(Art Underground) Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers, (Nancy Spero)


A little bit of myth in the big city. With great drama, the number 1 train, which travels aboveground through a stretch of northern Manhattan, returns to its underground life right around the Jewish Theological Seminary on W.122nd Street. Viewed from the elevated station at W.125th Street, the use of a cheap zoom lens magnifies the scale of the opening, and its rough urban look. I put these two pictures of the tunnel together with pictures I took one day waiting for another train at 66th Street, where the number 1 lets passengers off and on at Lincoln Square. I’ve walked past the glass and ceramic mosaic along the wall at the station I don’t know how many times over the years. Rather than take a frontal shot of each image, I focused on a few of the figures as they appeared to me from across the tracks. I wanted to show how they look in situ, in the subway station as a vision of red, gold, and black flickering glassy figures on a bright white surface deep inside Plato’s cave.

Only now as I began putting this blogpost together, I’m finding out that the images are Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers (2001) by Nancy Spero, an important feminist artist who made her first mark in the 1970s and 1980s. About the work and the artist, what I found out online I’m going to organize below.

My first thought is that maybe the images at the platform never quite caught my attention because the surface meaning of Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers is so pretty clear. They are meant, of course, to decorate the arts like music, opera, and dance performed just above ground at Lincoln Center. But what I did not understand at second thought is how this relatively late work by Spero relates to her larger body of work, and what does it have to do with feminist art per se? Namely what do dancers, a diva, and a goddess have to do with the more brutal work that first made Spero an important fixture in postwar figurative art, feminist art, and political art in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s?

So here’s the first thing I found out about Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers as described at the Mass Transit Authority (MTA) website: This series of 22 brilliantly colored glass mosaic panels lines the walls of the station and bows to Lincoln Center’s opera, ballet, and classical music halls – and the vibrant, artistic character of the Upper West Side neighborhood. Spero conveys this through the use of iconic images of women both real and mythical, from such varied sources as archaeology, architecture, mythology and the contemporary world. In Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers, the central icon of opera, the Diva, is repeated in various forms that lead and follow riders through the station, giving the illusion of movement and change. Elsewhere, Spero represents scenes from the subway and the city outside, the architectural backgrounds enlivened by musicians performing and athletes running, signaling you are in a creative and energetic place, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. 

Setting aside this banal institutional paean to Lincoln Center and to the Upper West Side, I found more interesting this background information regarding Spero at Wikipedia: As both artist and activist, Nancy Spero’s career spanned fifty years. She was renowned for her continuous engagement with contemporary political, social, and cultural concerns. Spero chronicled wars and apocalyptic violence as well as articulating visions of ecstatic rebirth and the celebratory cycles of life. Her complex network of collective and individual voices was a catalyst for the creation of her figurative lexicon representing women from prehistory to the present in such epic-scale paintings and collage on paper as Torture of Women (1976), Notes in Time on Women (1979) and The First Language (1981). In 2010, “Notes in Time” was posthumously reanimated as a digital scroll in the online magazine Triple Canopy.

Still looking to make more sense of Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers, I found this online at Artnews, comparing Spero to Louise Bourgeois, another major feminist artist, and relating, in particular to Spero’s use of myth or mythology: It’s difficult to think of the slight, spritelike Spero as a grande dame of the art world. But apart from Louise Bourgeois, few living female artists have carved out a similarly singular niche. Both are trenchant woman warriors who have invented powerful pictorial vocabularies that are simultaneously idiosyncratic and universal. If Bourgeois is Spider Woman, a provocative weaver of monumental webs, Spero is the High Priestess of Hieroglyphics whose lifework is the visual equivalent of an epic poem. Bourgeois has mostly made her mark with objects that forcefully occupy space, but Spero has chosen a more ephemeral path, often using mere paper to create mythic scrolls, collages, and “Maypoles,” that explore her ongoing quest, the eternal feminine.

Now the image comes more clearly into view. Online here at Art in America, Critic Austin Considine notes the change towards a more lyrical tone in works from the 1990s than the more political and what one critic called pitiless quality if the more political work from the 1970s and 1980s. Considine, writes, “For the most part, Spero’s work changes as it progresses from the Reagan era into the 1990s, acquiring a greater sense of agency and optimism. The repetitive, roughly-printed Warholian esthetic remains—implicitly violent in some pieces, as all replication can be a kind of violence against the individual and subjectivity. Still, the broader message is one of transcendence. In pieces like The Goddess Nut II(1990), Life Dance (1995) and Invocation (1995), women’s bodies swirl and twist through the ether among winged goddesses and other creatures, drawing heavily from ancient Egyptian imagery, but also ancient Japan and Greece.”

With and against Considine, I would like to pose another way to figure Artemis, Acrobats, Divas, and Dancers, one that is more synchronic than diachronic. Looked at as a whole together, as if constituting a single life image, we might want to look at the bejeweled figures as not so much transcending violence and suffering, but rather sitting alongside them. The subject of the work is not simply the arts of theater and dance, but rather the diva, the goddess, and women’s agency surrounded and framed by images of war and sexual violence against women in her larger oeuvre. As per Considine: “She reached back to the past, yet she was completely involved in the present,” Sabbatino observed. “She would talk about Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and Katrina and the mourning women at Thebes—it would all be mixed together.”

One last and unexpected note: Benjamin Ivry (here) and Werner Hanak-Lettner (here) have both observed that the diva figure, whom Spero called “the prima donna of the installation,” was based on photos of the Austrian Jewish operetta diva Fritzi Massary.  This then, would bring the lyrical and mythological images in Spero’s later work back to political problems, back to war and brutality. It brings in, as well, a Jewish dimension to Spero’s work that would have otherwise gone unmarked. Massary fled Germany in 1932 and moved to Beverley Hills, California. On Flickr, I found the ghostlike image of her, the one that must have haunted Spero.



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Fritzi Maassari and Artemis are on the southbound side of the station. The shots in the slideshow are in the northbound side. In both cases, I decided to photograph the images from the across the tracks. The idea was to show them in situ. Also, I like how the steel supports that hold up the station situate these mythological images in a tough urban frame. (The image of a gnarled tree was a mistake I was too lazy to fix)


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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