Carol Rama has a few favorite colors. The one she likes best is black. And brown. And red. Black being the color that prepares one for death, sets one at ease with it. It is also the color of the wedding dress she made. It is the color of her darker side, yet also the color of mystery. Rama explains it best in an interview with Corrado Levi and Filippo Fossati: “I always wore a black shirt because it gave me the idea that this ugliness of mine had a mysterious air. That of a bloodsucker, that of a deadly woman.” She is also a fan of brown, the color of excrement, a common abject gesture throughout her figurative works. Rama says the color red reminds her of wanting to be a bullfighter, provocative and tantalizing. It’s also, of course, the color of our innards.
Fitting then, that Rama’s current exhibition at the New Museum is called Antibodies. The body is shown in various states of abstract externality and disembodiment, in which the body is perceived as a conduit for sociopolitical discourse. Growing up in Fascist Italy, Rama’s mother was institutionalized after a nervous breakdown and her father had allegedly committed suicide after his bicycle and automotive parts factory went bankrupt. Rama channels the plight of the Italian workerists through her abstract assemblages of rubber tire skins in her works of the 1970s, which represent her father’s factory. Such work is not so much a glorification as much as an eroticization of alienation and working class struggles. Rama herself refers to tires as “the Eros” of her drawings.
Her figurative work is yet another example of such estranged erotics. Akin to the watercolors of Egon Schiele, her figures are finely drawn out, yet their composure is bent less toward seduction and more toward confrontation. Evoking the scenes of her days spent visiting an asylum, women squat naked with lizard-like tongues dangling from their mouths–sometimes contorted, missing limbs, confined to a wheelchair, beautified with wreaths, and occasionally accompanied by men, horses, or frogs. Serpents seep out from vaginal openings, occult-like. Rama aligns the feminine with the bestial in an archetypal manner that Foucault conveyed in Madness & Civilization: “…There was a certain image of animality that haunted the hospitals of the period. Madness borrowed its face from the mask of the beast.”
While Rama was not socially secluded (she was a muse of Man Ray and Andy Warhol), she also expressed antagonism towards the art world as a site of the privileged, which exacerbated her anxieties. The repulsive, the crippled, the outcast, the underdog, the animal–she rooted for them all since she considered herself one among them. Rama was acutely aware of her manic nature. She calls herself a “premeditated lunatic” and one could certainly claim her a forbearer of the “nasty women.” Rama considered the perception of the Mad Cow disease epidemic in the 1990s as analogous to the pathologized female hysteric. While the phallus was her favorite form, she hints at dismantling its power, equating it as one quotidian feticcio among many–like feet. Rama had an uncle who manufactured orthopedic goods, from which she derived inspiration for her depictions of shoes and deformed feet.
Rama did not shy away from portraying the mystical powers of the vagina as well as its bloodied physicality. Depictions of gaping, bloodied orifices such as Maternità (Maternity) from 1966 bear semblance to Alberto Burri’s Rosso Plastica series with their fleshy, rubbery textures. This tension between flesh and blood speaks to that old chestnut revived in the press release, “the body without organs.” Going to its original source, To Have Done with the Judgment of God by Antonin Artaud, we find affinities with Rama about the body:
“For you can tie me up if you wish,
but there is nothing more useless than an organ.
When you will have him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom”
The body without organs is mere surface, it cannot metabolize nor reproduce. But for Rama, we have the reverse: organs are without bodies. The penis is detachable and the vagina is its own all-consuming void. These objects, organs that act on their own, distinct from the body, are what Zizek describes as a correlate of Cartesian subjectivity, a parallax view of the self that has no place, no boundaries, just an organ. Lacanian interpretations aside, what’s important to discern is that for both Artaud and Rama, embodiment is a site of jouissance and suffering–of pleasure derived from pain. For Artaud, virtuality is a means to transcend real and symbolic order. For Rama, the visceral is a means to transgress patriarchal order. Rama’s organs thus thwart the fantasy of transcendence–reminding us of our mucky mortality.
Mere mortal emotions were things Rama clearly felt throughout her career. Returning to her interview with Levi and Fossati: “It is not that I cry a lot, but sometimes I have a wild anguish and I have jealousy, I envy those more fortunate than I: more beautiful, younger. But it is jealousy, anger, and more when you are uglier that you feel like that. That is not evil, because then you see one of the very handsome… and finally you are not jealous anymore… Jealousy is wild, because jealousy is for whoever is more cultured, more prepared… but those things give me a lot of joy. I don’t know, when I see you or I see Edoardo and you speak of extraordinary things, you speak about inconceivable things. I am always in love. Ready to undress myself. That gives you a start of fear… It is a risk, eh!”
Courtney Love’s epic lust ballad, Doll Parts, could almost be a modern ode to Rama’s desire, particularly the bricolage works of plastic doll eyes gazing lazily in defunct directions. Like Love, we see Rama’s insecurities comparing herself to others–her rampant sexuality and unapologetic aggression against the conventions and decorum of her times. Her rage against censorship and being recognized so late in her career leaves a deep stain. Rama was finally awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, which was soon followed by a retrospective at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. While she lived a long life (she died in 2015 at 97 years old), it’s sad she didn’t live to see these splendid salon hangs of her work in New York. Perhaps the most tragic thing of all is that her work is still as transgressive as it was in her day–there is still much railing against to do. We ache, like she ached.