It was in 1966, with the Women's Movement in its ascendancy, that the American artist Nancy Spero declared she would never again work with oil on canvas. It was, she said, too masculine a medium. A year later, she proved her feminist principles further by turning up to a party that had strippers and porn films on its itinerary and throwing pies into the faces of its bemused guest.
For Spero, who had already been painting for nearly two decades, it was a turning point and the beginning of her battle against the misogyny around her, both in life and in art. Yet she was not just an artist who also happened to be an activist. She took the Second Wave Feminist dictum – that the personal is political – into her studio to develop what is now regarded as a pioneering feminist aesthetic sensibility.
Remarkably, as a key figure on the dissident New York arts scene of the Sixties and Seventies, she spent decades working in isolation, largely ignored by an uncomprehending art scene, her outlook at odds with Pop Art and Minimalism, the fashionable art movements of her day. The first major retrospective of her work came as late as 1987, when she was 61 years old, and not in her native America but in London, at the ICA. Her immense oeuvre, stretching back to the mid-1950s after she finished her training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and her preoccupations – war, women, history, eroticism, burlesque – now appear startlingly contemporary, as does her rejection of traditional oil on canvas in favour of cheap materials, such as paper and gouache, and the new mediums of graphics, collage, printmaking and text.
Next month, the Serpentine Gallery in London will stage a retrospective – the first since her death in October 2009, aged 83. Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the gallery, who knew and worked with Spero, says her reflections on sexuality and war are increasingly relevant today.
"Her work is becoming more and more urgent with the political situations in the world, and she is admired by artists of various generations from Marlene Dumas to Kiki Smith to art students and teachers," he says.
While her war drawings were born out of the horrors of the Vietnam War, whose daily coverage she viewed on American television, they have a resonance with modern-day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obrist suggests. There are later works that she completed a few years before her death, such as A Cry of the Heart, a monumental installation from 2004 which contains references to the thousands who suffered during the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Obrist collaborated with Spero on some projects: "The first time we met, it was in the early Nineties. We produced 'Do It', a three-minute clip for TV. She was giving instructions on how to hang clothes on a clothes line – it was heavily ironic. She was just so unbelievably straightforward. She told me she had an aversion to the boring and it was incredible how she was always plotting and planning."
Recognition may have been late in coming, thinks Obrist, because her heavily politicised work carried the wrong kind of shock value for her times. "She did not hesitate in asking questions ahead of her time that people found uncomfortable, and that may have carried a delay in recognition," he reflects.
Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1926, and lived much of her life in New York with her husband and collaborator, Leon Golub, whom she married in 1951. She accompanied him to France in 1959, and they stayed in Paris for five years, where she gave birth to two of her three sons. During this period, she became inspired by Antonin Artaud's writing – his fury, violence and frustration – to create a dedicated series of works called Codex Artaud. Radicalised subjects began to feature more and more: mother figures resembling monsters, figures from Tarot cards, prostitutes and goddesses from Indian, Greek, Egyptian and pagan mythologies. Many would be drawn with their tongues sticking out in a gesture of rebellion, and writing alongside the images screamed obscenities – "shit", "fuck you". Some years later, she explained why she created such works, referring to a kind of transgressive, anti-bourgeois impulse.
"I've always wanted my art to be something that would not be acceptable in the usual daily, ordinary, polite way of communicating," she said.
From the Seventies onwards, her subjects were predominantly women: stencilled images of ancient goddesses and warrior women who oozed sexuality, and whose depictions ranged from the voluptuous to the violent, vitriolic and witty. When she returned to America she began to develop her practice of graphic art using simple procedures: she photocopied and enlarged images and she began drawing provocatively on paper, tearing into it at times to give it a skin-like semblance.
Deeply affected by the televised images of the Vietnam War, she expressed her horror and revulsion in The War Series, a set of 150 drawings completed between 1966 and 1970. These became some of her seminal works, bringing together the concept of war with the concept of sex and gender.
In 2003 she wrote of this series: "I imagined these works as manifestos to protest the United States' incursion in Vietnam; they act on me like so many exorcisms. Bombs are horrible, phallic and sexual – much exaggerated – representations of the penis with their head sticking its tongue out and their violent description of the human (especially male) body. The clouds they provoke are filled with screaming heads vomiting their poison onto the victims below."
In 1970, Spero helped to open the first co-operative gallery for women in New York, called A.I.R. She wrote to the Museum of Modern Art to demand that work by women should make up 50 per cent of the museum's collection within five years, and in the 1980s she publicly berated the museum after an exhibition entitled "International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture" was found to include just 14 women alongside 151 male counterparts.
Over her lifetime, Spero assembled a multitudinous hieroglyphic alphabet composed of women of different ages and cultures which she transferred onto metal to be used as stamps; the images included Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker, the African prehistoric figure of Wilma, a Greek dancer with dildos, the Celtic goddess Sheela-na-gig and a Japanese go-go dancer. The stamps were used for her monumental, 14-panelled work Torture of Women, which was exhibited at A.I.R. in 1976. One of her most formidable works, which formed the centrepiece of the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 2007, was an installation featuring 200 disembodied female heads, made in aluminium, and entitled Maypole: Take No Prisoners, which will now hang at the entrance of the Serpentine Gallery.
Samm Kunce, who worked as Spero's studio manager for two decades, remembers the studio she shared with Golub. It was divided into two by a partition wall, through which the couple would talk to each other every day as they worked, she says. They used it as their home as well as their place of work.
"It was immense but very orderly and they had a tiny living area. They didn't like to have creature comforts and they didn't want to live away from their place of work. From very early, Nancy had started working late at night – she had three children, so at first it was practical for her to live in the place where she worked so she could work after they had gone to bed."
Kunce remembers Spiro as a lively figure who worked up to her death, despite the agonising arthritis she had suffered from since her mid-thirties. One unrealised series, says Kunce, was to be based on Samuel Beckett's texts: "She was making a figure buried in sand [inspired by Happy Days]. She kept having the ideas. She emanated a lot of hope." Indeed, her motto, which was also a play on the Latin meaning of her own name, was "While I breathe, I hope" [Dum spiro spero].
Nancy Spero, Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020 7402 6075) 3 March to 1 May. Media partner: The Independent