For Carol Rama, as for too many other immensely important women artists—Claude Cahun and Louise Bourgeois among them—mainstream art-world acknowledgement arrived very late. Rama, now 96, was over 80 years old when the Venice Biennale awarded her the Golden Lion in 2003, although prior to that artists such as Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, and Rosemarie Trockel had already acknowledged her influence. Now “The Passion According to Carol Rama,” an ambitious and thoroughly researched traveling retrospective, introduces her work to a wider audience.
The show includes an impressive array of Rama’s watercolors and drawings from the 1930s and ’40s, censored by the Italian fascist regime of the time. Powerful representations of sexuality, works such as Heretic (1944), in which a headless male torso sodomizes some kind of strange furry animal, or Marta (1940) and Passionate (1943), both showing nude women surrounded by multiple phalluses, were groundbreaking in their refusal to adapt themselves to contemporaneous discourses surrounding gender and sexuality.
Also on view were assemblages made of bicycle tires and debris, among them Omens of Birnam (1970), Arsenal (1970), and Spells (1984), showing Rama to be a fascinating explorer of “deviant” objecthood in her sculptures. These did to arte povera just what Eva Hesse’s works did to Minimalism: inject a strong dose of carnality and bodily matters into the art of a rather abstract and intellectual movement. Rounding out the show, two of Rama’s collages from the ’60s, Bricolage (1967) and Pornography II (1965), play with body fluids and body parts (eyes, teeth) and reenact the lifelong obsessions and lucid approach of one of the more interesting and unjustly neglected European artists of this century.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 92.