“My paintings hurt me / I’m too passionate / Everything is orange.”
—Blaise Cendrars, Journal, (c. 1913)
Passion and pain are at the nerve center of Carol Rama’s art, currently on view in her first US retrospective, Antibodies, at the New Museum. Passion was also at the center of Rama’s 2014-15 European retrospective, The Passion According to Carol Rama. Passion was the inspiration for a series of watercolors from 1939-43 (Appassionata [Passionate]) and a related 1939 watercolor, “Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni)” (“Passionate (Marta and the Rent Boys)”), named for her mother, Marta. It evokes the Passion of Christ as well as carnal passion — women and men, often nude or semi-nude, lasciviously exposing their red and orange genitals and tongues, some in wheelchairs and missing limbs, many crowned with flowered wreaths that are simultaneously Christ-like and Dionysian.
The people who populate these paintings reject propriety: masturbating, defecating, engaging in bestiality, almost always with eyes fixed on us; Rama’s solo debut in 1945 was deemed obscene by authorities and shut down before it opened. Her paintings confront us with empowered female sexuality, insanity, and fetishized body parts. Perhaps most of all, they posit bodies as transgressive— partitioned and fluid, interchangeable desiring-machines — non-normative par excellence.
Born in Turin in 1918, where she lived until her death in 2015, Rama began making art to, in her words, “cure” herself. In 1981, she explained, “I didn’t have any models for my painting. I didn’t need any, having already four or five disasters in the family, six or seven tragic love stories, an invalid in the house, my father who committed at the age of fifty-two […].”
Quotes from Rama, including this one, are printed on wall texts in Antibodies, curated by Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni, and in the accompanying catalogue. They illuminate some of her motivations as an artist as well as her recurring pictorial devices — shoes, false teeth, and prosthetic limbs in her representational paintings, and non-art materials such as bicycle inner tubes and tires and taxidermy eyes in her later abstract collages and “Bricolages” (so named by her lifelong friend, poet Edoardo Sanguineti).
We learn that her grandmother had false eyes (made of majolica ceramic) and wore orthopedic shoes; an aunt had false teeth; an uncle who sold orthopedic goods gave her molds and false limbs as toys; her father ran a factory that manufactured automobile and bicycle parts before his bankruptcy and subsequent suicide; and, significantly, her mother convalesced in a mental institution after a breakdown while Rama was a teenager, exposing the artist to the “freedom,” as she called it, of the insane and stamping lasting impressions on her artistic imagination.
Provocative quotes about sex and sin reinforce an interpretation of the artist as herself a kind of appassionata. Rama did her part to cultivate this reading — “The ‘Appassionate,’” she says, “are criminal […] so it’s important to have a criminal side to us” — and the libidinous (and libidinal) intensity of her work can be astonishing. Yet the complexity and intelligence of her visual language — laying waste to hegemonic constructs of femininity, female desire, and the female and male body — are crucial to its success.
In her early watercolors, desire rises to the pitch of delirium. Wheelchairs and beds with restraining straps suggest that her hospitalized women are burdened with both physical and mental afflictions. The subject matter (and Rama’s verbal descriptions of her mother’s psychiatric ward) summon images of the “hysterical woman” — a figure constructed by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93), whose patients were photographed in histrionic fits — but Rama’s women are never overcome by their passion. They are masters of jouissance.
In “Appassionata” (1939), a woman in a wheelchair, nude but for a flowered headdress and red high heels, stares at the viewer while three masturbating men are relegated to the periphery. Another, more startling, “Appassionata” from 1941 portrays a limbless woman on a hospital bed. Her red heels are stashed under her bed, and she sports the same expression as her wheelchair-bound counterpart, her reddish-pink tongue sticking out in a show of defiance.
The exposed tongue, according to Rama, is an “object of desire.” Her work celebrates tongues and orifices. Mouths and vaginas mirror each other. The tongue and mouth also reflect the union of the orifice and object in the sex act— an act referenced repeatedly through her reiterations of false teeth, prosthetic limbs, and high-heeled shoes. (A bronze cast of a shoe, “Feticci (scarpa)” [“Fetishes (Shoes),” 2003], has a penis carved inside of it.)
Despite the male presence, women hold sway over sexuality and creation. While penises proliferate futilely in frenzied masturbation, and men are often feminized, there are a number of works from the early 1940s (called “Dorina”) in which snakes emerge from the vaginas of nude women, as if the women are both giving birth and growing phalluses, an ambiguous gesture that unites Eve and the serpent in all creation, as Adam looks on.
Shortly after her censorship in 1945, Rama abandoned representation for more than 30 years. During the 1950s, she briefly aligned herself with the Concrete Art movement in Turin, and her abstract canvases and use of common materials reflect American Abstract Expressionism and Turin’s Arte Povera. Throughout this period, though, the body lingered as a trace. Her “Bricolages” from the 1960s incorporate claws, animal pelts, taxidermy eyes, and other objects into bubbling, volcanic pours of enamel and watery stains of paint — intimations of mutilation and bodily fluids, or violent scrawls pulsing with vitality and terror.
In “Rituale” (“Ritual”), from 1964, a gash of pigment the color of dried blood is surrounded by black plastic cannulas, which echo the leeches that form a necklace around her grandmother’s neck in her earliest extant watercolor, “Nonna Carolina” (“Granny Carolina,” 1936). In “Rituale” the canvas is stained with the body’s violent end.
Later abstract collages lose the visceral quality of her Bricolages in favor of clean geometric forms. Yet even these works command embodied as well as intellectual engagement. The strips of earth-toned rubber in her works of the 1970’s, such as “Arsenale” (“Arsenal”) — whose rich chromatic quality evokes Paul Klee’s stripes and rectangles — complicate abstraction’s cerebral distance with their gritty tactility. And in an untitled painting from 1973, a tight grid is etched into the midsection of a beige canvas with a jagged fuchsia line, resembling an EKG, beneath it; although the gestural line would disqualify the painting as a Minimalist work (as the style was perceived in the US), the grid’s anxious, slightly uneven lines and the spiked EKG seem to unearth Minimalism’s latent life force.
In the 1980s, Rama returned to the figure and, with it, old themes and new concerns. One of her first representational works, “Senza titolo (gomme)” (“Untitled (Tires),” 1978), juxtaposes the image of a high-heeled shoe, depicted on a large black canvas, with actual bicycle inner tubes, hanging limply from the top of the frame. Two years later she brutally reunited humans and animals with “La macelleria” (“The Butchery”), a heady watercolor of a woman butchering a pig.
In the 1990s, Rama was reinvigorated by the “mad cow” epidemic. She purportedly saw a parallel between the diseased cows, frothing at the mouth, and her own sense of desire and madness. In these semi-abstract works, leather cutouts that double as udders and breasts are attached to found surfaces, most often mail bags, suggesting the partitioning of bodies into erogenous zones.
Although few of Rama’s works directly reference politics, she came of age during Mussolini’s fascist regime and the horrors of World War II. Many of her paintings consequently summon oppression and death. One of the exhibition’s most powerful pieces, the undated “Resistenza” (“Resistance”), is composed of gaunt, androgynous figures drawn in black lines and arranged in a grid on a grayish ground, splattered with bright red paint. Brutality, violence, and, potentially, genocide suffuse this apocalyptic image. Whether Rama was addressing the war in particular or the violence of the human condition in general, the imagery resonates loud and clear. Like her “Epifania” (“Epiphany,” 2003) — the artist’s “Angelus Novus,” with crimson wings and amputated legs – Carol Rama was no mere appassionata, but a prophet for our time.
Carol Rama: Antibodies continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 10.