Nancy Spero's Black and the Red III (1994), at P.P.O.W. Is a masterpiece of graphic art. It is a frieze of 22 framed panels of handprinting and collage on paper, its overall form faintly evoking film, comic strips, and Asian scrolls but, in how it works, strictly Speroid. Typical for her is, among many other things, the work's sheer, ecstatic inconvenience. It measures 19 ½ inches high by, ahem, 177 feet long.
Few art spaces in the world coul display this piece properly, in an unbroken, wraparound band. P.P.O.W. Has hung it in double ranks like two lines of print. Looking at it needs skill that you can develop on the spot. Take brief practice passes at the rhythmic sequence of patterns and images before locking in for a continuous, concentrated scan, which will rock you.
The frieze marshals figures from Spero's dramatis personae of borrowed feminist icons: Egyptian hieroglyphic musicians, Greek-vase dildo dancers, a Japanese "hospitality woman" in an aggressively randy pose, bodybuilders, raffishly cartooned babes in torture devices, aboriginal goddesses, acrobats, and an obscene graffito from a German toilet wall, complete with scrawled phone number.
The figures fulminate along a ground of alternating rough textures and heraldic designs in colors of nailpolish intensity. More musical than cinematic, the suite suggests narration while narrating nothing in particular. It builds more energy than you will know what to do with. While undoubtedly a paean to female suffering and joy, it overwhelms any interpretation. You can no more think when under its spell than breathe under water.
The formal, visual, outright quality of Black and the Red III (its title facetiously citing Stendhal's novel while referring to the colors of classic Greek vases) disarms a possible misgiving about Spero's present three-space outing. The event emits a certain piety. It might still succeed on its festival-like terms if it lacked masterpieces or, even, weren't very good. Spero, 70 years old, has earned the proprietary love of a lot of people over the last three decades as a feminist prophet and an art-world outsider's art-world outsider, constellating by now her own virtual inner circle, or paraculture, of the semi-alienated.
There are worse fates for an artist than cult status. Since her artistic beginnings in Chicago after World War II, she has been a spectacularly driven visual poet of alienations both semi and severe. Her drawings of the 1960s in response to the Vietnam War increasingly seem the definitive American art of that grotesque war's home-front agony: horror, rage, despair. Similarly pungent and majestic are some of her protofeminist works of the 1970s.
Never just a partisan in her politically themed work, Spero has given deadly honest emotional testimony about the damage wrought by public passions on private peace. Despite being rightly associated with '70s feminism, her work wouldn't seem to support the movement's cozily belligerent slogan "The personal is political." In her vision, the political becomes personal, knocking down defensive doors of the self and smashing all its comforts, notably including innocence.
As yet barely comprehended, though ever more famous, is Spero's early-1970s Codex Artaud series that embodies a sustained, astonishing identification with the demon-ridden Antonin Artaud. Artaud's pathological misogyny makes Spero's embrace of him surprising to some who prefer not to register, in its torturous complexity, the work's great fugue of psychic pain. Spero's art doesn't deal in opinions. Her fierce truthfulness – angelically companioning the most lonely, anguished parts of anyone – explains the grateful loyalty of her fans.
Spero's fans cannot lay exclusive claim to her for much longer. She is overqualified for cult heroism, and it is time for art-world institutions to break their habits of ignoring or patronizing her. She demands recognition as a major artist in hybrid forms of textile imagery and visually active text that seem less eccentric all the time. In her humbly hand-working, artisanly way, Spero is an anticipator of cyberspatial aesthetics: graphic intimacy kicked up to enveloping, effectively infinite scale. Hers is a boundless cosmos zinging with eloquent fragments, at once expanding and sharpening the mind. No matter how harrowing her subject, her form charms and often thrills.
Spero's new works at Tilton and New York Kunsthalle can't top Black and the Red III for power, but they fill out a sense of the artist's endlessly ambitous, at times incautious range. A funny tour de force at Tilton, Sheela-Na-Gig at Home, works beautifully. Clothes-pinned to ropes are items of female underwaer and many cutout prints, on thin paper, of one of Spero's doppelgangers, a primordial idol who smiles goofily while displaying a gigantic vulva. An accompanying videon shows Spero creating the piece. "A woman's work is never done," she mutters.
Sheela's lighthearted conflation of domestic routine and volcanic sexuality is a hit, demonstrating the enviable freedom of a mind sufficiently brave and wry. Its physical scale in the gallery nearly evokes homelike space, a zone always webbed with connections both visible and subliminal. Ducking under and around the suspended elements, you may have a sense of performing a little dance choreographed by the artist, gaining an under-the-skin inkling of what it's like to be Spero, to be a woman, or simply to be human, submerged in flows of life that blend outer compulsions and inner urgencies.
Less enchanting are a couple of vast silk banners hung from ceilings and many small figure prints glued to walls the the Kunsthalle. Spero has raised her public visibility in recent years by serving this decade's ongoing, too often tedious fashion for grand-scale installational art. The result can be a stalemate between institutional architecture and the artist's touch – a merely busy, bland spectacle. The banners, as well, lack a flavor of necessity. Too strident to function as decoration, they are too mannered to function as much of anything else.
In negotiating their inevitable surrender to Spero, mainstream institutions will sensibly propose terms. One of these might be a focus on the crux of Spero's stylistic achievement: dramatically expanded drawing ideas that retain enough conventional form, if only that of oblong frames, to give them historical bite. She has done more than complain about the patrimony of Western pictorial aesthetics. She has turned it inside out and splayed it from here to there, opening graphic space to moral imagination and burning pleasure for which no special pleading is needed or desired.