Nancy Spero’s retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the first since her death in 2009, is one giant protest or, to use her own words, cri de coeur – against violence, torture, war and male dominance. She defined a cri de coeur, the title of one series of drawings (absent from this show), as “almost like praying or pleading with heaven”.

The American artist was a well-known feminist, who once turned up at a party that featured strippers and porn to throw pies into the faces of guests. She was one of the founding members of the first co-operative gallery for women in 1970, called A.I.R (Artists In Residence).

True to her values, in the mid-60s when the women’s movement was starting, Spero decided not to work with oil on canvas any more, rejecting it as a “male medium”. (Her arthritis was another reason.) Since then she has been creating numerous works on paper, working with stencils, ink, gouache and collage.

One of her most powerful works is Maypole: Take No Prisoners, featuring severed female heads printed on aluminium. The distorted faces with their mouths wide open are shouting a wordless protest at the world. The piece fills the whole room, forcing visitors to engage with it as they enter and leave the show. The invigilator tells me the piece is normally mounted on a platform which I imagine makes it less immediate, although the Serpentine’ s installation comes with its own risks – one woman manages to walk into it but it’s surprisingly sturdy and no damage is done.

Marduk is a three-panel collage that takes its name from a Babylonian myth and tackles torture and violence against women around the world head-on. It combines lines from the myth in capital letters with drawings of female figures and scraps of typewritten newspaper stories.

Azur (2003), a massive three-tier frieze in the Serpentine’s central room, seems less gloomy at first sight, a feast of colour and movement. It features a multitude of female figures – voluptuous goddesses from Egyptian and Greek mythology, Maenads and warrior women dancing wildly and leaping through the air.

However, every now and then female figures who are gagged and bound crop up, plus there is one panel that reproduces a black-and-white photograph of partisans in the Second World War, bearing signs in German and Russian that read: “We are partisans and shot at German soldiers”. Spero was also vehemently anti war.

At times Spero’s approach feels a little didactic, but her drawings in the next room display a certain lightness of touch, despite the subject matter. Her war drawings depict a phallic male bomb and a sperm bomb, but also a female bomb, and make me smile and shudder at the same time. They were made to express her anger at the Vietnam War and Spero later wrote of the series of 150 drawings:

“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.”

I admire Spero’s bravery and dogged determination. For a long time she worked in isolation as she rejected Pop Art and formalist Abstraction, the dominant art movements of the 1950s. The first major retrospective of her work did not come until 1987 when she was 61, and it happened at the ICA in London, rather than her native America.

Spero shared a studio with her husband, the painter Leon Golub, at their home in New York. The room was divided in two by a partitioning wall.  In 1959 they moved to Paris for five years where Spero encountered the poet Antonin Artaud’s writing. This inspired a series of drawings on paper called Codex Artaud which use lines from his furious and often witty writings.

“All writing is Pigshit,” declares one of those works in big bold letters. Spero later explained that she felt a transgressive urge to create something that “would not be acceptable in the usual daily, ordinary, polite way of communicating”. By using Artaud’s prose and creating this huge graphic work she made his words her own.

Nancy Spero

Serpentine Gallery, Hyde Park, London

3 March – 2 May 2011