Nancy Spero has always gone against the grain. When New York and abstract expressionism dominated the art world, she lived in Paris and painted people–prostitutes, lovers, mothers and children. When the slick, faceless art of pop and held sway, she developed her own hand-printing technique to produce “political manifestos.” At a time when other artists were experimenting with acrylic on canvas, she made shockingly ephemeral works on paper.

“It seems that whatever I was doing was out of phase with the art world,” Spero said with surprising equanimity. “I felt very frustrated, very angry. I felt I had to fight my battle way on the periphery.” The opponents of this slim, approachable woman have been male authority, war, the bomb, and traditional art values. Spero is a painter who explores a subject until she feels she has exhausted its possibilities. “I think all artists are obsessional,” she said. “That’s what interests me.” This tendency has led her to work in series or on extended pieces that may take several years to complete.

Spero, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1949, has finally received wide recognition. For years she and her husband, painter Leon Golub, sustained each other with an artistic dialogue, because the public didn’t provide any. “We had to struggle,” she said. “It’s been a gradual process, but it didn’t really turn around until recently.”

Her first series, painted between 1959 and 1964 while she was living in Paris, she calls her “black paintings”–and in fact they’re so dark and overworked their subjects are almost completely obscured. “These are not exactly optimistic pictures,” Spero said. “They are rather existential, elegiac expressions of an angst and kind of a romanticism.”

In 1964, Spero and Golub left Paris for New York (still their home). “The Vietnam war was going on and I was very tired of doing these existential dark paintings about timeless subjects. And I started thinking about war and total destruction and about the bomb.” This preoccupation resulted in a series of works on war that marked a turning point in her career. “When I started the war series I did a private kind of personal and political self-revolution. I decided I would not paint on canvas anymore, no more oil on canvas. I would make manifestos, in a sense–these were manifestos that were not seen at the time–and I would not do anything that had a traditional or art-historical import to it.” Spero began using collage in this series, bringing together mythological, religious, and popular images to express the horror of war.

Spero was also becoming dissatisfied with the status of women, and especially of women artists, at this time. In 1970 she joined an ad hoc committee of women artists interested in opening up the art world to women. Speaking of her difficulty in acceptance for her art, Spero said, “At first I thought it was due to the content of the work, but it became more apparent that it also had to do with women’s lack of authority.”

After the war series, Spero read the work of Antonin Artaud, and felt a sympathy with that writer’s hysteria and sense of powerlessness, qualities that are typically considered female. “I decided in reading Artaud that his language, his text, his poetry, his screams were a perfect vehicle for my angers, my disappointments with the world as an artist in society. So I started using fragments of Artaud’s text in my work as a way of expressing defiance to a world that didn’t listen.” Spero used Artaud for four years, employing her collage techniques. She also expanded her work horizontally in space. “It gives me great freedom, this extended linear format,” she said.

In 1973 Spero showed her work at AIR, the first women’s gallery in New York. “This gallery was very exciting and full of vitality, and I decided that I would use the space.” Because she had no thought of offering her work for sale, she decided to extend her linear format and create a huge piece that went all the way around the gallery. Torture of Women, 20 inches high by 125 feet wide, describes the torture of women political prisoners in Central and South America. “I wanted to investigate the most extreme conditions of women under duress,” Spero said.

Notes in Time on Women, which Spero completed in 1979, almost doubled the width of Torture of Women: it wrapped around the AIR gallery twice. It contains 96 references, including quotes from H.D., the imagist poet, Bersani, Nietzsche, and Kokoschka. “In a sense it’s almost like a visual manuscript on the wall,” Spero said. While she was working on Notes in Time, Spero became so depressed by the quotes about women that she began painting athletic women, running, as an antidote. “I didn’t know how to combat this–it was just like an impenetrable wall of evidence of women’s lesser status. So I have women running and leaping in [Notes in Time], kind of empowered.

“After I finished Notes in Time,” Spero said, “I decided I didn’t want to use language anymore, that it had become overwhelming and that perhaps I didn’t have the need to express my art in that way.” Some of the few texts she does continue to use are original, but most she comes upon by chance. “I used to be an avid reader, but there’s no time now,” she said. “I have a lot of feminist books, and I look through those. Leon has found some quotes, friends have found some, or I might find them through reading newspapers.”

Spero’s work over the past several years has continued to be more celebratory and to make much less use of written texts. She still ransacks newspapers, magazines, and art history books for many of her images. In fact what has remained constant in her work is the way she straddles various times and cultures in her choice of imagery. Contemporary fashion models, Hittite goddesses, Irish deities, and Hiroshima victims all find their way onto her page.

These days Spero, busier than ever, regularly works between midnight and dawn in the New York studio she shares with her husband. She connects New York with the quality of her work: “I think one chooses the milieu that goes with the art. There’s a diversity here, a grittiness and a harshness. It’s so huge. It’s so small and so huge at the same time.”

A retrospective of Nancy Spero’s career opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 237 E. Ontario, on July 2 and runs through August 28. For more information call 280-2660. Other works by the artist are on display at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 215 W. Superior, through July 15. Call 951-8828 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cosimo Di Leo Ricatto.