Nancy Spero (American, 1926–2009) was a Figurative artist and feminist who expressed her dissatisfaction with racism, violence, and sexism through her artworks. Spero was born in Cleveland, OH, but grew up in Chicago, IL. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she met her furture, Leon Golub, a young World War II G.I. who was also a painter. After receiving her BA in Fine Arts, Spero continued to study painting at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris, where she met the Cubist painter André Lhote (French, 1885–1962). He became her teacher and critic.
In 1950, Spero returned to the United States, married Golub, and settled in Chicago. The Vietnam War and pervasive exploitation of human rights apparently affected Spero's work. From 1966 to 1970, she created her War Series, a group of gouache paintings, collages, and ink paintings done on paper. The series included Male Bomb and Female Bomb (1966) and Kill Commies/Maypole (1967). In 1971, Spero developed her signature scroll paintings known as Codex Artaud, a series that merged images and text. In these paintings, she directly quoted the work of French playwright Antonin Artaud, whose mockery of human folly reflected her condemnation of a sexist world. By this time, Spero was already an active member of the Art Workers Coalition.
In 1972, she helped found A.I.R or Artists in Residence, the first all-women cooperative gallery in SoHo. Her unapologetic feminism showed more on the scroll paintings Torture in Chile (1974) and Torture of Women (1976), both of which depict the historical oppression of women. From 1976 to 1979, she worked on Notes in Time on Women, a 20-inch by 210-foot paper scroll depicting women in bodily hieroglyphics from prehistoric times to the present. This was followed by The First Language (1979–1981), a 20-inch by190-foot paper scroll.
In later years, Spero illustrated women more as heroic free agents than fragile victims. In the early years of her career, she received little attention from the art world, but in the late 1980s, she received international status in the United States and United Kingdom as a preeminent feminist and Figurative painter. She transformed her scroll paintings into wall murals, and, in 1988, she developed her first wall installations. Throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Spero gained visibility because of her adaptation of Minimalism, Pop, and Color Field paintings. She held her first solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in 1988, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1992. Spero and her husband often exhibited two-person shows.
Spero settled and worked in New York until her death from heart failure in October of 2009. Her works have been exhibited in the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.