I went to see Antibodies, the Carol Rama exhibit at the New Museum, at 11 o’clock on the morning after the show opened. I had anticipated crowds but was surprised to be one among a very small group of visitors, seemingly made up entirely of Italian tourists.
When I went to the counter to purchase my ticket, I was informed that, because the majority of the museum was closed, in the process of being setting up for new exhibits, and only the Carol Rama show was open, the entrance fee was reduced. “Do you still want to buy a ticket?” the seller asked.
After I said yes and purchased my half-price ticket, I made my way up to the exhibit along with the Italians, in what felt like a private tour of the museum’s inner staircases.
In other words, my introduction to the Carol Rama show was a series of interventions that felt like outside forces (or, rather, inside forces) warning me not to enter, or to enter with caution. Were I less pragmatic, I might read these interventions as intentional, a kind of performance informing my entire experience of the exhibit, rather than a series of strange and surprising short circuits. Either way, the interruptions felt organic to the show, due to the interventions in the reception of Rama’s work and the subsequent violence done to her legacy — her being made invisible as an artist. As Paul Preciado writes in the catalogue for The Passion According to Carol Rama, a 2014–15 exhibition at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art:
Invisibilise, discover and reduce to an identity: these are three epistemological operations that the hegemonic discourse of art history has deployed to construct the norm. In the case of Carol Rama, these three critical operations explain the non-place that her work has occupied in museum discourse, anthologies and spaces of exhibition until today, and also make intelligible why it has been so difficult to create a space in which the artist can, in the words of Boris Groys, be considered “a comrade of our time.”
One of the ways artists are made invisible is when the mainstream art world ignores them, because they don’t adhere to current trends, don’t fit into certain identity categories such as “feminist,” or, conversely, are not affiliated with a recognized group of artists such as the surrealists, minimalists, and so on, which tend to be comprised of mostly men. When one of these artists is then “discovered,” they’re labeled as an “outsider” or otherwise marginalized further, while the art historian or critic who discovers her becomes, akin to an anthropologist, a kind of savior, labeling the artist with specific identities or beliefs and silencing her and her original intentions in the process.
In Rama’s case, she first received high-profile attention from Italian curator Lea Vergine, who included her in L’altra metà dell’avanguardia, 1910-1940 (The Other Side of the Avant-Garde), a 1980 exhibition bringing together the work of more than 100 women artists. According to Preciado:
In the catalogue … Vergine names the artists as ‘genius experimenters’, stating that ‘many of them were Jews, homosexuals, others were not alien to the experience of madness of having passed through the madness of the world.’ … The exhibition was therefore not about the ‘other side of the avant-garde’ but rather about its constitutive outside.
In this way, Rama was ushered into the canon under the direction of Vergine, relegated to a specific identity — woman, outsider, insane — and her own voice was muffled.
Instead of attempting to fit artists into preconceived categories, we might push away our desire to “understand,” which is just another way of saying: make the artist’s work align with our own beliefs and aesthetic values. So that rather than view Rama’s work through the lens of insanity or psychoanalysis, the outsider artist, female victim, feminist, or sado-masochist, we simply see the work. And, when doing so, we ought to assume the highest intelligence of the artist — that Rama knew exactly what she was relaying and what she was leaving out. When we do this, we can see the work as it was meant to be seen — without interventions or negations, simply as it is.
The exhibition takes up one whole floor of the New Museum, featuring over 100 of her works from 1940 through 1999, including textiles, paintings, drawings, and assemblages. Throughout the installation, the curators have posted swaths of contextual background on Rama’s life. This choice, though generous, forces biographical readings of the work. In addition, quotes from Rama appear throughout the show — another thoughtful move on the part of the curators, and yet, because the artist’s words have been cut from context, they further encourage one or another biographically centered interpretation of her work. Such incisions into the lives of artists who don’t fit neatly into the normative narrative change how we read their art. When this cutting occurs — removing prices from the picture, pasting in other pieces of the artist’s biography, bits that help present a more cohesive, though not an altogether organic, whole — another, additional violence is done to the artist. How, I wonder, might Rama’s work appear without any biographical background. Or, conversely, with all of it?
Fortunately, it is not possible to reduce Rama’s work to one discrete topic, nor is it possible to single out her style. Making my way through the exhibit, I was surprised by the constant movement: from figurative to abstract, from what appeared to be one idea to another. This piling up of various images and styles, of different themes and forms, is in itself a kind of defiance, a resistance to reduction.
Such versatility manifests even within individual works. For example, on first glance, the watercolor “Nonna Carolina” (Granny Carolina, 1936) appears, due its soft hues and the light touch of the medium, pleasing to the eye, almost like a scene from a children’s book or fairy tale. But upon closer inspection, the canvas is strewn with what appear to be amputated body parts or prosthetics. In the center, so pale it’s difficult to make out entirely, is a ghostly apparition of a woman’s torso, her face frozen in a grimace. Are the many limbs hers? Is the female figure a carcass? Is the scene culled from memory, a dream, or neither? The work’s pale hues and subject matter cancel one another out, and in doing so, they resist simple interpretations. In a broader sense, Rama’s watercolors counter her paintings of nude bodies, of amputated penises and vaginas, as well as her assemblages. In the last group, her piece “Le tagliole” (The Traps, 1966) is a stunning construction of the hide of a fox coated in gold enamel. The shining orb suggests a sun, or an amorphous cell, with the face and arm of the dead animal centered in a sea of browns, golds, and reds.
These moves back and forth — from delicate watercolors of amputations to the cruelty, or what might be seen simply as the reality, of a carcass — this almost manic motion between styles and genres is consistent in the work of Carol Rama. In interviews, when asked questions that clearly reveal an intent to fix her in the available art historical roles of “feminist,” “madwoman,” or “outsider artist,” Rama always refused.
Yet the artist did have a lingering focus: the depictions of bodies as vulnerable and often at risk, in hospital beds, in wheelchairs, ill or amputated. Jennifer Griffiths explains the historical context for this in the essay “Erotically Engaged: Carol Rama’s Politically Defiant Bodies”:
With its motto, “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State,” the Fascist government in Italy legitimized its intrusion into the private lives of citizens. Fascism labeled nonstandard bodies as enemies of society and the practice of defining and disciplining individual bodies and sexualities came to be viewed as fundamental in building social consensus and national identity.
These non-normative bodies — seen by the state as abhorrent and, therefore, vulnerable to discipline — appear throughout the exhibition. They are our bodies, the bodies of many of us. As Precadio writes:
In this inventory of the unacceptable body we find the mentally ill and the sexually deviant as well as the physically or psychologically deficient. These are precisely the sick and institutionised bodies that the work of Carol Rama visibilises and celebrates through a vitalist and sexualised representation, which serves to reclaim them as political subjects who act and experience pleasure.
In the end, because Rama did or could not make artwork that conformed to cultural norms — because she depicted bodies and lives that mirror many of ours, not those of the people in power — her work and she herself were not recognized. This is the price of making art not meant for kings and collectors, but rather aligned with one’s own desire.
Carol Rama: Antibodies continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 10.