New York

Carol Rama, Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni) (Passionate [Marta and the Rent Boys]), 1939, mixed media on paper, 13 × 11".

Carol Rama, Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni) (Passionate [Marta and the Rent Boys]), 1939, mixed media on paper, 13 × 11".

Carol Rama

Born in 1918 in Turin, Carol Rama stayed there for close to a century, until her death in 2015. Accounts of her life insist on her engagement with artists and writers in her hometown and on the Italian scene more generally, yet she comes across as something of a recluse. Whatever her social life was, her career was quiet until relatively late: In the catalogue for this exhibition, “Eye of Eyes,” Robert Lumley writes that her work reached wide visibility only in 1980, with a show called “L’altra metà dell’avanguardia, 1910–40” (The Other Half of the Vanguard, 1910–40) in Milan and Stockholm. Rama would have been in her early sixties at the time. Although she subsequently developed an ample exhibition history in Europe and won the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion in 2003, her American profile was low until a survey at New York’s New Museum in 2017. This kind of career is not unknown in the art world, particularly among women artists, and for some—though probably not the artists themselves—it may even have a kind of glamour. The notorious example is Louise Bourgeois, who was put on the map by a show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1982, when she was seventy.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Bourgeois and Rama have more in common than their career arcs. The quality they share is a kind of fearless visceralness, an unsqueamishness about corporeality, sexuality, and the mucky, murky, messy side of life. In Rama’s case, this mettle was clear in the Lévy Gorvy exhibition’s works on paper from the late 1930s and the 1940s, which recalled Egon Schiele in their fusion of refinement and aggression. In Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni) (Passionate [Marta and the Rent Boys]), 1939, three figures appear in faint outline but for their facial features and their genitalia, which suddenly lurch into delicate watercolor. Another watercolor titled Appassionata, from the same year, shows a woman in a wheelchair, her hair standing up vertically like Elsa Lanchester’s in Bride of Frankenstein (1935); she faces another group of men, again drawn only sketchily but for their penises. Hospital beds recur in these works—Rama’s mother spent time in an asylum—as do snakes and protruding tongues, whether lascivious, impertinent, or defiant.

By the mid-1950s Rama had transitioned into abstract art, but continuities remained with the figurative works, often through the use of found objects. Melodramma, 1960, for example, is a flat-black field of gouache on canvas, marked at its center by a raised, texturally divergent constellation made partly of appliquéd plant seeds. These introduce the idea of fertility and thereby of the body, yet the painting is also scattered with plastic buttons showing the skull-and-crossbones symbol of toxicity. Later works go further in their use of materials: Arsenale, 1971, for instance, is made entirely of car tires layered on canvas, and other works also feature rubber. (Turin, of course, is a car-manufacturing city, the Detroit of Italy.) These were made contemporaneously with the flowering of Arte Povera, which involved similar experiments with materials; they also recall postwar Italian artists such as Alberto Burri and his works in tar, say, the 1948–52 “Catrami” (Tars) series. But rubber additionally has corporeal and erotic associations in tune with Rama’s demonstrated concerns. That’s also true of Bricolage, 1966, its winding strip of ratty gray fur making Meret Oppenheim’s insurrectionary fur-covered teacup of 1936 look dainty, and of the several works that put doll’s eyes to uncanny effect, foreshadowing the little eyes that float unsettlingly in some of Ellen Gallagher’s abstractions of thirty-odd years later.

“I paint out of passion and anger and violence and sadness and a certain fetishism,” Rama once said, “and out of joy and melancholy together and out of anger especially.” The anger again reminds me of Bourgeois, who wrote in Artforum in 1982 of wanting to “twist the neck” of the woman who had been her childhood nanny (and father’s mistress) some sixty years earlier. Bourgeois went on to say that it was her inability to accept the past that had made her a sculptor. Anger is a rough thing to carry so long, but both of these women put it to good use.