birth, The Great Mother, Lovers V (Fornicators), and Un coup de dent II highlight a conscious desire for myth and archetype. Individually and as a group, the paintings combine a singularity of presence with a melding of copulating and reproducing bodies.

In Birth, a delicate figure springs from a cluster of heads, holding aloft an animal skull, but the vivid, expressionist composition is muted through by being enfolded in swathes of grey and black ink. In Lovers V one figure reclines, an arm behind its head, and another sits up, but the forms of these figures seem to have only partly emerged from rocks or stumps, which in turn are only semi-apparent amidst the grey, white, and black cave of the page.

Because of the date, place, and mood of the black paintings––Paris! Late 1950s!––the link to existentialism is often suggested, although Spero has referenced instead "a personal sense of isolation."3 More specifically, I thought of Nathalie Sarraute’s tropisms, what, in a Paris Review interview, Sarraute called "the interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness."4


2 Codex Spero, 21.

3 Codex Spero, 19.

4 Nathalie Sarraute, "The Art of Fiction No. 115," Paris Review, Spring 1990, no. 114. Online at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2341/the-art-of-fiction-no-115-nathalie-sarraute. 

Insights and breakthroughs come in various ways and chronologies. Les Anges, Merde, Fuck You (1960) has many similarities of form to The Great Mother or Birth: the ongoing process of composition enfolding gestures and possible bodies into a black mass, disappearing and emergent.

Not as emergent, though, as the white writing (of the title words) at the top, and less a labeling of Spero’s scatological brush work than a sudden form for the previously unarticulated. Fuck you. In the aftermath of this moment, tongues, a little embarrassed, point the way ahead.5


In the sequence of drawings around the Vietnam War, what was embroiled in the murk of the Black Paintings has recognizable form. Helicopters and bombs entwined with tongues and sperm, eagles and penises. The "fuck you" or "exorcism"––as Spero refers to these works, thinking about her own children as others were sent off to war––now has a definite language.

In one image a helicopter monster hangs victims from its underbelly by their bloody tongues, but most of Spero’s war paintings, like those done in Paris, show forms more intertwined. A title like Bomb & Victims may suggest a clear distinction, but the image itself loops its blood-red mushroom cloud into the form of a heart (while also suggesting, forty years away, ribbons on the maypole). A male version is another bomb cloud of blue sperm, with tiny human heads for spermatozoon. These appear to be quick sketches on paper otherwise left blank.


As Spero observed in a 1985 interview: "There are weird creatures coming out, out of blackness, and they have little red tongues. It’s kind of embarrassing, these nightmare, wormlike figures." Codex Spero, 9.

To talk of painting as "exorcism" conveys the artist’s quality of engagement, but what of how we receive them? Reducing subjectivity to sperm, breasts, and tongues seems to want identification on the basis of some shared body, but that body is both a superpower’s military hardware through which war, murder, and imperialism are enacted. The paintings allow no scale or perspective by which a body part and a helicopter might be distinguished. Instead, all have been inflated or reduced to equivalence in this mythical and symbolic reality, whose only known coordinates are those of the page on which it is imaged.


I feel the movement of Spero’s politics into the present. If Spero’s trajectory is towards jouissance––with cavorting female figures from across history and geography in her late friezes––I feel my own point of contact to be the Artaud Paintings, where relationships of painter and subject are most fused and contradictory, most open to the embarrassment of the evident. Not hieroglyphs but speroglyphs, writes Hélène Cixous.6

Spero wrote and spoke often about her discovery of Artaud via Jack Hirschmann’s City Lights anthology in 1968, which brought Artaud into the English language and the American avant-garde.7 Spero identifies with Artaud’s sense of exclusion and isolation––his "victimage"––how it translates not into silence but into "the most extreme expressions of dislocation and alienation in the 20th century."8

Artaud offers Spero a model of gender and violence as entangled as that which Spero will later find in the War paintings. Artaud, who "hated women… would have hated a woman re-using his language and shifting his implications." The Artaud/Spero relationship operates as "forced collaboration," or perhaps, "appropriation;" "ventriloquism" is closer than "critical response." Sometimes they fold into letters, notated in Spero’s other hand, balance of correspondence and automatic writing. In a work not included here, Spero wrote in large letters: "ARTAUD I couldn’t have borne to know you alive your despair."


6 Hélène Cixous, “Spero’s Dissidances” in Clara Plasencia ed. Nancy Spero. Dissidances (MACBA, 2008), 142.

7 For example, M.C. Richards translation of The Theatre and Its Double, via Black Mountain College and the Living Theatre, alongside Susan Sontag, "Artaud" in Sontag ed. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), xvii-lix.

8 All quotes on this page are from Codex Spero, 65.

In some of the works at Serpentine, Spero edited Artaud into moments of precise clarity. On one sheet, in big red letters, she writes: ALL WRITING IS PIGSHIT, ARTAUD––a bold pronouncement that is its own negation. The experience of doubleness is impossible to appropriate, perhaps a result of Artaud’s madness, what Susan Sontag senses when she writes: "Not only is Artaud’s position not tenable; it is not a ‘position’ at all."9 Spero is consistent in signing all of Artaud’s texts with her own writing. Here, Spero’s own small signature, in the bottom right hand corner, becomes an indication not just of authorship, but of sanity.

Other pieces in the series work with an illustrative conjunction of language and image. An exploding blue sun emits gold and blue rays above a text beginning "Then there will be a terrible explosion…." When the text evokes "A horrible turd trembling expectantly in the void," an excremental-colored flat seems to be sliding in from stage left.

Early works in the series are written in English, with Spero later switching to French, heightening otherness. Through 1971-72 Artaud/Spero continue to unfold their relationship in the Codex Artaud series, with Artaud’s texts typed (on a bulletin typewriter), then torn and glued together in fragile collages.

Spero’s only writing, apart from citation, is a repeated arrangement and patterning of Artaud’s name itself. The repetition of ARTAUD has a doubling effect. It is both a repetition that creates form and a splintering: a playful homage becoming a ritual chant towards bodily possession. It turns Artaud into his constituent parts which in this case––rather than tongues, penises or breasts––are letters of the alphabet.


9 Sontag, lvii.

As Benjamin H D Buchloh observes, the Artaud works have a double edge in relation to Spero’s contemporaries.10 By their rejection of the scale, gestural politics, and materials of oil painting, they counter the predominance of abstract expressionism (and its justification as art’s evolutionary endpoint in the essays of Clement Greenberg). Spero adopts the language and text (and typewriter) beloved of conceptual art, while mocking, as Buchloh puts it, "their commitment to the purity of language functions and analytical thought."11

It is in Codex Artaud that the decision to work on paper, through collage and seriality, is revealed as the creation of a particular experience: a form of art which manipulates the viewer by making them move close, read along, up and down, with white spaces between images and text functioning as punctuation. If art, as Spero later formulated, is a processing of information with the hope of attaining a certain "resonance", then the starting point for that attaining is giving your viewer a body and mind workout, that also finds analogies in cinema:12

"The viewer is the eye of the camera moving along, stepping back or moving close to encounter language, figures, symbols ransacked from various cultures."13

And, in a 1972 statement, Spero observes:

"My ideas on using collage technique are related to the fleeting gesture, moments (indelible impression) caught in motion. The rhythm of the whole, seemingly discordant, incomplete, or inchoate relates to fractured time—as well as the immediate external realities that impose themselves on my consciousness."14

The analogy to cinema unfolds into Spero’s working-through of ideas around film, manuscript, and collage: an alphabet of forms paralleling her alphabet of hieroglyphics. Her work evokes a perceptual after-cinema quality alongside the Beatus Apocalypse of Persona, a 10th-century illuminated manuscript on which Spero wrote a paper in 1975, drawn to its lurid, visionary, and contradictory end game.15


10 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, "Spero’s Other Traditions" in Dissidances, 75-86. Buchloh suggests that, like the 1952 publication of Robert Motherwell’s anthology The Dada Painters & Poets, Spero’s Artaud works can be seen as polemical reminders of the intertwining of language and the visual within art practice.

11 Buchloh, 86.

12 In a 1994 interview Spero, speaking of herself and Leon Golub, observes: "We both claim to be artists dealing with contemporary issues, imaging figures, participating in the drama of the late twentieth century. Each in our own way records and visually heightens our milieu––taking the extraordinary kinds of information we are privy to––the overload of this era, to use this and turn it into something that will, I hope, resonate now and in the future." Codex Spero, 149.

13 Codex Spero, 70.

14 Codex Spero, 80.

15 Its cast included, amongst many others, The Ninth Angel and the Bottomless Pit, and Woman Clothed in Sin with Seven Headed Dragon. See Codex Spero, 81-82.


Art focused on perception and psychology has to work out its relationship to the more specific work of activism. With Spero, that can seem to be separate from the artwork itself. Throughout the ’60s-’70s, in addition to being a founding member of A.I.R Gallery, Spero was involved with activist groups including Art Workers Coalition (A.W.C) and Women Artists in Revolution, often campaigning on the under-representation of female artists in the art world.  

In her artwork, such activism has to account for the vagaries both of any audience (if the work gets seen) and the complex grammar of its visual languages. In Torture in Chile (1974) and Torture of Women (1976) (neither included at the Serpentine) Spero made a series of works in which the forms developed in Codex Artaud were applied specifically to issues around torture and physical violence against women.

On show at Serpentine is Marduk (1986), whose text is sourced from Amnesty International reports, typed out on a bulletin typewriter. Reports of state-sponsored torture are juxtaposed with the legend whereby Marduk made the sky by capturing Tiamet in his net, stabbing his spear into her belly, crushing her skull, slicing her in two like a fish, then using one half for "a covering for the heavens." The torn pieces of typed-out Amnesty reports are arranged over expanses of blue and the transcendent cavorting of a backward-bending sky god.

Although Spero made a series of works using Amnesty reports and other sources, Marduk is the only of such included here. Its overt mythical frame distinguishes it from Torture of Women, but links it to the other work on show, downplaying the aspect of information that defined this project. The curators seem to have decided such news reports have an uncertain function thirty years after their making.16


16 To summarize one from Marduk: Anna Chertkova, 57, incarcerated for 11 years in a Russian psychiatric hospital after the authorities failed to recognize her Baptist congregation…

In this show, Spero’s politics enters the present more around ideas of peinture féminine (her own adaptation of Cixous’ écriture féminine). Confirming this, to the left of Marduk, where the early Torture of Women pieces might have been, there is the long, delicate scroll of rippling paper from 1978 across which are printed the words "Woman Breathing." On Marduk’s other side is Her Body Itself (1977), the piece where Spero collages Cixous’ 1975 "The Laugh of the Medusa" essay. Is this where the political efficacy of such work can be found in 2011? Certainly there were a lot of Cixous books in the Serpentine bookshop.
Much of the labor of these pieces, however, was typing out, as an act of witness, detailed acts of murder, rape, kidnap, and torture enacted upon named women. The people in the gallery up close, bent over, reading, become aware of this history. In reproductions of these works, as here, the specifics of such witnessing disappear.


In 1975 Spero transferred a drawing to a zinc plate used for printmaking. She went on to gather over 400 images comprising her “alphabet of hieroglyphics,” a gallery of female figures derived from art and history books, contemporary media, and her own paintings. After 1988 Spero moved from paper prints to printing directly on walls, also making a series of public installations, including one in New York City’s 66th Street subway station.

Spero’s alphabet unfolded from an earlier decision to use only the female form, a direct attempt to use Woman as universal protagonist in the same way as Man. As Spero wrote in 1985:

"I use only images of women, to represent woman as protagonist and hero. This is a reversal of the typical art practice of portraying men as heros and protagonists… These works are distanced from the westernized notions of the personal subjective portrayal of individuality… I am not interested in individual physiognomies or personifications… The repetition de-individualizes Western "subjectivity" in a non-hierarchical continuous presence."17


17 Codex Spero, 115.

Spero was much criticized for how this "de-individualizing" felt free to take images from cultures across the globe. She responded by outlining a conviction that politics should never mean a policing of visual choices, and that, despite the elements of witnessing, archive, and documentary in her work, "I make no claim… to be speaking for anyone other than myself."18

At the Serpentine there are two frieze works, Hours of the Night II (2001) and Azur (2002). The latter fills three walls, stacked four layers high, presenting a crowded, cross-referencing, textural jazz of patterns, colors, and figures. If the frieze is a public form, with all that demands for clarity of message and image, then Spero also evokes the frieze as a self-made environment of noise and interference.

Spero herself, in referring to her figures as hieroglyphs, saw them as a continuation rather than an abandonment of language. This might suggest we should read these works in a manner akin to reading the Amnesty Reports painstakingly typed out for Tortures of Women, that we construct meaning and intention as carefully as the reports themselves present their evidence of dates, times, and violent acts. And that a sense of syntax is useful in maintaining focus on how meaning is formed.

In front of Azur, such a reading seems impossible. I respond, firstly, to the movement of running and dancing figures, recognizable by fashion, geography, or epoch, with varying degrees of specificity and generality, although distinctions might collapse. Here, what might be a Venus of Willendorf-like figure turns out to be an eighteenth century gynecological model.


18 Codex Spero, 130.

Reading across and down the frieze, letting the eye drift, figures repeat, change direction, shift from photographic to drawn and hand-printed reproduction. In one photo of bondage, a naked women tied to a chair meets the camera’s (male) gaze. The image, now drawn, appears below, then is printed five times in a line.  

In this and all the other figures in Azur, Woman becomes Protagonist, beyond the specificities of image-situations where she might originally have been victim or male fantasy. The success of this maneuver is its sense of empowerment and the way it connects diverse representations into a public discourse. The unease at what is lost and ignored through such an action is also part of their power.19


In the notes for her recent collection Meddle English, the poet Caroline Bergvall writes of her Transcriptions how they "celebrate ideas of dictation, transcription, chains of learning and interdependence. Transmission here is urgency and meticulous pleasure at material handling. Nancy Spero’s Codex Artaud is never far from my mind."20 

Spero is never far away throughout the whole of Bergvall’s book. Certainly her Chaucer re-workings are a similar act of inhabiting that unfolds toward seeing neither herself nor Chaucer as ground, but utilizing both and more to manifest the "the midden, the middling, the middle, the meddle" of language, as Bergvall writes in her book’s opening essay.21 I couldn’t help but read this following statement of Bergvall’s poetics in dialogue with the Spero exhibition, one 2011 re-working of Spero’s project of politics and affect:

"There are the obvious ones, the official line, the family line… The fine lines that crisscross between belonging, adhering, disappearing. Dissenting lines or lines of flight that sustain or dissolve under lines of fire, bizz lines, rumors. Songlines, memory structures, great pick-up lines. Outlines like edges, silhouettes, phasms, ghostings, x-rays. They set the wider configurations, the threadings that fall in under a future perfect of English as language practice, what I call Middling English." (5-6) 


19 Spero’s own response seems not to have included such ambivalence. Speaking of her installation at the 66th Street Station, Spero observes of her frieze: "It’s theatrical; it’s spectacle; it’s polemic; it’s real. My strategy is putting celebration forward. I give myself liberties." Codex Spero, 161.

20 Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English (Nightboat Books, 2011), 162.

Cixous’ essay on Spero declares her to be "A poet in painting… a poet, with the poets’ tattered soul."22 It is into experimental poetry that I have been following the trajectories of Spero’s work and this exhibition. Take Erín Moure, in an essay unfolding her own poetics, who articulates both my excitements and questions about this show when she writes:

"Because if you use a word, or a sign like a word, a hieroglyph, relying only on semantic meaning, you are back to that gap between desire and expression where ‘something’ is lost. A heat loss, entropy. This makes memory essential because without it we would risk total heat loss; we would spontaneously combust. But memory is also a structure framed by social order."23

Moure and Bergvall unfold this show’s insights that the legacy of 70s (art) politics is via renewed notions of écriture féminine. Not ALL WRITING IS PIGSHIT, but a body humming with a discourse both deviant and the most natural thing in the world (to adopt Spero’s global reach), in varying ways celebratory and tragic.

Which brings me back to that maypole.  


21 Meddle English, 5.

22 Cixous, 131.

23 Erín Moure, My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice (NeWest Press, 2009), 22.


Or perhaps less the maypole than some notion of a contradictory public utterance. Maypole: Take No Prisoners, as a prominent commission for a professionally acclaimed artist, is assumed to have the efficacy given to such contexts, within which it makes its statements, both celebratory and macabre, bold and decorative.

In the Artaud works, there is no assumption of such a space. Instead, there is an enactment of its absence, the painful condition of non-existence it provokes in the individual denied its reassurances and acknowledgements. Here, public space can be related to only by sticking out a tongue which could also be a penis, a forceful if somewhat limiting strategy.  

It is the space between these two projects, the personal and historical ruptures and continuities by which one becomes the other, that makes this show feel vital and relevant. I hope this thinking and writing is a way of keeping it open.