Writing the drives in NancySpero’s
Her letters-drawings have an address, harangue and apostrophise the passers-by
Hélène Cixous, ‘Spero’s Dissidences’1
It is the scale of Codex Artaud that first announces its claim to aggression.
Akin to a colossal frieze, Codex Artaud consists of thirty-three large format
collage panels that Spero composed to extend across and around museum or
gallery walls. The extreme proportional disparities among the individual collages
(some are two feet high and ten feet long and others are eleven feet high and
In the late 1960s and 1970s, women artists in the United States and Britain began to make texts and images of writing central to their visual compositions. This book explores the feminist stakes of that choice. It analyses how Adrian Piper, Nancy Spero, and Mary Kelly worked with the visual dimensions of language to transform how women are perceived. To illuminate the specific ways in which these artists and writers contribute to the production of a feminist imaginary, Part I charts the correspondences between the artwork of Piper and the writings of Davis. It analyses the artwork she created in the late 1960s and 1970s, when she began using text to create artwork that moves between what Piper identifies as 'the singular reality of the "other."' Davis's writing exposes the fictions animating projections that the black female body is perceived to be a malleable ground upon which fears and fantasies can take visual form. Part II focuses on aggression and traces how its repression plays out across Spero's Codex Artaud and Solanas's SCUM Manifesto. It argues that in Post-Partum Document, texts and pieces of writing become fetish objects that Kelly arranges into visual and linguistic 'poems' that forestall a confrontation with loss. Part III demonstrates that the maternal femininity thought to naturally inhere in woman is also restricted and muffled, quite efficiently repressing the possibility that women could address each other across maternal femininity's contested terrain.
‘Then art will change. This is the
future’: NancySpero’s manifestary
Scholarship on the imagetext has long been attuned to hierarchical assertions
about genre, and the gendered assumptions contained within them.1 In Iconology,
W. J. T. Mitchell dissects the way in which writers on the subject set up claims
of seriousness and rigour against delicacy and beauty for both text and image.2
As Mitchell points out, in these competing arguments that which is considered
to be less rigorous is often denigrated as being feminine; the gendered
Across the arc of this book, I have made the case that the visual and textual
manifestations of language were significant parts of art practices aligned with
feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s. I narrowed in on the work three artists
– Adrian Piper, NancySpero, and Mary Kelly – who deployed texts and images
of writing to create an address that calls to viewers and asks them to participate
in the project of deconstructing the sign woman. I argue that by doing so,
these artists identified three crucial mechanisms for keeping that sign ideologically
Introduction: addressing the
In the late 1960s and 1970s, women artists in the United States and Britain
began to make texts and images of writing central to their visual compositions.
This book explores the feminist stakes of that choice. It analyses how three
artists – Adrian Piper, NancySpero, and Mary Kelly – worked with the visual
dimensions of language to transform how women are perceived.
I became interested in the way women artists engaged with text and writing
when I saw WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at MoMA PS1 in New
York City in
.2 (2013), 107–113: 109–110. Rowe’s article includes
photographs of the defaced book, from which the analysis here draws.
117 Regarding my decision to refer to the acronym SCUM, see note 40.
118 Lyon, Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern, 14.
119 Harron and Minahan, I Shot Andy Warhol, 44.
120 Lyon, NancySpero, 136.
121 Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffery Withrop-Young
and Michael Wutz (1986. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 183.
122 Ibid., 184.
123 Ibid., 183.
124 Ibid., 191.
125 Harron and Minahan, I Shot
scene in which the clergyman seems to use the woman's tongue as a rope to climb, we are reminded of the feminist artwork of NancySpero, Codex Artaud , in which the artist uses Artaud's texts (in his native tongue) with her own images (women who stick out their tongues) to liberate herself from strictures that prevent her from speaking out.
Equally interested in the power of rhythmic cinematic composition to engage and provoke the viewer, NancySpero's work can be seen as a modern counterpart to Germaine Dulac
Psychanalyse et Politique and the spaces of women’s art
principles of écriture féminine , for its ability to define and/or illuminate the unconscious, and specifically the feminine as well as racial and/or marginal identities in relation to societal power. As Algerian-born Cixous writes in her manifesto, slyly punning on the American black liberation movement or other postcolonial/decolonization movements in a French artistic context: ‘We are black and we are beautiful.’
As a figurative counterpoint, American NancySpero's mythologically driven Black Paintings , created in
To fasten words again to visible – and invisible – things
commitment from the visitor in which testimony and
witness are bound up in a ‘complicated and mutually transformative’ relationship between the human body and the text. She draws on Johanna Drucker’s
formulation of ‘marked’ typography as one that ‘aggressively situates the reader
in relation to various levels of annunciation in the text – reader, speaker, subject,
author – though with manipulative utilization of the strategies of graphic design’.5
Rachel Warriner’s essay on NancySpero’s manifestary use of the imagetext also
utilises Drucker’s work on marked and unmarked
representation that closes the gap between the mimetic
reflection and its model, thereby avoiding the dominance of the
eye and mind, imitation and idea.’ See Johanna Walker,
‘The Body is Present Even if in Disguise: Tracing the
Trace in the Art Work of NancySpero and Ana Mendieta,’
Tate Papers , accessed 15 September 2010, www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/09spring/ )joanna