Preferred Citation: Frederickson, Kristen, and Sarah E. Webb, editors Singular Women: Writing the Artist. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.






© Amy Ingrid Schlegel

Feminist art historians are by now well aware that the revisionist notions of rediscovery and recontextualization imply an insertion of women artists into the existing canon and not a reconceptualization of its rules. Many, I suspect, have eschewed this “mix-and-stir” recipe, since evidently few have pursued the monograph as a viable approach to writing art history from a feminist vantage point, especially about the work of women artists (Mary Garrard's monograph on Artemisia Gentileschi is an obvious exception). What follows is a meditation on how to rethink the discursive form of the monograph and what is entailed in this rethinking as a feminist.

I contend that the monograph is a masculinized form of writing that needs to be recast. In this essay I examine the underlying assumptions of the monographic model (and, to a lesser extent, the thematic case study) and the stakes involved in either pursuing or eschewing it. Can the monograph be recast without unwittingly replicating or mimicking its codified form, and the values inherent in that form, or is an entirely different approach required? Is it desirable, moreover, for a feminist to write, let alone possible to publish, a monograph on an obscure, nonmainstream woman artist––living or dead? Can the “masculinized monograph,” one that tends toward hagiography, be reworked productively from a feminist perspective if its biographical model and

chronological structure are kept more or less intact? Or is an alternative, such as the currently fashionable thematic case study, more appropriate for a feminist critique, especially of a woman subject? By posing these questions we can begin to understand the investments we make as feminist art historians in how we write and what we choose to write about.

Such questions are, I believe, at the root of the current major dilemmas faced by feminist art historians, especially the challenge of getting explicitly feminist material published in a supposedly “postfeminist” age. They are also the ones that most perplexed me while formulating and writing Codex Spero, a project methodologically located in between an unconventional monograph and a thematic case study.

The monograph and the thematic case study are often perceived as sharply contrasting approaches. It is argued that the monograph generally functions as an uncritical celebration of a single artist's work and life, whereas the thematic case study takes a more critical, skeptical, and theoretical stance. One of the crucial differences between the two approaches is the conception of the artist as subject. The monograph, catalogue raisonné, and biography (which I am lumping together here for the sake of argument, though I acknowledge they are discrete endeavors) treat the artist as a centered, rational subject, ever-conscious of his or her intentions and the meanings of the work. The primary goal is to celebrate the “genius” and significance of the artist by relying on the time-honored assumption that art and life explain each other, quite apart from any broader context or deeper historical and cultural elucidation. The thematic case study, by contrast, considers the artist as a historical figure who is part of a given society, not an exceptional individual separate from it. In the thematic case study, more emphasis is placed on the work, the process, the practice, and the signifier than on the artist, the content, or the signified. The conception of the artist in the thematic case study corresponds, therefore, to poststructuralist notions of authorship such as the Barthesian “text” (which Barthes called “a tissue of quotations”).[1] (Some feminist art historians have begun to identify the masculinist bias of poststructuralist theories of authorship, particularly the implications of the death of Barthes's author and the identity of his reader.) But despite these contrasts, the monograph and the thematic case study are not always antithetical approaches. Some of their goals obviously overlap when both are focused on a single artist, whether his or her achievement is a matter

of historical consensus, as is often the case in the monograph, or the project's polemical assertion, as is often the case in a thematic study.

Writing any type of study, whether monographic or thematic, on a critically underrecognized living (woman) artist poses particular problems. How does one go about making a case for the importance of an artist of the post–World War II period without engaging (what I consider to be) the generally stultifying conventions of the masculinized monograph? Hopefully, one writes about an artist whose career is rich and complex enough to make claims for the work as an important, representative example, or, in my case, an important counterexample, of a specific cultural and historical moment. I chose to write about the art of the veteran American painter and printmaker Nancy Spero (b. 1926).

Initially I formulated Codex Spero with what Lisa Tickner calls a “feminist problematic” in mind. In 1988, Tickner asserted that “there is no such thing as a ‘feminist art history.’ Feminism is a politics, not a methodology.”[2] In place of the category “feminist art history,” Tickner suggested “a feminist problematic” that would “carr[y] the analyses and goals of political feminism into the realm of cultural inquiry.”[3] These words resonated as I began to think of how to craft a manageable study. There was never any doubt in my mind about how to write––I would write as a feminist—but I knew that my decision to write on a living woman artist was an example of what Tickner has called “motivated scholarship.” The decision was based in part on the dearth of scholarly literature available at the time (the early 1990s), which consisted of only two small but respectable retrospective exhibition catalogues with short essays by prominent art historians. In the intervening years, Spero's critical fortune has changed dramatically, most notably with the publication in 1996 of an unconventional, multiauthored monograph in the Phaidon Press Contemporary Artists Series.[4] Spero is no longer an “overlooked” or “underrecognized” artist, but neither is she quite canonical or a sure bet for art book publishers.

Spero received no rigorous historical and theoretical consideration before the late 1980s, primarily because she was a woman and a selfdescribed feminist, as well as the wife of a (then) better-known artist. Her work also escaped critical attention because it did not comfortably fit the proposed categories or tropes of feminist artistic practice, such as identity (personal vs. professional and “the personal is political”), (female) victimization, the body, and the gaze. But this situation has

changed since 1987, the year in which two traveling retrospectives of Spero's work were mounted in the United Kingdom and the United States. After nearly forty years of neglect, her work began to garner serious, if seriously delayed, critical reception and curatorial response. During the 1990s, she has been invited to show her work internationally at prestigious museums and in coveted exhibitions (such as “Documenta” and the Whitney Biennial) and to install temporary and permanent public commissions in libraries, galleries, museums; on a wall in occupied Derry, Northern Ireland; and even in a New York City subway station.

All of this activity does not quite qualify Spero for canonization, which is perhaps a mixed blessing. It also apparently does not necessarily make her a viable subject for an academic press monograph (in contrast to a trade art book), even an unconventional one. This may just be “a sad reality” of the art book market, as one university press editor phrased it. The lesson from Spero's example is that being prototypical is not good enough. Western culture is enamored of singular individuals—celebrities, leaders, athletes, and those who “think differently.” The publishing industry looks most favorably upon books about such individuals, even if, like Duchamp, they are then treated in a thematic case study fashion. This proclivity explains the steady stream of studies on Picasso and Matisse being published year after year. A “singular” artist, we realize, is one with a canonical, household name recognizable by the educated layperson. Apart from a handful of women artists throughout Western history, singular essentially means “male.” This anthology offers a good deal of evidence challenging that definition.

In Codex Spero, I intend to convey why Spero should be regarded as one of the most important American artists of the postwar period, but I want to debunk the masculinist notion of greatness by avoiding heroicizing statements and sweeping explanations that are neither historical nor theoretical. Writing reflexively about these issues and reassessing methodological premises brings me a step closer to resolving the paradox at the heart of the project: As much as I want to characterize Spero and her body of feminist work (i.e., works produced since the late 1960s) as prototypical and representative, rather than as singular and unique, I also want to show how her work is exceptional for its formal innovations and conceptual challenges. This paradox maintains the ultimate rationale of a monograph (the importance and “quality” of the

work and the significance, if not the greatness, of the artist) yet presents the material in a different way, without employing a biographically motivated, decontextualized, and transhistorical model.[5]

At the beginning of the project, I decided that I wanted to write about an artist whom I respected as a person without extolling her in terms of the by now mythical constructs of modernism and masculinity––genius, originality, autonomy, and greatness. I do not want to examine Spero's work in terms of the ideological analysis posited by Linda Nochlin in her landmark 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”[6] The concept of greatness was subsequently debunked by feminist art historians as a code word for a subjective, male-identified, and economically privileged position. While my project is indebted to Nochlin's radical questioning of disciplinary assumptions, I do not locate Spero's enterprise in terms of an alternative canon of great women artists, as one might have been tempted to do on the heels of Nochlin and Ann Sutherland-Harris's monumental late-1970s revisionist exhibition and catalogue, Women Artists, 15501950.[7] These exemplary efforts of “first-wave” feminist art history took the first, necessary steps toward the goal of completely overhauling the discipline of art history. Like much Anglo-American feminist art history, my project builds on but does not try to emulate those achievements.

In addition to the criteria of greatness, I resisted another masculinist attribute of the monograph: the impulse to construct the study like a submarine––streamlined, airtight, a microcosm unto itself. I felt I had to take more risks in my attempt to write an unconventional monograph whose content and structure were not blueprinted before the writing process began but rather grew organically over time as I wrestled with the dilemma of how to write critically, while also in celebration, as a feminist about a feminist artist and feminist art practices. The more I researched and developed Codex Spero, the more I realized that a monograph could be whatever I wanted it to be, including thematically driven and issue oriented. I had the liberating sense that I was inventing something from scratch rather than responding to an existing body of literature. The challenge, though, lay in how to set limits and decide what issues to write about.

I decided not to comprehensively examine Spero's art and activism. Rather, I would focus on her career only once she began identifying herself as a feminist—that is, from the late 1960s onward (though she

has been active as an artist since the late 1940s). As I proceeded with my research, I was guided not so much by a preexisting theoretical model or the writings of one theorist as by the image of a wheel, with the sign “Spero” (her work, her feminist activism, and her writings) as its hub and the issues addressed by her, as well as specific, related works by other artists, all emanating from its hub like spokes. I thought this format would allow me to selectively examine specific works that seemed to be lightning rods for feminist debate and to posit new strategies, at times in comparison with those of other contemporary artists, both female and male.

In Codex Spero I consciously avoided applying an overriding method that would make the chapters read as a seamless argument. From chapter to chapter, I explored different methods but consistently viewed Spero's art and activist practices from the dual perspectives of second-wave American feminism as a political and social movement and of feminist theory as an increasingly complex and polyphonic network of gender-based discourses. I knew I did not want my project to be a case study of a theoretical method or a model, since I am opposed to using an artist's work and stated intentions as mere illustrations of theoretical discourse. Rather, I use different theoretical approaches suggested by the art itself, ones that are appropriate both historically and contextually to the milieu in which Spero was working, to other contemporaneous artistic practices, and to second-wave American feminism itself. The most surprising revelation I had was that, no matter how hard I tried, if I was honest with myself, I could not identify with any one particular feminist theoretical model. Perhaps this is so because I do not see the wisdom in inserting an artist or her work into a model, theoretical or methodological, in order to show how the model works. The fact that I feel “in between” feminist theoretical models is only one indication that the intellectual terrain between art historical scholarship and feminist theorization, especially as it applies to living women artists, is wide open.

Codex Spero, then, is a neologism conveying three ideas that encapsulate my attempt to rethink the monograph as a feminist. The study's main subject and primary point of departure is the work, rather than the life, of Nancy Spero. Her work, writing, and activism are treated as indices through which critical dialogues constituting a feminist and/or an activist art practice at specific historical moments are explored. One of three points of departure is the dictionary definition

of the word codex, meaning “a manuscript book, especially one of Scripture, the classics, or ancient annals,” but also referring to an artist's sketchbooks or notebooks, as in Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester, in which the text-image relation is unconventional and almost illegible. The codex is invoked conceptually as both a historical and a transhistorical type of instrumentalizing, or codifying, writing. It also characterizes the idiosyncratic and immensely innovative nature of Spero's collage works on paper, or what the critic Lawrence Alloway termed their “interpenetrating” text-image relation.[8] In fact, the codex form itself is an apt, prescriptive model for inventing an unconventional, “demasculinized” monograph. The codex does not replicate existing conventions of writing but rather establishes a new set of rules of interpretation that become instrumental once codified.

A second point of departure is Spero's idiosyncratic approach to collage, inaugurated around 1970 in two series based on the writings of Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), the early-twentieth-century French poet, essayist, and theoretician of the theater. These two series, the Artaud Paintings and Codex Artaud, were inspired by and appropriated extensively from Artaud's writings. Because the Codex Artaud (the more formally and intellectually complex of the two series) is Spero's most enigmatic and pivotal work as well as the linchpin of her oeuvre (I hesitate to use the term masterpiece), it warranted extensive examination and became the subject of two of five chapters. Codex Artaud (Figure 21) both summarizes the major concerns of the first twenty years of Spero's career (from the late 1940s to the late 1960s) and radically shifts gears in its introduction of compositional issues and strategies of appropriation that continue to preoccupy her. A final point of departure in the study is the term Codex Spero, a more cryptic reference to the task of explaining the dense references and interconnections between Spero's most significant serialized collage and hand-printed works on paper and her most important feminist activities in their critical, art historical, and theoretical contexts.

The structure of Codex Spero was determined ultimately by the shifts in Spero's artistic practice since the late 1960s, not by important events in her life, such as a geographical move or the birth of a child (although Spero's artistic production is marked profoundly by the conditions of her domestic life, marriage, motherhood, and, for the first thirty years of her career, the overlap of her living space and her studio space). The important shifts occur around issues concerning materials,


21. Nancy Spero, Codex Artaud XVII (detail), 1972, typewriter and painting collage

compositional format, and imagery. Each chapter seeks to account for at least one significant change in Spero's practice as understood within its art historical, historical, or cultural context (the emphasis depends on the subject matter of the work). The goal of each chapter is to explain why the change in practice occurred when it did and how it contributes to a countertradition or represents an ideological rupture in mainstream postwar American art. Only after several years of research
and thinking, and only once the writing began, did it become clear that the overall approach to the project itself could, and should, be an experiment in how to rethink the art historical monograph as a feminist. It also became clear that the project offered me an opportunity to write about contemporary American feminist art practices without ghettoizing, and thereby marginalizing, them yet again.

Whether one pursues a monograph (conventional or not) or a thematic case study of several artists, it is impossible to avoid completely the question of how to use biographical information and archival documents (transcribed or recorded interviews, diaries, journals, correspondence, and personal effects, for instance). As the backbone of any monograph, such documents are typically used to systematically reconstruct the artist's life and artistic development. They can still be used in a thematic case study but with a different purpose. Such information becomes especially useful when one is reconstructing chronological sequences and exhibition history on women artists, particularly living artists, since information on them is often sparse and/or uncatalogued in museum archives and libraries. As Laura Cottingham has noted, the self-censorship and erasure of lesbian artists in the historical record is an even greater obstacle, at least in terms of researching closeted historical figures.[9] If possible, it can be crucial to work “in dialogue” with the artist, to gain access to her personal archives and slide collection. That metaphorical dialogue depends on the artist's willingness, generosity, and understanding of the stakes of writing history from a feminist perspective. Interviews (both current and dated) still play a very useful role in conducting research, though one need not agree with the artist's interpretation of her own work or the intention behind making it. Similarly, personal archives should not be treated as the singular, privileged source of information in a thematic case study, but they can be an indispensable point of departure. It is all a matter of how those documents are treated and what kind of information is emphasized. What types of historical documents are selected and deployed as “evidence”—that is, as authoritative of a certain experience—closely reflects discursive and critical norms, which are manifestations of dominant ideology. In contrast, my research in the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum archives turned up many obscure documents and “unauthoritative” voices that collectively narrate the first chapter, on the early years of the New York women's movement in the arts, from 1969 to 1973.


We are now in the midst of a third wave of feminist art historical analysis, which builds on the earlier theoretical insights of Nochlin, Harris, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, Lucy Lippard, Whitney Chadwick, and Lisa Tickner, among many others. This third wave, ever conscious of its predecessors, offers a widening range of analyses that combine a gender-based approach to representation with Marxist, materialist, psychoanalytical, or social art historical methodologies. I prefer an approach that combines the polemical import of Tickner's feminist problematic as a politics in the realm of cultural inquiry (which is more than a method simply to be chosen or discarded) with an intertwined social and feminist-theoretical approach to art historical analysis. I aim to write a feminist art history that functions as both a politics and a method, one not burdened by the clichéd, unidirectional axis of influence from the famous husband to the obscure, longsuffering wife “who happens also to be an artist.”

One issue I had to address was that of influence. Spero's husband of over fifty years, the painter Leon Golub, does not appear as often in my discussions as one might expect, since I do not believe he has unduly influenced her work or thinking any more than she has influenced his. The marginal presence of Golub in my study has struck some people as audacious, inadequate, or just plain wrong-headed. But no one has undertaken an extended examination of how Golub's work has been influenced by Spero's; why should it be the other way around? My position was that there were several monographs about Golub, his painting, and his writings in print, not to mention many exhibition catalogues, and that that was sufficient. Besides, Spero is a marginal presence in the books on Golub. There were no books about Spero before 1996 and only two decent yet modest retrospective exhibition catalogues in print. It does seem, in hindsight, unfair and inaccurate to marginalize Golub as I did. Perhaps my treatment of “the husband” was a semiconscious manifestation of feminist rage and retribution toward all the people who over the years had belittled, downplayed, or ignored Spero's presence in Golub's life, work, and their shared studio and home. In any event, Golub never once complained about being marginalized in Codex Spero; he knows better.

Perhaps Spero's work has been responding to Golub's work, and the aspects of patriarchy, militarism, masculinism, and phallocentrism that it represents, all along. Golub himself remarked in a 1983 exhibition catalogue statement for “Art Couples” at P.S. 1: “I sometimes wonder, ‘Is

she trying to embarrass me?’ All those little figures, many minute, some half an inch tall! Like termites! To make [my] giants topple?”[10] Conversely, Golub's work of the 1990s shows unmistakable signs of Spero's signature: the incorporation of textual fragments and quotations, and the gradual breakdown of a legible, narrative pictorial space in favor of a more chaotic, collagelike one; and at least one tiny female figure.

No one has written yet on the psychologically fraught topic of the correspondences, the reciprocity, and the “interpictorial dialogue” (to use Jonathan Katz's phrase)[11] between Spero's and Golub's oeuvres. At one point I entertained the idea of switching my topic to the relationship between Spero's and Golub's work, but I did not pursue it. I believed that Spero's work deserved sustained visual, theoretical, and historical analysis on its own terms and in the immediate context of second-wave U.S. feminism before it was interpreted primarily in relation to her husband's work.

In conclusion, let me pose a broader question related to the one with which I began: What are the dilemmas and stakes of writing feminist art history now? Always, the choice of a critical approach is not only a question of how to write but also, as the Vietnamese-born postcolonial theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha reminds us, a “question of priorities” in terms of how an author conceives of her own identity. Trinh writes about the “bind” of writing as a practice in which a conflicted subjectivity, both gendered and racialized, takes form. For Trinh, the “triple bind” of writing is the conflict she feels in having to choose from among her competing identities as a woman, as a writer, and as an Asian. “Today,” she writes, “the growing ethnic-feminist consciousness has made it increasingly difficult for her [that is, Trinh herself, but also all women writers] to turn a blind eye not only to the specification of the writer as historical subject (who writes? and in what context?), but also to writing itself as a practice located at the intersection of subject and history.”[12] I am attracted to Trinh's ideas because I know she is writing to me and for me and women like me. Reading Trinh makes me self-conscious about my own position as a Western, white, middle-class, heterosexual, Ivy League–educated, selfidentified feminist engaged with the challenge of writing history and a critical questioning of disciplinary conventions. I partially identify with Trinh's conflicted sense of authorial identity.

But I am also aware that Trinh's triple bind of how to write is not my own. I am faced with another bind of competing identities: whether

to write first as a feminist or as an art historian. But the bind is more complicated than that. To answer Trinh's question of priorities, I write as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, North American liberal feminist first, then as a social art historian; moreover, I have written primarily about the work of straight, white, middle-class, liberal American feminist visual artists. I must admit that in important respects (in terms of gender, class, sexual orientation, and political views), Nancy Spero and I have a good deal in common, though she is older and of a different religious background. In part, my decision to write on an artist who in many important respects is similar to myself was also at least partially a response to the then-current climate of political correctness, in which the only critics/voices deemed authoritative were the ones who looked and sounded very similar to the subjects they wrote about.

We––feminists, art historians, scholars––must acknowledge, without seeming apologetic, that the subjects we choose to research and write about often have many points of overlap with the circumstances of our own lives, both personal and professional. We cannot escape the fact that most art historians write about artists, as opposed to art markets or art institutions: that is, about embodied, desiring, and political subjects, subjects marked by gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and other inflections. Our often subliminal identification with our subjects is, however, never a precise mirror-image and should not be the basis for choosing what to write on and how to write. Writing self-consciously about one's own position as a historian and interpreter is crucial to establishing a metaphorical dialogue with one's subject and provides an engaging point of entry for the reader into one's work.

My dual identity is at once both personal and professional, as it is for most feminists. I experience the world and try to live my daily life according to feminist principles of equality, tolerance, and justice, yet I am trained as a historian of art. The trick is to hold the two identities in some acceptable form of balance, though it is not always a perfect balance. The issue of how to bridge one's personal and professional identities begs the question of who a feminist is and what feminism means at this moment. The terms feminist and feminism have become so overdetermined that, as I see it, they can barely contain their multitudes, complexities, and contradictions. Even more worrisome and dispiriting is the current tendency of those who once called themselves feminists to regard the term as suspect and a turn-off to young women and college-aged students. The dilemma of writing feminist art history

and of writing a monograph is, for me, the dilemma of how to write “as a feminist” in order to continue challenging the masculinist biases of the discipline (the monograph, the canon, the masterpiece, the genius) and how to keep our scholarship motivated by our feminist commitments while also continuing to use the “f” word.


1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 146.

2. Lisa Tickner, “Feminism, Art History, and Sexual Difference,” Genders no. 3 (Fall 1988): 93.

3. Ibid.

4. Jon Bird, Jo Anna Isaak, and Sylvère Lotringer, Nancy Spero (London: Phaidon, 1996).

5. I was not able to resolve this paradox to my satisfaction, but dissertations, unlike books, can structurally contain an apparent inconsistency and still be a contribution to scholarship.

6. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Art and Sexual Politics, ed. E. Baker and T. Hess (New York: Macmillan, 1973); reprinted in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 145–78.

7. Anne Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists 1550–1950 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976).

8. Lawrence Alloway, “Art,” Nation, April 2, 1973, 446. Alloway states that the Codex Artaud presents “a remarkable compound of two kinds of signs in which verbal and visual image interpenetrate.”

9. Laura Cottingham, “Notes on ‘Lesbian,’” Art Journal 55, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 72–77; see esp. 76.

10. Reprinted in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, ed., Leon Golub: Do Paintings Bite? Selected Texts 1948–1996 (Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz, 1997), 74.

11. Jonathan Katz, “The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg,” in Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, ed. Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 189–206.

12. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman Native Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 6.


Preferred Citation: Frederickson, Kristen, and Sarah E. Webb, editors Singular Women: Writing the Artist. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.