PRINT March 1993


THERE IS A HEARTBREAKING quality to Ketty La Rocca’s images, and it has to do with their unusually direct, sometimes raw mode of communication, their tone of supplication and call for attention and self-affirmation. It also has to do with her premature death (in 1976, at the age of 38), which biographically underscores the work’s poignancy: her career ended before her vocabulary could be appreciated. To its credit, La Rocca’s work speaks to contemporary feminist artists as more than archaeological evidence. Its power lies in the authenticity of its attempts to represent subjectivity and identity.

An exhibition in Switzerland last year introduced this Italian artist’s strong voice into the chorus of contemporary strategies for the representation of women, enlarging the much rehearsed field of language and image.1 It demonstrated La Rocca’s particular vision, which, without benefit of an overdetermined feminist theory, was so deliberately tuned to a pleading subjectivity as to elude ideological constriction. These black and white, largely photographic collages of word and image can appear dated, but their preoccupation with translating and transcribing is timely and eloquent. The works are informed by Pop art collage, and have the aura of early-Conceptual experimentation—smart, barely esthetic, melancholy. Their frame of reference includes Giuseppe Chiari, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Urs Luthi, Annette Messager, Marisa Merz, and la poesia visive, as well as the performance activities of the Florentine avant-garde in which La Rocca participated in the mid ’60s.

One never sees the ’artist’s face in her work. The impression one has is of something extremely private, the gestures and language of an alienated self, yet also of an insistence on representing desire and desiring attention. La Rocca’s determination to be seen and heard was limited neither by the short span of her career nor by her own Italian artistic heritage, which stifled her and set the conditions in which she was ignored. In 1976, discussing women’s body art in Europe and America, Lucy Lippard observed that La Rocca was “unable to break into the male art world with her art or her writings.”2 In a statement from 1974, La Rocca had decried her own deficiency as a woman, despaired of her ability to express the condition of women artists, and compared this frustration to a marriage gone bad.3 It should not be surprising that in every format she used—photographic collages, paintings, the spectral X-rays that were her most intimate means of picturing herself—she instrumentalized psychic transformation, manipulating unstable distinctions between author and viewer, self and other.

In a small, key painting from 1967 (the few painted works that remain are uniformly small), La Rocca’s intentions and her systems and codes are brilliant and instantly legible, like cries for help. The work inscribes a yellow stack of language—“Parola,” “verbum,” “mot,” and “word” itself—onto a blue ground; a simple canvas that makes the word the subject of the artist, and invites the viewer to fill in its meanings. Another small panel offers the start of the biblical phrase that signals language’s origin—“in principium erat” (in the beginning was)—but stops short of delivery. This use of linguistic structure has the economy of a René Magritte pun: the urge to complete the phrase is unstoppable, its very incompleteness implying the infinity of language. By a single letter and an ellipsis, “e . . . ” (“e” is the Italian word for “and”), another painted panel also signals endless possibilities.

Less succinct are a group of collages from the mid ’60s, rough, Hanna Hoch-like combinations of words and images advancing political commentaries that are polemical but prescient. A naked pin-up girl dwarfs a group of Oriental children eating a meal; the caption reads, in Italian, “Healthy like the daily bread.” In a larger collage from 1964-65, a bathing beauty, a Henry Moore sculpture, a plucked chicken, a head of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, and a map of Pakistan are attached to a touristic photo of Angkor Wat, spelling out some of the destructive and oppressive mechanisms of sexism, war, and colonialism.

La Rocca updated, complicated, and individuated a Futurist tradition of text-and-image possibilities. Three key works from 1974 share the title Le mie parole e tu? (My words and you?); in two versions, six photos of a pair of hands assume different gestures, like sign language, and the word “you” is written on the hands. The title questions the seeming clarity of signs, the transparency of language. The panels are sequenced like a partial narrative of various possible relationships between two individuals; one hand reaches, clutches, and covers the other, yet it is not apparent whether the hands belong to one or two people, whether they are male or female, whether the movements are merely social gestures or emotionally urgent.

In the third version of Le mie parole e tu? La Rocca demonstrates a favorite organizational structure, a sequential arrangement of panels: first a photograph, then the outlines of the photograph appearing as written lines of words, then a graphic diagram of the photograph. The artist moves from the image to a literally legible and finally a visual re-representation of it, linear elements describing, resembling, and revealing the skeleton of the “original.” The handwritten phrases she would use in the second panel of her works in this format are drawn from a page-long statement she drafted in 1970: strung-together clauses suggest the illusion of sense, and the rhetorical tone of a manifesto, but ultimately resist interpretation. La Rocca unraveled this text again and again, repeating it apparently arbitrarily to look like automatic writing and sound like nonsense. In the case of Le mie parole e tu? the photograph in the first panel shows La Rocca concealing her face with her hand, the hand held close to the camera, visually enlarging it. Shielding or hiding herself from our look, the artist traces and retraces an image of anguish.

Deliberately and systematically, La Rocca literally outlines her subjectivity with the visual signature of her script. Her small, nervous calligraphy becomes a bodily code more revealing of her personality than any image could be. Indeed the photograph is only a visual beginning in a semiotic progression that alters the image’s meaning through words and graphic elements, as if the goal were to reduce the image to its preverbal, presymbolic state as lines in space, hardly resembling its referent. Through autoinscription and a repertoire of gestures that might be metaphoric self-portraits, or surrogates for conventional self-representation, La Rocca’s at times compulsive handwriting inscribes additional layers of meaning into her images. Recently, François Dagognet has explored handwriting as a visual sign in itself, open to interpretation, conveying personality, and possessing a double capacity both as a “mark of the person who affixed it,” demanding and affecting the writer’s active agency, and as “witness to the existence” of that writer to others.4

The particularity of La Rocca’s haunting messages is elaborated in in principio erat, an expressive book published in two versions, in 1971 and 1975, and containing close-up photographs of hands in varied gestures. On one page, for example, she places her hand at the base of her neck; on another her hands are crossed submissively over her chest. The next phototext stacks three narrow images of hands outstretched, with, in Italian, the phrase “from an enslaved technique.” A circle of mud-stained outstretched hands is bracketed by the children’s nonsense rhyme “Rain, rain, go away,” in Italian and English. Transparent onionskin paper overlies these images, with handwritten captions that transcribe and confuse the relationship between intelligibility and visibility: the contours of the hands are outlined with the English word “you,” repeated like links in a chain—the self defined by the other. From this alphabet of gestures La Rocca performs an idiosyncratic lexicon of supplication that enunciates a case for reinterpretation.

Occasionally, overt political and psychological shadings emerge from the book’s seemingly arbitrary relationships. A photo of a handclasp in front of a landscape, for example, is captioned “uomini intelligenti momento opportuno,” which translates ironically into “intelligent men, opportune moment.” The tangled, frustrating aspect of communication, like the tangled identity of women artists, is underscored by the phrases in Italian at the top of each page and their mistranslated English equivalents at the lower margin. Any expectation of exposition is frustrated, for the relationship of words to image is never more than glancing. If these phototext combinations can be viewed as a form of telling—if the book is a kind of flip book—the sequence is so open-ended as to allow multiple readings: greeting, acceptance, rejection, anger, support. Yet despite the appearance of arbitrariness, the book format, or the format of a sequence of images, in itself constitutes a code, and even a narrative, albeit an incoherent one. It is as if the accidental nature of the connections between phrase and image in this “manual of gestural linguistics” produced endless possibilities for instinctive reading.5 Gillo Dorfles refers to this series as “speaking hands.”6

La Rocca was obsessed with layers and transparencies. She generated her own system of communication as if in the belief that the ability to see through an overlay (even, in the X-ray works, through the human skeleton’s overlay of flesh) might provide explanations for the state of invisibility of the female self—as if the mediating membrane might convey messages from her hands, her words, to her viewer, her reader, “you.” La Rocca repeats the English pronoun “you” like a mantra. In a number of the works that reproduce the lines of an image of her hands, Florentine monuments, movie stars on film posters—as lines of text, the word becomes a kind of boundary or border defining for the viewer, and through the viewer, the edges within the images. That handwritten edge is a protective or self-defensive skin, setting limits on the self; the repeated enunciation of “you,” the viewer, is emphatic and moving.7 Substituting English for Italian further emphasizes difference. The “other” is named and rewritten, translated in an “other” language, and the vast separation between the internal and the external, between enclosed, private utterance and public reception in the spectator’s gaze, is delicately demarcated.

Some of La Rocca’s serial photo transformations represent her desire to own, inhabit, and come to terms with her own background. Beginning with a photograph or postcard, often a reproduction from the vast Alinari photo archives of Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s David, or of the architectural monuments of Florence, she transcribes the lines of these historical givens into her own experience, her own handwriting—her own hands. In stages, she again outlines the work with chains of language, and finally reconstructs the original in linear contours. These reductions of the monuments to inscription and finally to their barest graphic components recall the old conventions of art-historical training in which students would make diagrams of works in order to grasp their composition. Here, however, the exercise is more transformative: interfering with the preservative power of these documentary images, La Rocca claims them for herself.

Coming to terms with La Rocca’s work in the ’90s presents difficulties, particularly outside Italy: how to ascertain the extent of her involvement with poesia visive and other Italian avant-garde practices, or her participation in the feminist debates of twenty years ago over abortion and women’s rights? In December of 1975, twenty thousand women marched in Rome to demand the repeal of the abortion laws enacted during the fascist period, and then still on the books. According to historian Mary Russo, posters and newspapers of the period featured “visually aggressive” graphic representations of “the imposition of male power and polemic on the female body,” in campaigns directed against both Italy’s leading political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Communists.8 The issues around which women were organizing in many different countries—birth control, women’s unpaid labor, family structure—were particularly significant in Italy, where 80 percent of the women were unpaid homemakers.9 Political battles over the authority and power in sexual relations necessarily frame the way La Rocca’s work was conceived, as well as the way we appreciate it today.

La Rocca’s phototext pieces make vulnerability a privileged emotion. In 1973, she reached another explicit level of exposure when she superimposed photographs of her hands on X-rays of her skull; this technical and conceptual synthesis produced a series of eerie images that are still compelling as personal memento mori. Retrospective documents of failed therapeutic intervention, they may have been legible to medical professionals as evidence of disease (La Rocca died of cancer), but here they are transposed: the large negatives are like lunar cavities inhabited by positive images of the artist’s fist, curled like a fetus in a womb. An outstretched hand is as fleshy and substantial as the skull is shadowy. And an embroidery of “you” ’s scribbled on the forms’ edges punctuates the limits of what should be most intimate to the “I,” the contents of the mind, now emptied out and assertively filled by hands set against the darkness of the black ground. Related works set an image of an African mask on transparent film over a skull X-ray; the mask becomes the mold of an identity external to the skeleton, one it both embodies and conceals. Whether opaque or transparent, traces of identity remain indeterminate and shadowy.

These documents of consciousness are unnervingly vivid, corporeally specific. Enclosed in the skeletal cavity, La Rocca’s gestural vocabulary becomes even more psychically and politically articulate. The X-rays could belong to anyone, but La Rocca’s defiant hands pushed into the cranial cavities, flesh against bone, seem to speak in her voice, as if they were saying, “Where I end, you begin.” At the same time, they circumscribe the sensory boundaries of the interior self with a recurring petition. Describing the invisible, La Rocca’s late death’s heads are evidence of her own assertion in a painting of 1964: torno subito (I’ll be right back). Like the rediscovery of her work, they promise infinite return at the moment of death.

Judith Russi Kirshner is a critic and the director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

1. The exhibition, at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, last spring, was eurated by Chip Tom and Paolo Colombo. It will travel to the ICA. Amsterdam, in early 1994.

2. Lucy Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art,” From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, New York: Dutton, 1976, p. 130.

3. See Lara-Vinca Masini, Ketty La Rocca, exhibition catalogue, Florence: Edizioni Carini, 1989, p. 5.

4. Francois Dagognet, “Toward a Biopsychiatry,” 1982, reprinted, and translated by Donald M. Leslie, in Zone 6: Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, New York: Zone, 1992, p. 526.

5. Gillo Dorfles, Ketty La Rocca: im principio erat, exhibition catalogue, Dortmund: Museum am Ostwall, 1975, n.p.

6. Ibid.

7. I would like to acknowledge Yvette Brackman, whose insights were helpful to me in formulating my discussion here.

8. See Mary Russo, “The Politics of Maternity: Abortion in Italy,” Yale Italian Studies I no. 1, 1977, p. 107.

9. See ibid., p. 113.