It has become a familiar story: the persistent, prolific woman artist who keeps making art despite being ignored, only to receive widespread recognition in her 80s. The latest to fit the mold is the Italian Carol Rama, who, like Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama, endured painful family psychodrama (her mother was institutionalized, and her father committed suicide when she was 12), was shunted to the fringes of male-led art movements (the Concrete Art Movement and arte povera), and made remarkable art, only to remain largely unnoticed until championed by a feminist art historian. At this stage it feels like a tragicomedy.
Smartly, “The Passion According to Carol Rama” is not staged as a resuscitation. Her boisterous and wild abstractions fill a long corridor of the museum and pull the visitor into her world right away, while her early figurative work and her later return to figuration are found in rooms leading off of it. Melodramma, the first artwork on view, is an all-black painting with randomly placed stickers of skulls and crossbones that surround a bulbous, vulvic-shaped mass of adhered ash. It looks like some hot punk vision, but it comes from all the way back in 1959. Rama’s art looks current and fresh, clearly that of an artist ahead of her time, particularly in her wild abstract collage paintings oozing with visceral lament.
With 200 works from seven decades, the exhibition is still but a sample of Rama’s creative outpouring. Between 1935 and 2005 she turned her apartment in Turin into an otherworldly studio, removing all natural light. Like her canvases, her space was crammed with wretched detritus—doll eyes, animal claws, syringes, the skin of splayed tire tubes. Neither expressive nor egotistical, her abstractions act physically, moving like organisms, making their materials breathe. In Martin Luther King (1965), a swirling lava mass engulfs a ring of small piercing eyes as it undulates over an ashen surface, taking emotion beyond mere painterly action.
Self-taught, Rama had never been schooled into conformity and her ethereal style belies her sordid subjects. It’s hard to imagine a more fearless Italian woman in her 20s, showing watercolors not of pretty landscapes but of desiring women with wagging tongues and disabled, institutionalized suffering bodies. In Dorina (1944), a woman wrestles with a snake emerging from her vagina while reaching for it with her snakelike tongue. In 1945, Mussolini’s fascist regime censored her. After the extreme reaction to this representational work, Rama changed her name and consciously moved into abstraction, with traces of the body found in her unconventional materials.
She did, however, have fans. Artists such as Man Ray and Warhol were in awe of her defiance of artistic norms. She was rarely exhibited, due to her gender, and created and lived like an outsider. Although she was aware of and inspired by such major Italian arts movements as Novissimi poetry and arte povera, Rama never adhered to any group’s commandments. Her work remained impossible to categorize.
Two series stand out in the exhibition—“Vulnerable Organisms” from the ’70s and “Mad Cow is Me” from the ’90s. In the first, Rama dissects the inner tube of the bicycle tire, a product of her father’s factory, lying flat like a skin upon the canvas. She scars its surface or folds it like labia, making them as dark and furtive as her other abstractions. “Mad Cow is Me” reflects upon the human/animal interconnection of mad cow disease. In La Mucca Pazza (1997), teat-like rubber forms lie upon a stretched mail sack, straddling the elegiac and celebratory, adding a layer of complexity to her abstraction.
When Rama was 62, the censored work she made in her 20s was finally shown, bringing her new recognition, but, alas, not for the new work she was making at that time. “The Passion According to Carol Rama” allows all her excursions into different media and subjects to mingle and have more equal weight. By doing this, the exhibition makes it nearly impossible to pin her down into one spot. Today, at a moment when social and cultural forces aim to abandon all binaries—feminine/masculine, human/animal, healthy/ill, center/periphery, it feels particularly important to look to Rama, who defied them long before most. Beyond the canon and outside codes of categorization, she will be all the more influential in the future.
“The Passion According to Carol Rama” travels next to the Galleria Civica
d’Arte Moderna in Turin, Italy, where it will run from October 12, 2016 to February 5, 2017.