About 500 art-worlders gathered at the Great Hall of Cooper Union last Sunday afternoon, Apr. 18, 2010, to pay tribute to Nancy Spero, the pioneering feminist and artist who died last year at the age of 83. Among the mourners were artists Chrysanne Stathacos, Rebecca Howland and Susan Silas, curator Maurice Tuchman, artscribes Michèle Cone and Judd Tully and Yale dean Susan Cahan.
Speaker Hans Ulrich-Obrist (whose remarks were read by art historian Molly Nesbit) and two of Spero’s sons with husband Leon Golub, who predeceased Nancy by five years, were grounded in Europe by the volcanic plume, along with a number of other dignitaries. Art historian Benjamin Buchloh, scheduled to speak, was absent due to illness. At the podium, those lauding Nancy Spero for her gestural and political boldness pleaded with their listeners not to let Spero’s art work fall into neglect (although the projected images behind the podium were mostly of Nancy’s fierce persona and not her images).
Most eloquently, Yale Art School Dean Robert Storr framed Spero’s pieces as dueling semaphores of text and painting, imploring the audience to continue her discourse, whether judging Spero’s body of work as "positive or negative." Storr recalled curating Nancy in a Philadelphia show, "By the time she showed up, Francesco Clemente has co-opted the wall Nancy had intended to use for her mural, by painting a series of men with erections. Nancy simply painted a field of vaginas around them."
The melancholy image of Spero as a perpetual art-world outsider, even in death, continued with Molly Nesbit’s own remarks about a show that Obrist and Spero had proposed to curate, for then-director Richard Martin, at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1994. The show was devoted to "homeless fashion," the cultural significance of the "uniforms" worn by people living on the street. According to Nesbit, the idea was rejected out of hand, although I can imagine that the late Mr. Martin, a dry, impish rebel, must have been sympathetic.
Artist Kiki Smith, another speaker, laughingly introduced a tape she had made of her remarks, commenting that it had been difficult to edit and necessitated by Smith’s purported "stage fright." The tape identified Spero as the chief enabler of opportunities for artist-friends of Nancy’s own generation and, indeed, Spero was a master at facilitating grants, teaching opportunities, symposia and all the other assumed heraldries of the elite art world cohort.
A few other signifiers leaked through sincere remembrance and academic jargon: Nancy’s habit of late rising ("insomnia was part of her palette"), the avuncular career counseling of husband Golub, the decisions made around Spero’s only spare piece of furniture, a kitchen table. Whitney curator Donna De Salvo recalled steering the museum into buying a seminal 1974 Spero work, which Nancy later confided that she had held onto for just this purpose.
Leaving the assembly of tribute, I was struck by a conundrum. "Was Spero the fighter on the cultural barricades or the ultimate guest at the elite art world’s salon?" I found my answer, returning home to catch the ABC World News on television. At the end of the broadcast, ABC reported on the groping of Marina Abramovic’s cadre of nude soldiers at MoMA, with all too brief footage of the artist’s fascinating performance art boot camp. Closing the news, ABC anchor Dan Harris visibly snickered, "That’s our report from the art world!"
While the art world is in dire need of more humor from within its ranks, to the outside world, too often, we remain just a marginal joke. Thus, Nancy Spero’s work has only just begun.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).