‘The War Paintings Are Certainly a Protest’: Artist Nancy Spero on How the Horrors of the Vietnam War Influenced Her Work

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Artist Nancy Spero with two collages she created as a reaction to the World Trade Center attack. Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.
Artist Nancy Spero with two collages she created as a reaction to the World Trade Center attack. Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Nancy Spero—one of the preeminent feminist artists of the 20th century, whose politically and socially engaged work was born in reaction to the large-scale paintings made by predominantly white men in New York City—is now the focus of the first major US museum survey since her death in 2009. “Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror,” on view at MoMA PS1, traces the full arc of her career.

Back in 2007, Art21 conducted in an exclusive interview with the artist as she prepared to exhibit works informed by the Vietnam War in the Venice Biennale (those works are included in the current show at MoMA PS1).

“I guess maybe my art can be said to be a protest,” she told Art21. “And as an artist, I am privileged to create things the way I think that they should be, because that gets my message out to the world.”

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 4 episode, "Protest," 2007. © Art21, Inc. 2007.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 4 episode, “Protest,” 2007. © Art21, Inc. 2007.

The Venice work incorporates repeated imagery of a helicopter, which Spero considered to be emblematic of the Vietnam War. Much of her work was informed by her more than 50 years of marriage and creative partnership with the artist Leon Golub, known for monumentally scaled paintings of gruesome figures engaged in brutal combat, which were inspired by his experience in the army during World War II.

“Leon always had some foot in the political in his art, whether it was overt or not,” Spero says in the episode titled, “Protest: Art in the Twenty-First Century”.

“It was pretty damn difficult contending with someone who was so… brilliant. But I just decided to do my thing and so I started doing very small work. In a way that’s a retort… and it’s also a retort to the large works of the mostly male New York artists.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Nancy Spero: Paper Mirror” is on view at MoMA PS1 through June 23. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.


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