Monday, October 25th, 2010

The Figure as Hieroglyph: Nancy Spero’s “First Language”

This essay is an extract from Christopher Lyon’s newly published monograph, Nancy Spero: The Work, from Prestel, whose publication coincides with a major retrospective of the artist at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

“When I found my voice I allowed the work to become celebratory, I allowed myself to say that there is a sense of possibility.” Nancy Spero, 2000 [1]

Nancy Spero, The First Language, 1981 (Panel 8). Cut-and-pasted handprinted and painted paper and handprinting on paper, 22 panels, 20 inches x 190 feet.  Reproduced from the book under review
Nancy Spero, The First Language, 1981 (Panel 8). Cut-and-pasted handprinted and painted paper and handprinting on paper, 22 panels, 20 inches x 190 feet. Reproduced from the book under review

With the completion of Notes in Time, in 1979, Nancy Spero began work on the final  entry in the trilogy of ambitious frieze paintings that define her classic period, The First Language, first shown at A.I.R. Gallery in 1981. In it Spero left behind the intensive engagement with found texts that had characterized her work since 1969, and though she occasionally used texts afterward, the focus of her work now became the figure, understood as a kind of hieroglyph.

She had come across the phrase “peut-être la première langue — c’est la danse” in a “little book I have in French on prehistoric art, called Forty Thousand Years of Modern Art, which is where I found the first images that I used of prehistoric women. Of course, I don’t just use images of women, many times I find images of men but then transform them into their female counterparts. Anyway, I was looking up ‘women’ in the book and I couldn’t find it, but I did come across the phrase ‘perhaps dance is the first language.’ Then I thought that the work wasn’t really ‘dance-like,’ although there were a lot of running athletic women, so I cut ‘dance’ out of the title, leaving ‘The First Language.’” [2]

The concept of a preverbal figurative language dates to a much earlier moment in Spero’s thought and work. Jung’s “primordial language” is prominently discussed by Erich Neumann in The Great Mother, as is the notion that dance can be thought of as a kind of language.[note 3] The following quotation from The Great Mother appears in Notes in Time:

In this connection the dance plays a crucial role, as expression of the natural seizure of early man. Originally all ritual was a dance, in which the whole of the corporeal psyche was literally “set in motion.” Thus the Great Goddess was worshipped in dance, and most of all in orgiastic dance. [4]

Artaud also had referred to the idea of a preverbal figurative language in A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara, which Spero had quoted in the Codex Artaud: “one knows that the first men utilized a language of signs.” [5]

In a 1994 interview for Bomb magazine, Spero concisely described the development of her work after the 1960s: “To jump to the ’70s, it was then that I decided the figures were hieroglyphs. I used text along with image, as extensions of each other, at times in opposition, but always in relation to each other, even if contradictory. The figures themselves stand for language, just as in the symbols from ancient calligraphy or Egyptian art.” [6]

Spero’s earliest experiment with using figures in an explicitly language-like way may be Codex Artaud VII . Near the figure and above the texts of the central vignette appear hieroglyphic forms in five short rows, including one of scarabs (the scarab is an actual Egyptian glyph); two scarabs also appear over the rightmost text. The invented hieroglyphs include an acrobatic female figure on her back with arms and legs raised, touching toes with one hand to form a kind of O or D; and two bodiless heads, one a face-forward Medusa, the other in three-quarter profile with extended tongue.

She told her interviewer that she had stopped using text in the 1980s, agreeing with the comment that she did so “under the conviction that the image itself was a hieroglyph, inscribed sufficiently with language.” In the 1980s, Spero explains, “The image superseded the text. The language of the body, of the female body, its gesture and movement as in dance, or in movement to music, or ritual, took precedence. It all goes together — scribble to gesture, gesture of action, sexual roles. All of this is primal stuff, but taken up to the 20th century in a seemingly sophisticated way. You know, I don’t believe in progress in art. Prehistoric art can’t be beat! Sophistication isn’t progress. It’s just that now there’s a realization and an analysis on our part.”

The development of Spero’s figures, and of her use of language, is more complex than her comments allow. The figures are not hieroglyphs in the sense of characters that have an unvarying meaning, but linguistic signs, which mediate between the artist and the viewer and alter their meanings depending on how they are used. Similarly, her use of written language in her work evolves considerably from the early, brief scrawled phrases and French obscenities to the many quotations from Antonin Artaud’s writings, to the elaborate interweaving of texts drawn from a vast array of sources in her works of the 1970s. She does not, in fact, cease to use texts after 1980; indeed, some of her most powerful deployments of text occur in her late work.

However, as Robert Storr has observed, Spero’s “prematurely postmodern recognition of the semiotics of picture making” operated to her disadvantage. “I say ‘prematurely postmodern’ only to signal the discrepancy between Spero’s early understanding and use of linguistic concepts, and the general dissemination of structuralist and poststructuralist concepts of the 1970s and the 1980s, a discrepancy which explains why she is so seldom mentioned in the literature of the field. That is the fate of precursors who survive to become the contemporaries of younger artists styled as the personification of the new.” [7]

Spero’s Stock Company

Nancy Spero, The First Language, 1981 (Panel 15). Cut-and-pasted handprinted and painted paper and handprinting on paper, 22 panels, 20 inches x 190 feet.  Reproduced from the book under review
Nancy Spero, The First Language, 1981 (Panel 15). Cut-and-pasted handprinted and painted paper and handprinting on paper, 22 panels, 20 inches x 190 feet. Reproduced from the book under review

As we have noted, a major change in Spero’s working process occurred from the late 1970s to the early 1980s as she moved from handpainted, collaged figures on paper with bulletin-type letters to the use of zinc or magnesium letterpress plates to handprint figures directly on paper. She drew from her own imagery and from published sources to make photoengraved matrices from which she could handprint multiple impressions. From about 1981, she worked closely with the artist and photographer David Reynolds to make the plates. He had recently graduated from Rutgers University, where he had been a student of Leon Golub. Reynolds saw that arthritis was restricting her ability to draw, and thinks her adoption of handprinting with letterpress plates was in part a response to her increasing difficulty in using her hands. [8]

Reynolds would make a photograph of a source image and give her a continuous-tone 8 by 10–inch black-and-white photographic print, and she would then determine whether it should be further processed for a line-art effect or remain a halftone image (that is, with shades of gray, as in a standard photograph). Spero might rework the print with gouache and ink, and then Reynolds would shoot the retouched 8 by 10 to make a copy of the photograph, adding photographic elements as needed — greater contrast, for example — following Spero’s instructions. At this stage the size of the eventual figure was set: she would specify the height she wanted, usually 20 inches or less, and Reynolds would adjust the photographic enlarger. Spero might again retouch the resulting print.

It now would go to the platemaking company in New Jersey. They would use a copy camera to duplicate the image, either in high contrast or preserving midtones, as instructed, and using a relatively coarse dot screen — Spero wanted the fact that images were derived from a printed source to be apparent (rather like the approach to photographs taken by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, though with a different aesthetic). This film was then transferred to a blank zinc or magnesium plate in a standard commercial photoengraving process. Finally, the plate was etched with acid to create the incised image for printing. In 1987 Spero wrote:

In recent years I have cut down (but not eliminated) the collaging of painted figures on these extended linear panels. I generally prefer printed images. In using zinc letter press plates (made from my drawings and appropriations), a hand printing process rather than a printing press, I am able to get many variations of imprint. Depending on the pressure of the hand, the angling of the plate, the amount of ink rolled onto the raised image etc., I can repeat and differentiate an image, emphasizing the staccato of the mechanical, varying hand printing directly on the paper itself with collaged hand printed images. Extremes: the collaged figures can be colorful, bold, celebratory, carnivalesque — or greyed and diffused with an unhealthy look of disintegration, outlines of iridescent color — figures printed to resemble x-rayed human forms — as in the moment the bomb blasts. All manner of processions, conflicts, interruptions, and disruptions. Gravity and ground plane are referenced or inferred and continuously contravened. [9]

Nancy Spero, Coffee Table Sheela, 1985. Plexiglass and handprinting on paper cutout, 19 x 16 x 4 inches. Reproduced from the book under review.
Nancy Spero, Coffee Table Sheela, 1985. Plexiglass and handprinting on paper cutout, 19 x 16 x 4 inches. Reproduced from the book under review.

Peter Soriano, who first encountered Spero’s work in 1979 when still in college and who subsequently became friendly with Spero and Golub, closely observed Spero’s printing technique. “Nancy never just stamps an image onto a surface,” he wrote. “At times the image is barely pressed onto the wall or paper, like the relaxed after-roll of a drumstick striking a drum. Her closely grouped repetitions are reminders of the control used in inking the plates and the range of pressure used to transfer the images to the surface. . . . Ephemerality and touch are the paradoxical bedfellows of her uncompromising subject matter.” [10]

In the late 1980s, Spero began using flexible synthetic polymer plates, as she was beginning to work directly on walls, and the metal plates could not be used effectively if they were even slightly uneven. At one point, Reynolds recalled, both zinc and polymer plates were being made by the studio.

A total of 416 metal-plate figures were made. In addition, beginning in the late 1980s, when Spero began printing directly on walls, 412 flexible polymer plates were made. There are, further, approximately 60 hand stamps, which repeat metal or polymer plate images in a much smaller size. [11] In all, then, Spero produced almost 900 printing plates. Of the metal ones, approximately 300 depict unique figures, and the remainder are alternative versions — at different sizes, cropped, or otherwise changed. Although the majority of the polymer plates reproduce existing metal ones (but often sized differently or reversed), nearly 140 of them are new images or substantially alter the earlier metal one. Thus nearly half of the 900 plates depict unique figures. Many of the polymer plates were produced for specific installations in the final two decades of the artist’s career and the images on them do not appear in other works. Other plate images were scarcely used. Of the 450 or so primary images represented by these metal and polymer plates, about 200 constitute the core of her stock company, and of them perhaps 50 can be counted as Spero’s stars.

As arthritis made it increasingly difficult for Spero to participate in the actual printing of the plates on the long paper works, she began to have multiple prints of figures made and cut out for her, assembled in an inventory of “paper dolls” that could be used as needed. Samm Kunce recalls that Spero would have the studio assistants put out several lengths of paper before leaving for the day, then Spero would lay works out on her long tables during the night. When the assistants returned in the morning, they would note the locations of the figures with pencil marks and collage the figures in place. “She rarely worked with anyone in the compositional stage,” Kunce recalled. “She would work at night and magically there would appear another art work in the morning.” [12]

In a 1968 lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” Leo Steinberg quoted a paragraph by the poet and critic David Antin about Andy Warhol, which resonates for Spero’s art made with printed figures. “In the Warhol canvases, the image can be said to barely exist. On the one hand this is part of his overriding interest in the ‘deteriorated image,’ the consequence of a series of regressions from some initial image of the real world.” [13]

“The picture,” Steinberg resumes, is “conceived as the image of an image. It is a conception which guarantees that the presentation will not be directly of a world-space, and that it will nevertheless admit any experience as the matter of representation. And it readmits the artist in the fullness of his human interests, as well as the artist-technician. The all-purpose picture plane underlying this post-modernist painting has made the course of art once again nonlinear and unpredictable.” [14]

Spero adopted the technical innovations of Warhol as well as Rauschenberg — she allowed in a late interview that she must have been aware of Rauschenberg’s image transfer technique, which he developed beginning in 1958 — but used them in a way diametrically opposed to Warhol’s. She focused not on the image’s deterioration, but on rescuing it. Where Warhol is cavalier, even indifferent to the image’s survival as he kicks it down the street of technical translation, Spero engages the image, nursing it back to the surface of her work. She is impressed by the endurance of these iconic images, by woman’s “continual presence”; she respects their perseverance.

Spero’s use of found images needs to be understood in this active context. She extensively cannibalized her own work — photographing or otherwise copying key images and retouching and resizing them — and reworked found images, lifted from newspapers, books, and other mediums of reproduction. She deleted or altered elements, emphasized qualities, strengthened graphic impact, and of course printed the figures in colors unrelated to the original context. Spero’s figural approach was not so much one of copying as of adopting or casting, in the theatrical sense: choosing a figure and then using makeup, costume, and staging to draw out its meaning in the context of a specific work.

The First Language

Nancy Spero, The First Language, 1981 (Panel 7). Cut-and-pasted handprinted and painted paper and handprinting on paper, 22 panels, 20 inches x 190 feet.  Reproduced from the book under review
Nancy Spero, The First Language, 1981 (Panel 7). Cut-and-pasted handprinted and painted paper and handprinting on paper, 22 panels, 20 inches x 190 feet. Reproduced from the book under review

Her second-longest work, at 190 feet, The First Language is constructed, like the previous large works, in twenty-two panels, each 20 inches by about 9 feet, assembled from four sheets of 20 by 27-inch handmade paper. Panels 12 and 13 are two and three sheets long, respectively. Completed in 1981 and the final major work of Spero’s classic period, it is the last large piece to combine cutout gouache-painted figures and figures handprinted using letter-press plates.

The First Language is perhaps Spero’s most overtly cinematic work. Its panels read from right to left like a series of film stills in Cinemascope, with figures in similar poses repeated in consecutive panels. That is, panel 1 should be at the far right when the work is shown, panel 2 to its left, and so on. Though it is not cyclical in a formal sense, as are Notes in Time and some later works, it has the feel of a compressed life cycle of figures rising up from abjection, gaining physical confidence, overcoming obstacles, and in the end finding a bond.

Spero brings together figures drawn from all eras, from the Paleolithic to the present, emphasizing the synchronicity of her world. In this work she has arrived at a mature, confident method of using the stock company: she constantly recasts figures in different roles. For example, the handprint of a standing figure with arms raised is a Victim when printed horizontally; multiple impressions of the same figure, superimposed on the first, depict a massacre (in panels 5 and 6, a scene that recalls the drowned figures in the Beatus illuminations).

Four Running Women. Paint on rock, Unbalanya Hill, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. Photograph by William Brindle
Four Running Women. Paint on rock, Unbalanya Hill, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. Photograph by William Brindle

The most striking addition to Spero’s repertoire of handprinted figures in The First Language are pictographs of leaping female figures adapted from Aboriginal art of Australia. The earliest of the Aboriginal figures she used appear to date from the Freshwater period, roughly from 1,200 years ago until the Contact period, when native peoples first encountered Europeans, a century or more before the present. It is not their position in chronological history that gives these dancing figures priority as expressing “the first language” — they are not more ancient than some Egyptian figures that Spero used — but their position outside, and prior to, the development of written language.

We sense recollections of Giacometti as well in some of these elongated, isolated figures. After this point, however, as painted cutout figures gave way to handprinted ones, Spero’s focus naturally shifted from the single figure to the reiterated multiple, and there was a corresponding shift in her artistic thought from the personal and solitary to the idea of art as an expression of community. Overtones of existential anxiety remained important until the end, however, as a comparison of Giacometti’s Head of a Man on a Rod (1947) and Spero’s Maypole/Take No Prisoners (2007) demonstrates (see page 315).

The critical response to The First Language included an evocative review by Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice, which mentions that the sheets of hand-molded paper were arranged “frieze-fashion, in two tiers,” when it was shown at A.I.R. [15] He responded to the musical dimension of the work: “Like notes on a staff, female figures of many sizes and shapes — primitive and hieroglyphic and medieval and modern (roller skates!), suffering and raging and ecstatic — surge around the walls. Cadenza-like congestions of images alternate with blank sheets like passages of silence. Indeed, after a while I seemed less to see the work than to hear it — an insouciant and savage music, pipes and drums. . . . Spero’s quality has to do with that mysterious ability — basic to expressionistic eloquence in art since Blake, Fuseli, and Goya — to invest complex emotional states in figurative images, ventriloquizing through the tilt of a head or the turn of an ankle. Only an extraordinarily direct and uncensored imagination can produce art like Spero’s.”

Nancy Spero, Codex Artaud VII, 1971.  Cut-and-pasted typed text and painted paper on paper, 2-1/2 inches x 12 feet 6 inches.  Reproduced from the book under review
click to enlarge


1. Spero, quoted in Enright, “Other Side of the Mirror,” 31.

2. Spero et al., Nancy Spero, 32. The book to which Spero refers probably is Jacques Mauduit, Quarante mille ans d’art moderne (Paris: Plon, 1954) with fifty-one illustrations.

3. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, Bollingen Series ([New York]: Pantheon Books, 1955), was one of the earliest sources of Spero’s art and artistic thought.

4. Neumann, The Great Mother, 298–99; on page 299 there is an illustration of a “dance group” in a Paleolithic rock painting in Spain. Neumann speculated about a “first language” at length in The Great Mother, explaining Jung’s concept of a “primordial language” (page 15): “The archetype is not only a dynamis, a directing force, which influences the human psyche, as in religion, for example, but corresponds to an unconscious ‘conception,’ a content. In the symbol, i.e., image of the archetype, a meaning is communicated that can be apprehended conceptually only by a highly developed consciousness, and then only with great pains. For this reason the following remark of Jung’s is still applicable to the modern consciousness: ‘Myth is the primordial language natural to these psychic processes, and no intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythical imagery. Such processes deal with the primordial images, and these are best and most succinctly reproduced by figurative speech.’ This ‘figurative speech’ is the language of the symbol, the original language of the unconscious and of mankind.”

5. See “A Mountain of Signs,” in Antonin Artaud, Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, trans. Helen Weaver (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 379ff. Artaud experienced a veritable orgy of signs, in figures and in the landscape, as he traveled through the land of the Tarahumara in Mexico.

6. Marjorie Welish, “Word into Image: Robert Barry, Martha Rosler and Nancy Spero,” Bomb 47 (1994).

7. Nancy Spero, Robert Storr, and Leon Golub, Nancy Spero: The War Series, 1966–1970 (Milan: Charta, 2003), 10.

8. David Reynolds, interview with the author, November 11, 2009.

9. Nancy Spero et al., Nancy Spero: Dissidances (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2008), 158.

10. Peter Soriano, Raise/Time: An Installation by Nancy Spero, exh. brochure (Cambridge, MA: Arthur M. Sackler Museum/Harvard University Art Museums, 1995), n.p.

11. These figures are according to the card-file reference system used in the Spero studio.

12. Samm Kunce, interview with the author, November 23, 2009.

13. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 91. David Antin organized the first presentation of Spero’s Artaud Paintings, at the University of California, San Diego, in 1971.

14. Ibid., 36.

15. Peter Schjeldahl, “Opposites Attract,” Village Voice, April 15–21, 1981: 83.