The first New York survey of Carol Rama’s work—which runs until 10 September this year at the New Museum—is teeming with paintings and objects and scribblings on paper by the self-taught Italian artist. In fact, there’s more than 150 thrilling, erotic, sordid, wretched, writhing, tongues-out works displayed (sometimes at very close quarters) across the second floor. Among them are sparse drawings from the late 90s, where four pairs of breasts are stacked up like a tower, completely divorced from their bodies, or where a pair of abstract legs is spread wide, revealing a tantalising line of pubic hair. According to the gallery website, it’s the largest presentation of her work in America to date.
Rama—who died in 2015—was biting and brainy and long undervalued, an art-world outsider who made difficult work oscillating between topics of tormented sexuality and madness. She endured a grief-stricken family life. Her father, a bicycle manufacturer, committed suicide when she was 12; her mother was institutionalised three years later. She was censored by Mussolini’s regime, and pushed to the fringes of male-led art movements. Sheila Dickinson summed up Rama’s career in a 2016 elegy for ArtNews. “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 … At this stage it feels like a tragicomedy.”
Among the many gems at the New Museum show is a table that’s hard to leave: underneath its surface of Perspex or glass are eight curious Rama etchings, completed between 1944 and 1947. Titled as numbered versions of Le parche, these small, super-charged works presumably relate to the ancient Roman concept of the Parcae: female personifications of destiny or fate. (The deities are usually known as Nona, who spun life’s thread, Decima, who measured it with her rod, and Morta, who cut life’s thread and selected an individual’s manner of death.) Each etching contains within it a tiny narrative, with all the furtive glances and careful composition of a renaissance panel. One depicts a copulating, semi-naked duo being visited by a veiled woman in black, her breasts and belly visible beneath her clothing. In another, the interplay of figures is more difficult to decipher: a bald, thin male embraces a woman draped in a flower print garment, while two nude, bony figures—their ribs protruding—stretch their limbs at odd angles in front of the couple.
These images were made in the 40s, when Rama was known to visit her mother at the asylum, and where she witnessed electroshock therapy—in the same decade she made watercolours in which imprisoned, naked women arched their bodies and wagged their tongues. In the eight etchings presented here, dark, fanatical scenes bestow women with the same power: even in a then-Fascist and patriarchal Italy, Rama’s angular, scratchy women control all of life and death.
Carol Rama: Antibodies is currently showing at New Museum, 235 Bowery New York.