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by Ilka Scobie
"Carol Rama: Good Manners," Oct. 25-Dec. 20, 2008, at Maccarone, 630 Greenwich Street, New York, N.Y. 10014

"If you only get to see one show in Italy, it must be Carol Rama," commanded Egle, Rosella, Alba and Cristina, the gang of young art-lovers I was visiting in Italy. Which is why on a September afternoon we were speeding down the Ligurian Highway to Genoa to catch the Rama retrospective at the beautiful Palazzo Ducale. Located in Genoa’s main square, the majestic palace was built in the 13th century and modified up until the 20th. It was the perfect locale for a comprehensive show of an important artistic innovator. Now I understood why my friends were incredulous about my ignorance of Rama: her subversive, elemental, proto-feminist work is a milestone in Italian modernism.

Born in 1918, Rama launched her art career during World War II, and it was almost was over before it began. Her first 1943 exhibition in Turin -- featuring Rama’s now-signature provocative nudes, flashing pink, defecating, and erotically entangled with serpents -- was closed for public indecency. Imagine the scandal in Fascist Italy, a time when Il Duce patronized art at its most academic. The Genoa retrospective included over 100 works dating from 1934 to 2005.

Known as the "Louise Bourgeois of Italy," Rama had an esthetic that was rough-and-ready, even in the anything-goes context of the 20th-century art movements that drew her interest, from Surrealism to the Italian Concrete Art Movement of 1948-53 and Arte Povera in the ‘60s. One of the major avant-garde figures in Italy, she was friends with Meret Oppenheim and Warhol; Man Ray dedicated a work to her.

Which is why I was excited to hear of an upcoming show at Maccarone gallery on Greenwich Street in New York. As we walked through the exhibition, titled "Good Manners," Michele Maccarone confidently proclaimed her presentation "the punkest shit in town." The 25 seminal works, many from the Ducale show, are a beautiful representation of Rama’s revolutionary approach to art-making, which Maccarone called, "a privilege to show." "I couldn’t believe people didn’t know her work in the states," Maccarone said. "I had a specific idea of wanting to show her more abstract work."

On view at Maccarone are a range of Rama’s collages, or bricolages (a term coined by the Italian poet and long time Rama collaborator Eduardo Saguineti), including early Surrealist ones incorporating a mass of doll’s eyes, or a swarm of plastic cigarillo tips, swimming in a layer of thick paint. Sanguineti wrote, "The poetry of bricolage. . . derives from the fact that it talks not only with things, but though things." One of Rama’s favorite materials is black bicycle inner tubes, often worn and patched, a reference to the bicycle tire factory owned by her family. The deflated black rubber tubes in Untitled 1971-2004 hint at fetish wear, or are simplified into the arresting image of industrial, chemical nature in Autorattristatrice n. 10 (1970) and La guerra è astratta (1970).

Thinking of Maccarone’s linking of the nonagenarian artist to punk, it is easy to imagine Rama’s spray-painted and glue works of the late ‘60s being made in the 1980s East Village or even by a young artist of today. Procediamo verso l’esterno di (1969), for instance, is a brutally organic form, a viscous pour sprayed over with black paint (a format now made familiar by Julian Schnabel, among others), while Perdonami le cingiunzioni (1968) is a free-form graffito that can be interpreted as a spider, a pair of open legs or as a transgressive cartoon.

Maccarone said that her two favorite works in the show are the subtle works from 1951 and ’52, both titled Composizione. "I am particularly interested in these images," she says. "They’re very modernist and abstract, and may look a little out of place, but they are quite particularly hers." The deliberate ink-and-watercolor marks create a lyrical geometry. Earlier Composiziones, from  1957 and 1959, though small, have a New York School sense of the sublime.

Another iconic Rama image is the stiletto, which she used from the 1940s onward. Like Warhol’s later shoe imagery, Rama’s heels are graceful and insouciant. Feticci (2003), a platform shoe with an ankle strap, is a prime example, its high arch tellingly overlaid on a drawing of a Neo-Classical architectural detail. A group of other works from the current decade combine pennant shapes, emblems of Italian pagentry, with the multiple breasts of fertility idols.

The small sampling of iconic nudes in the exhibition manage to be ferocious, obscene and adorable. One of the oldest examples, Dorina (1943), has a seductive fragility. In the 2005 Metamorfosi, made with watercolor, nail polish and pen on a sheet of found paper, a female lower torso boasts a pornographic vagina dentata as well as a pink splayed foot replicating the boot of Italy.

The show at Maccarone is organized with Rama’s Turin representatives, Franco Masoero and Alexandra Wetzel. Much of the work in this show belongs to the artist herself. As Maccarone explained, "Most of her work has been spoken for already (prices range from $8,000 to $75,000). Every Italian collector, major and small, has her work." Maccarone also told of visiting the artist in her all-black Turin apartment, where she has lived for many years, and Rama’s delight at meeting a young woman dealer, rather than the usual "men in suits."

At the 50th Venice Biennale of 2003, Rama was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Revered in Italy, she has not widely shown outside of her native country. In 1998, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a retrospective, and in New York she showed at Esso Gallery. While her work resists categorization, it remains contiguous with her times and clairvoyant in vision. Rama’s passionate pictorial expression is always innovative and distinctly female.

ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.