Workshop 2 – Activism through drawing – Nancy Spero




A mere statement of intent to an incitement for revolution: “The artists manifesto is a thievish pursuit…It polarizes.”


“Search and Destroy,” 2005 Nancy Spero
Handprinting on wall; 2 walls, 13 x 49 feet each.
Installation view: The Drawing Center, New York.
Photo by David Reynolds.



“Search and Destroy,” detail, 1967 Nancy Spero
Gouache and ink on paper, 24 x 36 inches.
Photo by David Reynolds.

“When Leon Golub and I came back from Paris, and I saw that we had gotten involved in Vietnam, I realized that the United States had lost its aura and its right to claim how pure we were. We had entered a war when it was uncalled for. And why? It was specious reasoning from Washington as far as I was concerned. I realized how guilty we were as Americans. I felt a responsibility, and that was working on me when I started the ‘War Series.’”
– Nancy Spero


Nancy Spero’s rage and shock at the violence of war is embodied in these visceral drawings.  The style is childlike, naive as if the images were witnessed by a child. ‘Bodily hieroglyphics’; using gesture and motion to convey emotion. The images are drawn primarily on a wall and so reference (classical) ancient political (rhetoric) graffiti. The intention is clear, it is an indictment of war.

Sometimes when I’m drawing I loose control of the mark-making. The images become dense and indecipherable. I admire the quick brave figuration in Nancy Spero’s work. I find figurative work difficult to control without being very calm and precise whilst drawing. It’s as if she knows exactly what she wants to communicate and manages to use gesture and emotion without making polluted images.

I don’t think artists’ manifestos have to be reactionary or necessarily overtly political. There are different levels to the content of an image and how it impacts upon the viewer. I chose this work because it was a good example of a political reactionary piece but also because of the use of the body, gesture and symbolism. There is a duality between the child-like gaze of innocence depicting war, whilst at the same time this style works to parody the political forces behind such acts of violence.



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