Carol Rama (1918–2015)

Carol Rama, 1997. Photo: Jennifer Bacon.

Filippo Fossati: “Do you believe that in fifty years young people will like your work? Old people? Middle aged? What do you think they will like about your work?”

Carol Rama: “They will be liked greatly by those who have suffered, and have not known how to save themselves from the suffering . . . because, having had a mother in a psychiatric institution, and having myself felt comfortable in that setting . . . because that way I began to be familiar with gestures and manners, without any preparation in terms of culture or etiquette. . . . I believe that everyone will like these gestures more, because they are gestures that, for reasons I don’t dare say, pertain to everyone . . . because madness is close to everyone . . . and there are those who absolutely deny it . . . and anyone who denies it is just crazy, melancholy, sad, unapproachable . . . because it is like culture, culture is a privilege, which I too would have been able to benefit by . . . but I have always felt more flexible with drawing, a painting, a story, a composition.”

Massimo Mila: “We know that Turin, the most normal, most fastidious, most Swiss city in Italy, every now and then produces crazy people, the craziest that exist in the entire world. . . . Within this race of subalpine lunatics, Carol Rama has earned a place of honor.”

ON SEPTEMBER 25, artist Carol Rama passed away in Turin at the age of ninety-seven. She was born Olga Carolina Rama on 1918. Her story is one of a challenge to humanity, an attempt to compensate for the collective, impersonal, and anonymous history that does not pertain to individuals but is imposed on them by outside and uncontrollable forces.

Carol’s story is one that emerges from her freedom, from emancipation, from the imagination, from inventions, from creations, and from her personal choices. It is the story of an artist without qualifications or labels: of an unusual, unsociable, provocative, and wonderfully imperfect woman.

To those who dispute honoring her memory I leave the task of writing the “official” history, perhaps on the occasion of the now-imminent “Carolramian” centennial.

Carol said she began painting at the age of fourteen. I have no idea what mischief she was capable of at that young age, but I know the paintings and works on paper that she painted from then until eighteen or twenty, and they are still astonishing even now. They represent situations and things in the real world you don’t expect to see painted. Imagine a bourgeois and conservative city—“wonderful, cynical, and cruel”—as Turin was in the late 1930s. Carol’s subjects during that period are urinals, toilet brushes, dentures, prostheses, tongues, genitals, men who are masturbating, paradoxical erotic scenes, women with neither legs nor arms who are shitting, naked, forced into beds of torture, on wheelchairs. For the bourgeois and self-righteous public, Carol’s manners and art are morally guilty of speaking in vulgar terms about intimate and “sacred” things. You shouldn’t hang your dirty linen out to dry, you shouldn’t joke about suffering or death. And it isn’t only a question of “style.” The beauty of the sign, the color, and the compositions do not hide the violence and horror of the subjects.

Carol’s adventures in her personal exploration of these “sacred” themes are profanations in the classic sense of the term. Carol takes motifs consecrated by social and artistic conventions and transfers them outside the places designated for religious display, outside the temple. To do this she subjects herself to a sort of moral condemnation on the part of those who consider it scandalous to celebrate agony with a joke or to mock misfortunes.

She doesn’t back down; on the contrary, she proceeds with determination. She is independent, irreverent, parodistic, and provocative—she disturbs the censors.

“The Passion According to Carol Rama” was the very inspired title of a series of exhibitions organized in five European museums shortly before she died. She was known for her “eccentricities” and for her unusual company. And I’m not speaking only of the characters who knew her and who hung out with her (incomplete lists of whom always appear in her biographies). Carol was well acquainted with rage and violence, shame, the solitude of grief and death. She had known them since childhood, to the point that she became immune to the rules and conventions of the social world that surrounded her.

Living is something that is difficult for everyone, but I believe that for Carol it was a daily, unnatural effort, a struggle to lose herself without losing sight of herself. I am thinking about ecstasy. About Carol’s perennial ecstasy. The condition of finding herself outside herself, not to escape herself, but in order to be able to look from the outside in, to always and only live in the present, within herself, in her visions and in her nightmares.

Her wild nature developed a form of non-sensitivity, a spontaneous phenomenon in nature. Non-sensitivity is comforting. It helps establish a distance, one’s own universe, positioned at the edges of human experience: It is eternity.

I met Carol when I was a child. She always said, to use a common expression, that she had seen me grow up, and there is surely some basis for this. Turin is small, and our houses are a few hundred meters apart. Carol was a familiar presence. She roared through four generations of my family’s existence, like the motorcyclist in Fellini’s Amarcord, who entered from one side of the screen, made a couple of turns, and exited from the other side. Carol knew my maternal grandparents, Francesco, a painter, and his wife Ottavia; my mother, Eva, and my father, Paolo, an art historian and critic with whom she was friends and who wrote about her. She knew my uncles, my stepfather, Luciano, a gallerist. She knew me, my sister Caterina, and my brother Francesco; my children, Mattia, Giulio, and Paolo; and my sister’s daughter, Olga, who shares her name. She is also responsible for my second marriage.

My memory of our first encounter does not coincide with Carol’s memory, and it is a mixture of fear and enchantment.

I am five or six years old. I am with my father in front of the large wooden front door with gilded handles, the entrance you traverse to climb up to the now-famous residence/studio/warehouse on Via Napione. The old elevator, imprisoned in an iron cage, takes us to the top floor. The creak of doors closing. Then, still farther up—following behind my father, I climb up the last, steep flight of steps. On the landing to the left, behind a half-open door, a tiny little woman appears in a black slip that leaves her shoulders exposed. She has a perfect braid, coiled like a crown around her head. Her lips are outlined in purple, drawn sidewise, rising from her mouth up to her nose. She has a penetrating and diabolical gaze. She says something in a tone that clashes with the rest of her and immediately gives me the unpleasant impression of an elderly witch.

We enter a large, dimly lit room. The windows are closed. The walls, coated with black smoke, are covered with frames, photos, drawings, posters, paintings, necklaces—hung, nailed, or just pinned from floor to ceiling. The only light comes from two lamps perched like birds on a table at the center of the room. An incalculable deluge of objects populates the attic. Everything is there. Heads of wood and glass, Man Ray’s funerary mask, African sculptures, an old television, bowls full of brushes, limbs, tools, hammers, saws, planers, boxes, wooden crates, bars of soap, mannequins, measuring sticks, scissors of every type, strings, collections of suitcases, casts of feet, hands, gloves, caps, umbrellas, wooden shoe trees, a Rolling Stones album Andy Warhol gave her . . . layers of life that Carol had piled up in her attic. In the corner, a woodburning stove, and chairs scattered everywhere. Suddenly I hear her voice, swearing and cursing at someone. I hold on tight to my father, but she approaches, takes my hand, and has me sit down on a sofa bed behind the table. She puts a box of cookies in front of me. “Your father is an extraordinary man!” she shouts loudly. I don’t like the strident sound or the cookies, which seem made of marble, but in the end I like the old crone’s comment, and I follow her, enchanted. She snatches a marker. “I’ll make you a drawing!” she says and begins working on a sheet of paper that has appeared out of nowhere. She sketches a woman’s heeled shoe, and the space inside it is a penis. What is it? I ask. What a shitty question! It is the shape of the cock inside a shoe. She hands me a stone phallus and has me caress it, “because for me, there’s the cock, which gives me a whole lot of pleasure. The cock, number one, and then intelligence. Are you at least intelligent?” I look at her, confused. Grown-ups don’t talk like this.

My father was accustomed to taking my sister and me to a restaurant when he took a break from work. Often Carol was with us. I don’t know how much she liked children, but she didn’t talk to us much. We considered her an old wag. I had nicknamed her Madame Artaud, with a combination of respect and mockery. If I happened to meet her on the street, I would avoid her if I could, crossing over to the other side of the pavement. Her sharp tongue confused me, and I didn’t know how to react to her exaggerated and impetuous ways.

Carol Rama, Cazzo Prepuziatorio (Fuck Mercy Seat), 1978, marker on paper. Photo: Filippo Fossati.

I eventually returned to her studio, again with my father. It was 1978. I remember exactly because of a drawing that she gave me and which I still have. A flying cock, “pre-circumcised,” as she said, laughing. Little had changed. There was maybe more disorder, and over time the walls had become even blacker. The windows were always closed, and the quantity of objects increased, but in the final analysis the attic was the same as before. Carol and my father were preparing a show at Liliana Martano’s gallery, and they asked me to take some notes. She was kind and willing, and I soon changed my mind about how I had felt about her as a child.

I began to make a habit of visiting her now and then when I skipped school. The “warehouse,” as she called it, was a safe haven, and I knew that she would never betray me. I liked to watch while she worked. I tried to follow her irregular train of thought. I listened to her stories, her passionate outpourings, her rages, her insults, and, seated on the sofa bed, I responded timidly to her brazen questions. Every now and then, during pauses, Carol would stretch out on the blanket. She had sewn it herself, and it was a painting on which you could stretch out. There were two legs facing backwards, maybe she had detached them from the figure next to them, which didn’t even have arms but did have a white eye, its tongue sticking out, an erect penis, and a crest that emanated rays as far as the edge of the bed. We would chat about this and that, about things that it would be unthinkable to hear or say at my house.

This tiny little woman with uncontainable energy, who I had never seen venture outside her city, told me about fantastic places and extraordinary people. She would say things that no other adult dared to say. Once I had seen Hal Ashby’s film Harold and Maude. I had told her about the plot, which she liked a lot, but I didn’t have the courage to tell her that she reminded me of Maude, because she would have told me that that was a shitty name. However, now, without embarrassment, I think that she would have liked to know that I had thought this because, for a moment, I had been the personification of the young Harold.

The day after I met Jennifer, who would then become my wife, I had a date with Carol, and I brought her with me.

I called Carol to let her know in advance, and she met us at the door without her braid, which was an unusual look for her, and reserved only for her most intimate acquaintances. “Have you already fucked?” she shouted at us on the landing. We spent the day together. Carol was still astonished by the “mad cow” crisis that was sweeping Europe at the time. She was fascinated by the image of a dying cow that was being continually broadcast on TV. The animal’s flanks twitched spasmodically before it collapsed, and Carol felt as if she were witnessing a frenzied sexual embrace, an uncontainable orgasm. She showed us the first drawings she had done, and Jennifer, who had a gallery in New York, decided to give her a show. I organized it. So it is Carol’s “fault” that we found each other, and we ended up producing her two solo shows in New York. The first, in 1997, was also her first solo show in the United States. We met with great critical success, and I presumptuously believe the show helped to introduce Carol’s work on that side of the ocean and push back against a provincialism that favors commonplace mythology (and that exists in our country too). In 1998, my father, along with Rudi Fuchs and Cristina Mundici, organized the first large-scale retrospective of Carol Rama’s work, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which then traveled to the ICA in Boston.

My father died the following year, the day of the birth of my third child, who is named after him.

I called Carol and told her that we had another Paolo, born only a few hours after his grandfather’s death.

“Your father is an extraordinary man!” Carol then shouted into the phone. “He never liked airplanes, and this is why he took a while to go see you.”

Everything is so cruelly balanced.

Ciao, Carol.

Filippo Fossatti is an art critic and historian based in New York.

For additional tributes to Carol Rama, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.