Stalks II (Sky Goddess Totem)

Nancy Spero

(Cleveland, Ohio, 1926 - 2009, New York, New York)


Handprinting and handprinted collage on paper

111 in. x 20 3/8 in. (281.94 cm x 51.75 cm)

Purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts Purchase Plan Program, the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the Museum Acquisition Fund


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Several ways of representing the female body are employed in this collage. Images of the ancient Egyptian sky goddess Nut stretched over the world are joined by figures from aboriginal art that show women as goddesses of fertility and creation. These older figures are juxtaposed with the heads of contemporary Western women whose power resides in their intellect rather than their bodies. All of the images depict woman as active and strong. The figures overlap and dance across the tall, thin “totem,” suggesting that sisterhood spans generations and cultures


Nancy Spero Stalks II (Sky Goddess Totem), 1985 Collection of the Akron Art Museum For most of her career, Nancy Spero worked counter to the mainstream movements in art. In Paris in 1959–64, she painted moody, expressionistic canvases while Pop Art's ironic humor and slick style were gaining international recognition. When she returned to the United States in 1964, the art world was hailing Minimalism's purity and detachment. Spero, in contrast, was producing highly emotional drawings protesting the Vietnam (and all) war and violence against women. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Neo-Expressionist painting, with its macho posturing and predominantly male roster of artists, gained in popularity. Just a few years earlier, in 1974, Spero had decided to focus her art exclusively on women. She had been involved in the feminist art movement since the late 1960s, and wanted "to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women."1 Spero's choice of medium also challenged traditional hierarchies. Since 1966, she has worked exclusively on paper, using the technique of collage to merge drawings, written text, painted images, and handprinted images of her own drawings. Because works on paper are usually smaller and more fragile than paintings on canvas or sculptures, they are often accorded secondary status in the art world. Spero overcame that prejudice in part by making large-scale collages, which, despite their size, do not lose the medium's intimacy and complexity. In Stalks II (Sky Goddess Totem), she joined four sheets of paper to make a tall vertical piece; across them she stamped and pasted images of women. While the overall patterning of the work has a strong impact from a distance, the image’s delicacy and the amount of detail in the figures force close and careful scrutiny. Spero also attacked the lower status of works on paper by using collage as a vehicle for monumental ideas. After years of works about social and political outcasts and the atrocities perpetrated on women, Spero turned in the 1980s to celebrating the vitality of life. Stalks II shows women as goddesses of fertility and creation. It includes three images of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, who is depicted with multiple breasts. She arches over the world, each night swallowing the sun and each morning giving birth to it again.2 Stalks II also contains several figures taken from historic aboriginal art. The mythological women are juxtaposed with idealized heads of contemporary western females whose sources of power reside in their intellects rather than their bodies. Several ways of representing the female body are employed in Stalks II; all of them depict woman as active and strong. The asymmetrical, overlapping placement of the figures further enhances their dynamism; they dance across this tall "totem" chronicling a sense of transcendant sisterhood that spans generations and cultures. "One of my main strategies," said Spero, "has been to construct a simultaneity of women through time. . . . I think that many women are now interested in the idea of the Goddess—of a powerful, self-sustaining and autonomous being capable of moving through life as freely as a man."3 Stalks II uses images from the past to prophesy a world of women proud of their femaleness and free to celebrate it. In general, true equality is yet to be achieved. In the art world, steps toward equality were taken in the mid-1980s, around the time that Spero's art finally began to receive attention and critical recognition. The multicultural "herstory" (as opposed to history) that Spero and other feminist artists present is finally moving into the mainstream in the arts and in society. - Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001 1. Quoted in "Extracts from an interview by Jon Bird, New York, 1986," Spero (1991), 10. 2. Elinor W. Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess: A Symbol for Our Time (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 198. 3. Quoted in Spero (1991), 39. Spero, Nancy. Nancy Spero: Works Since 1950. With an introduction by Dominique Nahas and essays by Jo Anna Isaak, Robert Storr, and Leon Golub. Syracuse, N.Y. : Everson Museum of Art, 1987. ———. Nancy Spero, Woman Breathing. With essays by Brigitte Reinhardt, Robert Storr, Noemi Smolik, Achille Bonito Oliva and, Klaus Vierneisel. Ulm, Germany: Edition Cantz, 1991. ———. Nancy Spero. With essays by Jon Bird, Jo Anna Isaak, and Sylvere Lotringer. London: Phaidon, 1996.

Contemporary Art
Goddess of Fertility