Spero's radical body of work explores issues of subjugation, brutality and the abuse of power. She created an identity through the acts of borrowing and disguise. In early work, texts as well as images were enlisted from a wide range of sources to express alienation, disempowerment and physical pain. Directly quoting the writing of poet and playwright Antonin Artaud, Spero voiced her anger at being exiled as a female artist to the peripheries of the art world. Spero's often radical work made strong statements against war, male dominance and abuses of power, presenting compelling arguments for tolerance and a non-hierarchical society. Yet her work was never simplistically utopian. 'Utopia, like heaven,' she once remarked, 'is kind of boring.'
Over her lifetime, Spero's practice grew increasingly collaborative, reflecting both her involvement in the politics of the Women's Movement as well as the progressive physical difficulties she faced as a sufferer of chronic arthritis. During her life she remained politically active and was a founding member of the first women's cooperative gallery, A.I.R. (Artists in Residence), in New York.
In her late work, Spero drew upon a broad range of visual sources - from Etruscan frescos to fashion magazines - to create a figurative lexicon representing women from pre-history to the present. Her work, she stated, 'speculates on a sense of possibility and comments upon immediate events, political, sexual and otherwise'. Richly layered and vibrantly cinematic, epic works such as Azur (2002) are celebratory tours de force reflecting Spero's political engagement and dynamic imagination.
Nancy Spero was initiated by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, (presented from 13 October 2010 to 10 January 2011), and adapted for the Serpentine Gallery.
In conjunction with this exhibition, the Serpentine hosted a talk by Gary Indiana. Influential American writer, essayist and journalist Gary Indiana read from his latest publication To Whom It May Concern, produced in collaboration with the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). To Whom It May Concern pairs her beautiful colour-wash male and female torso images with his word-poems, creating a meditation on relationships, sexuality and physicality. Gary Indiana's short, visceral but lyrical texts form a conversation with Louise Bourgeois’ images, in an unconventional non-narrative, part of a broader dialogue about the barrier of flesh, about desire and intimacy.