Carol Rama’s cool and controversial work comes to New York.
That the largely underappreciated Italian artist Carol Rama’s work has recently gained a wider audience than ever before is certainly true. However, the notion that she has been plucked from the dank, treacherous fringes of the international art world has its complications. Rama, who died in 2015 at 97, was mainly self-taught, but for the six decades that she spent creating art in her native Turin, she enjoyed inclusion among the city’s literary and artistic cognoscenti, consistent gallery representation and exhibitions, and cult-figure-like status. The artist, who is known both for her delightfully deviant figurative works and her suggestive, corporeal abstractions, was also the administrator of her own myth—that of a brash and plucky loner who has brushed shoulders with death and insanity (she is often quoted as saying, “I didn’t have any painters as masters, the sense of sin is my master”). It seems Rama—now in death more popular than ever—stood on a threshold, blurring the lines between genres, between fame and obscurity, and between her art and her life.
The New Museum has staged the first New York museum survey of Rama’s work and the largest exhibition of her work in the United States to date. “Carol Rama: Antibodies” (through September 10) features 150 paintings, objects, and works on paper from the 1940s onward. Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson artistic director of the New Museum, says, “Rama anticipated so many conversations that are relevant in America today—especially about gender, sexuality, and ownership of bodies. She’s been talking about these things since the ’40s.” The show, which will colonize the second floor of the museum, goes on view alongside exhibitions of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kaari Upson, and Elaine Cameron-Weir—all a fraction of Rama’s age (Upson, the oldest, was born in 1972).
For many art lovers in America, the show is not an introduction to the artist or her work but a first-time face-to-face meeting. Gioni says, “People have heard of her and she has a cult status, but there haven’t been many occasions to see her work. This show is both a revelation and a confirmation.” Gioni, who spoke with Art & Antiques before the opening of the exhibition, said there was palpable anticipation within the institution leading up to the show. “When we started unpacking the work at the museum, everyone—from the installers to the registrars—were extremely excited.”
An international retrospective, “The Passion According to Carol Rama,” ran throughout Europe (Barcelona, Paris, Finland, and Dublin, as well as Turin) during 2015–16, helping to cement Rama’s reputation outside of Italy. But numerous other shows of the artist’s work have been held in major European cities throughout the 2000s, including those at Rama’s gallery, the Berlin-based Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, bringing the work to younger eyes. Speaking to a reporter for Artnet, Michele Maccarone referred to the 2008 solo show of Rama’s at Maccarone Gallery in New York—one of the rare occasions to see her work in the U.S. aside from a retrospective that traveled to the ICA Boston in 1998—as “the punkest shit in town.” In September 2016, Lévy Gorvy Gallery announced its representation of the artist in the U.S. and the U.K.
Gioni worked at the 2003 Venice Biennale when Rama was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and was the Biennale’s artistic director in 2013 when Rama’s work was featured alongside that of Paul McCarthy and Robert Gober in a special section curated by Cindy Sherman. Rama has shown at the Biennale several times—in 1949, 1950, 1952, and 1956, and in a solo show nearly four decades later, in 1993. This year, her legacy with the prestigious event continues, with the show “Carol Rama, Spazio anche più che tempo” running concurrently with the 2017 edition—and the New Museum’s show—at the Palazzo Ca’ nova. That exhibition, which is organized by the Archivio Carol Rama, puts 30 works on view. “Rama made so many amazing works,” says Gioni, “that there can be two simultaneous shows and they don’t conflict.”
Rama was born in 1918, a year after her parents returned to Turin following six years in Argentina, where they were migrant workers. Rama’s father, an inventor, opened a factory that made car and bicycle parts based on a model he patented. Notably, several of Rama’s pieces, such as Movimento e immobilità di Birnam [Movement and Immobility of Birnam] (1977) and Sortilegi [Spells] (1984) feature bicycle tires that look almost like innards. Throughout the ’20s, the factory and family—she recalls her father singing opera around the house—prospered. After the stock market crash in the U.S., the business was put in jeopardy and eventually closed. In 1942 her father committed suicide. Though Rama often cites the poverty resulting from the factory failure as the cause of his suicide, Gioni notes that some suspect that her father killed himself due to closeted homosexuality.
In Rama’s early teens, before her father’s death, her mother checked herself into a mental hospital. It was while visiting her mother there that Rama found her artistic voice, and she began “doing some coarse drawings,” as she put it. What resulted were grotesque, brutal, and sexually charged watercolors, such as Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni) [Passionate (Marta and the Rent Boys)] (1939) and Dorina (1940), featuring male nudes with multiple phalluses or a woman with a snake coming out of her vagina. Works like Appassionata [Passionate] (1939), which features a female nude in red high heels sitting in a wheel chair, and Appassionata [Passionate] (1941), which shows a female torso on a crude metal bed (the red heels arranged below), depict the stark furnishings of the asylum. These paintings illustrate mutilation, perversion, decay, and dementia. Yet despite their subject matter, the drawings have a strange tenderness. Rama often uses light pinks to color skin and shows tongues curling from her figures’ mouths like pieces of rosy grosgrain ribbon (Rama said the tongue was her favorite body part). She crowned her figures with laurel wreaths, as if to present her characters as gods and goddesses or to acknowledge the pagan precursor to Italian Catholicism, which presented suffering and sexuality in a different context. Rama, who felt that her anguish and sense of personal tragedy was the catalyst for her art, also clearly loved and identified with the figures she found in the mental hospital.
In 1945, the police immediately censored Rama’s first solo show at Galleria Faber in Turin. Not long afterward, Rama turned to abstraction. She began creating odd, geometric canvases, with spindly lines, orifice-like shapes and pieces like fragmented body parts. In the ’50s, she briefly joined Turin’s Movimento Arte Concreta, her only tie to a group (other than her life-long connection to writer Edoardo Sanguineti) during her career. Throughout the ’60s, her foray into abstraction continued, often with the addition of found objects. Contessa [Countess] (1963), a rather menstrual oil on canvas, features animal claws, and Le tagliole [The Traps] (1966), an enamel on canvas in different shades of gold, features animal hide in a fox-like shape (Rama’s mother briefly worked as a furrier). Another anatomical piece, L’isola degli occhi [The Island of Eyes] (1967) uses plastic eyes amid synthetic resin and enamel on canvas, while Maternità [Maternity] (1966), a very red and very vaginal work, is punctuated with plastic eyeballs that register as beads of wetness from a distance. “One of our arguments in the show,” says Gioni, “is that even the abstract works carries anatomic memories.”
After the curator and critic Lea Vergine included examples of Rama’s early watercolors in the influential 1980 exhibition “The Other Half of the Avant-Garde,” Rama enjoyed a renewed popularity and returned to figuration. Seduzioni [Seductions], a 1984 work on paper, features frogs—a favorite theme of Rama’s–and several nude figures—one in particular looks remarkably like the Venus of Willendorf. Here, Rama returns to the lust and disgust of her teen years.
Rama, who maintained a reputation for isolation, actually counted Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Man Ray, and Picasso as friends—she had pictures of herself with several of them hanging in her studio and home. For Rama, the myth of disconnection from other artists, society, and normalcy was as key to her persona as a certain brashness in interviews and her works themselves. “The mythology around the artist is very much a part of her, and her constructed character is very much present in part of her work, but we don’t want to fetishize that and we don’t want to construct this illusion that you can’t appreciate her work without that,” says Gioni. “But hearing her voice, metaphorically, is so important, so besides the captions that are typically accompanying works at museum shows, we also have her own writing and her own text to illustrate her works.”
By Sarah E. Fensom