Carol Rama (1918–2015)

Carol Rama, Nonna Carolina (Grandmother Carolina), 1936, watercolor on paper, 9 x 14". Photo: Roberto Goffi. Courtesy the Foundation for Modern and Contemporary Art CRT at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin and at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Rivoli-Turin.

CAROL RAMA WORKED RELENTLESSLY for seventy years, dwelt in her studio home in Turin for seventy-five, and lived for ninety-seven.

These impressive figures tell the story of a life committed to painting, an activity she unceasingly practiced since adolescence: Her first known painting, Nonna Carolina, is a gorgeous work of great artistic maturity, painted in 1936 when she was only eighteen years old, which is now at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Torino. Her last work is from 2007, a portrait of a friend, still in her studio home.

I started this brief homage tossing some numbers on the table, hoping to hold back my emotions about Carol and her recent demise. Carol was, or better is, irregular, nonconformist, and weird—both in her life and in her career. And, in time, she softened her aggressiveness with her sweetness, making up for her lack of education with a profound and self-taught sense of artistic culture, acquired by growing up in contact with intellectuals such as her friends Edoardo Sanguineti, Man Ray, Carlo Mollino, Alexandre Jolas, Felice Casorati, and many others. She countered her acrimony toward other, luckier, artists with her generosity and her theatrical gestures and tricks, continuously exposing her naked soul, nursing obscenity with healing words.

Carol Rama in her studio, 1997. Photo: Pino Dell Aquila. Courtesy of Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi Berlin and Archivio Carol Rama.

As her friend Corrado Levi described it, Carol went beyond the limit without breaking it, teaching us lessons about accepting risk and measuring balance. These lessons can be found in her watercolors from the 1930s and ’40s, often brutally erotic in their iconography, yet incredibly elegant; in her “bricolages” from the ’70s in which ordinary objects are inserted in all their physicality into the pictorial composition; in her so-called rubbers from the following decade, in which pieces of inner tubes are used as paint in exceptionally balanced (as well as disorienting) abstract works. She walks the line, never taking a fall, in later works, too, such as those dedicated to “The Mad Cow,” in which the tragedy of a real situation is turned into aggressive yet harmonious works of art.

Thanks to this and much more, she is also beloved by younger generations of artists, who recognize in her a total commitment to painting, to material and thematic experimentation, and to the celebration of anomalies in life and work. Her life and career were marked by hardship, and mellowed only in the last few years, when she was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2003, and now with the great retrospective that is currently touring Europe, hosted by Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Still missing is a major jump across the Atlantic: It would have been on her wish list.

A first contact with America occurred when a monographic exhibition of her works traveled to Boston from Amsterdam in 1998. Back then, already well over eighty-seven years old, she was at the opening and, while she was speaking meaningfully about her works, people, and things, and gently caressing everybody, the tri-phallic pendant she always wore was there too, dangling under everyone’s noses.

Her studio home in Turin is still the way she left it. It’s an extraordinary place, like few in the universe, where works and objects witness seventy years of life and art. I wish for her sake, but mostly for our own, that this place stays the way it is, so that it can be visited by the public, as a place to see, learn, and remember.

Maria Cristina Mundici served as the chief curator at Castello di Rivoli, Museum of Contemporary Art from 1985–1992, and has worked as an independent curator since 1992. She is now the director of the Carol Rama Archive in Turin.

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