When Carol Rama was a child, a frog clung to her. She thought it was love, and she soon discovered it was not. That wasn’t how romance worked, her father informed her, quickly putting an end to that doomed relationship. But something about this event stuck with Rama—she occasionally mentioned it in interviews, and a few of her works even feature people having sex with animals. One painting from 1944, aptly titled Eretica (Heretic), shows a man penetrating a platypus, whose head is cocked back in pleasure. Family-friendly, Rama’s pictures are not.
Eretica appears near the beginning of Rama’s superb New Museum survey, “Carol Rama: Antibodies,” and it’s a proper introduction to the Italian artist’s perverse, mind-blowing output. Curated by Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni with Juli Brandano, this exhibition is packed with images—crapping women, wriggling tongues, glassy eyes—that linger in the mind long after they’ve been seen. It’s a show about unspeakable desires and screwed-up psychologies—everything that can’t be talked about.
Art history hasn’t been kind to Rama. She did win the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, and she may have developed a cult following in Italy, but before she died in 2015, she had just two solo shows in New York. If American viewers know Rama’s work at all, it’s most likely her “Appassionata” watercolors, a few of which open this exhibition. These works feature the artist’s signature females—they’re often naked, except for a crown of flowers, and they seem crazed with desire. Sometimes, they appear to be patients in an asylum, a reference in some cases to Rama’s mother, who was herself institutionalized. It’s obvious why these works get shown most. They’re strange, even sexy, and their explicit depictions of female passion run amok—sometimes with belts, chains, and amputees involved—are obviously eye-catching.
Although these works do deserve the spotlight they’re often given, they are far from the best pieces Rama would go on to produce. Rama didn’t create her finest work at the beginning of her career. She absorbed the best parts of mid-20th-century Italian avant-garde art and often put her own spin on them, usually with remarkable results.
Rama was born in Turin, Italy, in 1918. (She died there in 2015.) Early in her life, she watched her stable family life fall apart. Her father killed himself, her mother was placed in a mental asylum; Turin, once a booming industrial city, was bombed repeatedly during World War II. Her work could be considered a response to this violent, chaotic moment in Italian history, when traditional mores were becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Rama never finished art school, but she had access to some of the finest examples of modernist art. She came into contact with works by Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, and Wassily Kandinsky, and she absorbed their interest in form, geometry, and myths, only to turn their lyricism nasty and dark.
After Italian authorities shut down a show of her sexually graphic watercolors in 1945, Rama turned to abstraction, producing very good work in that mode, too. In the 1950s, Rama created canvases that feature crusty-looking splashes of red against moody black backgrounds. She later built on these works with her “bricolages” in the ’60s, adding to them plastic eyes, syringes, and rice, among other objects. The most effective of these works is Melodramma (Melodrama, 1960), which features a gash of chunky black paint surrounded by plastic skull-and-crossbones stickers. The skulls are like flies surrounding a pile of poop. It’s a funny, unsettling work, and an effective statement about the abject horrors of World War II.
A later series of abstractions, using tires, brought her work closer to that of her Arte Povera colleagues, who were also based in Turin. These canvases are sensual in their own bizarre way—the smoothness of Rama’s tire strips makes them similar to skin, something to be touched. Like Pino Pascali, Mario Merz, and Jannis Kounellis, Rama showed that in postwar Italy, the relationship between natural and industrial materials was changing. Unlike those artists, Rama was a woman, which might explain why critics never included her in the group.
Her audacious career hit a high in the 1980s, when she returned to figuration. These works are some of her best: they make use of ready-made black-and-white prints of Renaissance architecture, with Rama’s fornicating women painted on top of them. These works make ages-old Italian forms—arched ceilings, Corinthian columns—seem unoriginal and, in contrast to her contorted femmes, staid and quite boring. In Rama’s world, tradition is for squares. All the better to defile it.
For whatever reason, in an exhibition of many, many great works, one piece in particular stuck with me: an untitled painting from 1973 featuring a grid of strings, each sewn into an unprimed canvas, above a red zig-zag. That latter form looks like a cardiogram—it spikes in the middle and gradually flattens. It suggests a surprise, or a sudden pulse of desire, something that shocks the heart into motion, not unlike Rama’s oeuvre itself.