Presenting the ‘Self':
Nancy Spero and the Visible Inscription of Maternal Subjectivity

In “Spero’s Curses” (2007), Mignon Nixon traces artist Nancy Spero’s confrontation and articulation of self as individual, woman, artist, and mother. Spero’s Homage to New York (I Do Not Challenge) (1958), Black Painting Series (1959-1966), and Les Anges, Merde, Fuck You (1960) work upon each other’s formulations of the limits, boundaries, and layers of this ‘self,’ positing and embracing an inner self. Spero’s work is a project of making present and giving body to the inner self—the psyche—and using that as a canvas upon which to inscribe her subjectivity. While presenting the inner self and making it central, Spero maintains the external self’s isolation of the margins. Nixon emphasizes Spero’s use of this isolation to articulate the aggression, derision, and contempt that stems from her socio-professional condition. “Opposition” thus emerges as one of Spero’s core techniques in consturctings her multiplicity of ‘self.’ Through locating the outer self, Spero anchors the viewer as she materializes her inner self and grows it to be expansive. Upon that surface, she puts language and subjectivity into conservation with one another, dismantling the attainable comprehensibility of either. Spero’s project is one of (re)constructing and (re)staging the inner and outer self in relaation to one another to render language precarious and subjectivity unknowable. Central to Spero’s art is then her evolution in presenting the ‘self’ in search of an unpresented ‘self.’

Spero’s 1958 work Homage to New York introduces her presence into her painting through her pointed use of language and parody. Painted in garish reds, burnt yellows, and sickly greens, Spero places two portraits to the left and right of a phallicized tombstone etched with the initials of recognizable (male) members of the canon of abstract expressionism. She labels one portrait “NANCY,” and the other “SPERO,” set up in opposition to the tombstone’s initialized names. At once, Spero asserts her outsider status. Spero’s positioning of self is essential to Homage’s ability to evoke the “contempt that burns from exclusion” that Nixon describes (4). The force of her parody originates in her marginality, and her dualized presence in the margins as “NANCY” and “SPERO” “declares her absence” by making herself present (Nixon 4). The form of “homage” demands this: “For to pay homage…is to assert one’s place in the discourse,” writes Nixon (5). In making her absence visible, Spero then transforms homage into parody and mockery. The piece is thus predicated on Spero’s ability to locate her ‘self.’ Yet, Spero chooses to paint her imaged ‘self’ in fractured form: she is inscribed as both “NANCY” and “SPERO.” Two selves who appear as near-identical mirrors yet remain separate, interrupted by the New York School. Set against one another, “NANCY” connotes the familiar self while “SPERO” connotes the artist in the hands of the public and as referred to by the academic arbiters of canonized (in/ex)clusion. She therefore indicates a ‘self’ as it is known to the individual herself and a ‘self’ as it is known to others, each divorced from the other. Spero destabilizes the assumed “wholeness” of the known individual, instead positing a plurality of selves and raising them to the level of visibility. Through this coy confrontation with the New York School, Spero thus positions her presence in a dual sense: at the same time Homage positions her ‘self’ as individual within (read: outside of) the art world and its canons, it also locates this externally-present ‘self’ as incomplete, as a part of a fractured whole or a greater composite ‘self.’

Spero extends her first introduction of ‘self,’ the “NANCY” and “SPERO” twins of Homage, as she embraces the inner self in her darkly-painted series, the Black Paintings (1959-1966). Depicting the lingering figures of “lovers, mothers, and children,” Spero creates traces of bodies in dark layers and whispers of a once “bright palette.” (Nixon 8). While she does not paint herself into the scene in as explicit of a manner, The Black Paintings take the viewer through the outer body and place the viewer at the cusp of Spero’s psyche. The series articulates an embodied lonely intimacy through Spero’s use of the darkness to fracture from her outer self and isolate this inner self (Nixon 7). Nixon discusses the intimacy and distance that darkness communicates, articulates, and defines within the series:

To portray, in painting, a blindness, is to evoke the losses exacted by time, but also the contingency of connection. Figures face toward each other across the darkness, but gazes fail to meet. The intimacy of touch conceals, but also confirms, a distance, a reaching into those shadowy depths to which the other, however close at hand, is palpably lost. (8)

In the experience of distance in darkness that Spero paints and Nixon describes, the inner self becomes larger, more expansive, and more ‘lived within.’ The world becomes grounded in the sensory and tactile and the body becomes central. She operationalizes the external self as a surface upon which she can give body and shape to the inner self, the psyche. Her placement of the external self in darkness illuminates the psyche. Nixon calls upon Spero’s own words to explain this paradoxical experience of cold co-presence, “These figures were meant to be about isolation. The figures are related and yet they are not” (Nixon 8). While the psyche’s presence expands, Spero does not entirely abandon nor dislocate the external self, but rather indulges in its sensory experience, bringing the viewer into the body. Her project is thus not one of externalization, but rather destabilizing the outer self so the inner may become visible.

Nixon invokes a similar Spero work that interrupted the Black Paintings series titled Les Anges, Merde, Fuck You (1960). Ink on paper, this drawing shows three figures’ profiles, ghoulish and gaping in white, as they are set against a dark background shaded in blacks. The figures’ bodies are only alluded to in the dynamic and subtlely lighter ink that trails behind the faces. In delicate white ink, Spero pens “les anges,” “merde,” and “fuck you,” which are stark in comparison to her own signature that sits in the corner written in the same black that spreads over the letters, threatening her name’s legibility. In her indulgence in black and white, light and dark, Spero manufactures planes of seeing and being that affirms delineates the inner self from the outer. Against the dark background, the white letters seem written on the inside of the eye’s lens, an intimate transcription of inner dialogue. Spero’s discreet signature is then akin to the placing of the external self in the external dark scene, equated in darkness, while the white text writes her subjectivity into the scene.

Spero’s use of darkness to both distance and locate the external self centralizes and gives body to her inner self, thus providing a surface upon which to inscribe her subjectivity. By using language-made-visible to present her subjectivity, Spero is able to comment on both the futility of speech and the incommunicability of subjectivity. It’s not simply about defining a “subjectivity of motherhood,” but rather embedding the shortcomings of language in her inscription. Language becomes a futile means of communicating the ‘self’ and its subjectivity, and motherhood only antagonizes the condition. Nixon, with the help of Benjamin Buchloh, explains that “’the evident absence of the linguistic competence to articulate oneself publicly’ is an effect, precisely of ‘being characterized as wife or mother’” (10). The wife/mother must, therefore, find “’clandestine forms of speech’” through which she can begin to assert her dynamism and confluence of subjectivities (Nixon 10). Spero’s use of “les anges,” a French term of endearment for children, confronts “Merde” (Shit) and “Fuck you,” the terms that trail after. Her commentary written unto the image complicates the image, rather than clarifies it. She uses profanity, anger, contempt, derision, and violence against the “normative femininity” through which psychoanalysts shaped notions of maternal subjectivity (Nixon 11). Spero may call upon these emotions because of her dualized presence of ‘self.’ She maintains the isolation and marginality of the outer self that drives her anger while prioritizing the inner self that begs to be expressed. Spero “throws light into dark corners of maternal subjectivity” and inscribes it upon the psyche wall, visually created in darkness. Les Anges thus makes present the isolated inner self and broadcasting the message: “This is the voice of the silenced subject that yet speaks” (Nixon 12, 4).

Spero’s work is thus about presentation and visibility. It is about giving the inner self substance, materiality, and realness. Spero does not, however, forfeit her relegation to the margins, her loneliness and isolation, to put her psyche central. Instead, she uses her isolation as a stage for the shaping of an inner self. By giving her psyche shape, Spero allows for the wall between psyche and outer self to become a site for the dislocation of language from communication. She renders her psyche’s transcription unstable in meaning. She invokes a maternal subjectivity not marked by its definition, but its resistance to clear definition.

Works Cited

  1. Nixon, Mignon. “Spero's Curses.” October, vol. 122, Fall 2007, pp. 3–30.
  2. Spero, Nancy. The Black Paintings. 1959-1966. Oil on canvas.
  3. Spero, Nancy. Homage to New York (I Do Not Challenge). 1958. Oil on canvas.
  4. Spero, Nancy. Les Anges, Merde, Fuck You. 1960. Gouache, ink on paper.