The cyclic structure and complex nonnarrative flow of Nancy Spero’s Notes in Time make it the artist’s most ambitious work. Spero, who died last year at 83, recalled that creating it “was like working on a book, a solitary activity. I had to sequester myself. Rarely was anybody interested enough to ask to see my work in those days and I had nothing to show for years. I was stockpiling images and quotations, handprinting them and collaging them directly on the paper. Then, in the last few months of work, I put everything together.” Containing ninety-six separate quotations and a multitude of figures, Notes in Time is the culmination of the first half of Spero’s career and a summation of her thought—artistic, philosophical, and political—to that point.
Spero conceived of the work as cyclical, but in her early gallery exhibitions, this and other scroll-like works were pinned to walls that met at right angles; they often had to be arranged in multiple registers to fit available space. Notes in Time, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, has in recent years been exhibited with each panel separately framed. The frames are necessary for conservation reasons, but they further fragment the experience of the work. Digital photography has made it possible to remove the frames and reassemble the scroll as a continuous frieze for publication; this online presentation enables viewers to experience the work in an uninterrupted circular sequence, as Spero imagined it.
Notes in Time consists of twenty-four numbered horizontal panels, each approximately nine feet long and assembled from four pasted-together sheets of twenty-by-twenty-eight-inch handmade paper (except for panels 2 and 3, which are three and two sheets long, respectively). The work combines aspects of a book and an architectural relief or wall painting. Formally, it may be imagined as a band of images on the periphery of an interior, like the frieze encircling the cella of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae. Functionally, it is analogous to a medieval book of hours, containing the prayers or offices to be uttered at the canonical hours of the day. Its twenty-four panels may be thought of as a repeating cycle, including, as in a book of hours, devotion to a virgin deity (Artemis in place of Mary); Hours of the Cross, represented here by accounts of the torture of women; and the suffering of the saints, who are here replaced by women of color suffering the inequities of a racist world.
The work begins with a dance frieze, a celebration of women’s bodies. It then surveys the obstacles against women’s liberation, ranging from contemporary political stereotypes to ones originating in ancient history and myth. The second half of the frieze deals with sexuality and private experience, culminating in references to procreation and divorce. The circle begins again with a defiant statement: “Certainly, childbirth is our mortality, we who are women, for it is our battle.”
The dominant figure of Notes in Time is, like the artist, unseen. She is Helen of Troy, whose voice is the first to be heard after the epigraph that begins the scroll. A fragment of a poem accompanies the dancers who fill the opening panels:
I will count the tread of my feet,
as a dancer counts,
Faster or slower,
but never changing the beat,
These lines are taken from the beginning of the fifth book of the poet H. D.’s (Hilda Doolittle) Helen in Egypt, written between 1952 and 1954. A major component of Notes in Time, Helen in Egypt is H. D.’s reimagining of a lost poem by Stesichorus (ca. 640–555 BCE), which is the most famous example of a palinode (a poem that recants an earlier one). According to legend, Stesichorus had composed a poem critical of Helen and immediately went blind. He then wrote the palinode, restoring Helen’s reputation by proposing that the real Helen had remained in Egypt, while a phantasm of her continued on to Troy. Upon completing the second poem, Stesichorus’s sight was miraculously restored. H. D.’s poem is preceded by an argument that states, in part, “According to the Pallinode, Helen was never in Troy. She had been transposed or translated into Egypt. Helen of Troy was a phantom, substituted for the real Helen.… The Greeks and the Trojans alike fought for an illusion.”
The story of Helen in Egypt, or the phantom Helen, is the great example in the Greek tradition of the woman as a double, a central figure in Spero’s art. The tale was told by Herodotus and Euripides, both of whom agreed that the actual Helen never reached Troy, spending the long war in Egypt. Similarly, H. D., whose early life was shattered by World War I—she lost a child, a brother, and her husband—rescues Helen from the accusation of having ignited the Trojan War. The poem can also be seen as a feminist response to epic poetry’s masculine glorification of conflict. Many aspects of the poem must have resonated for Spero: its setting in Egypt (a primary source of her visual language), the condemnation of war, and the complex exploration of sexuality by a poet known for her independence and relationships with both women and men.
Spero and her husband, the painter Leon Golub, spent a formative period of their careers, from 1959 until 1964, in Paris, and they often spoke of their work as rooted in existentialism. Spero’s attitude toward her figures in Notes in Time is indeed more existential than psychological, evincing greater concern for the individual figure and its context than for explaining its behavior. This attitude is mirrored in her pragmatic working procedure; she was less interested in where one of her appropriated images may have come from than how it functioned in a composition. A small but telling example: I questioned Spero about the source of a running figure with arms flung back, which makes its debut in Notes in Time and goes on to appear frequently in Spero’s work, part of her “stock company” of female characters. Spero told me the figure came from a photograph of a woman exercising with a jump rope. What seems to have interested her was that the woman in the original image was putting herself forward “breast first”—leading with her sex, as it were, caught in midair, momentarily defying gravity. Spero turned the image into a kind of running-figure hieroglyph, which we might translate as “active-woman-freedom.”
Spero’s existential outlook is also evident in the many compositions where she incorporated cutout, handprinted figures as collage elements, isolated or suspended against an undefined ground. In her 1970s works, it often seems as though Giacometti’s sculptures have been removed from their bases and transformed into figural ciphers. But the anomie, isolation, and indifference in Giacometti’s figures starkly contrasts with Spero's joyful, energetic, dancing figures; nevertheless, the two artists share the device of isolating and decontextualizing the human form in an indeterminate and empty space.
Spero’s frequent juxtaposition of these figures with appropriated texts, her combination of existential figuration and politically charged language, creates a hybrid form. In this online presentation of Notes in Time, Spero’s evocation of ancient scrolls intersects with the computer metaphor of “scrolling,” offering a fresh vantage point for understanding Spero’s work in its full complexity.