“My father was in the military and I can remember sitting in my mother’s room watching her getting dressed for public appearances,” the Chicago artist Christina Ramberg said in a 1990 interview with Kerstin Nelje. “She would wear these—I guess that they are called ‘Merry Widow’—and I can remember being stunned by how it transformed her body, how it pushed up her breasts and slendered down her waist. Then she put on these fancy strapless dresses and went to parties.”
“I think the paintings have a lot to do with this, with watching and realizing that a lot of these undergarments totally transform a woman’s body,” Ramberg continued. “Watching my mother getting dressed I used to think that this is what men want women to look like, she’s transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating. … In some ways, I thought it was awful.”
Those paintings Ramberg was talking about—paintings of ladies in various states of undress, later paintings of ominous mutant bodies, all charged with desire but also questioning the sexual packaging of women—made her one of the most extraordinary American artists to emerge over the past half century. The thirteen artworks from 1971 to ’81 on view in the mini retrospective “Christina Ramberg,” organized by curator Jenelle Porter, at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art through March 2, show they continue to seduce and disconcert.
Her art remains poorly known, despite her talent, perhaps because she was a woman starting her career in the late 1960s, perhaps because she was based in Chicago rather than New York, perhaps because her career was tragically cut short.
Ramberg was born in 1946 in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, about a six or seven hour drive straight south of Chicago. Her mom was a piano teacher for high school-aged students, who prided herself on being well informed, reading the newspaper each day. The family—which included a brother, who died early from brain cancer, and two sisters—lived all over, including some time in Japan, because her father was an Army colonel who served in the Italian campaign in World War II as well as a stint in Vietnam. “So there was a lot of separation, the mother kept things together,” says Philip Hanson, who met Ramberg when they were both studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late ‘60s.
The school was a major center for artistic thought in what was then the second largest city in the United States. There people were asking a question being mulled by artists in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Detroit, too: How not to be New York? “At that period of time, the art coming out of New York seemed like it was coming out of a dogma,” says Barbara Rossi, another artist who met Ramberg in Chicago then.
A continuing influence at the Art Institute was art history teacher Kathleen Blackshear, who had retired around 1961. She’d helped her mentor Helen Gardner on editions of her landmark “Art Through the Ages,” which remains one of the standard art history textbooks. She was also an artist, whose own work spanned from sympathetic portraits of African-Americans to Modernist doodles that recall Jean Miró.
Blackshear had her students study the art of early Renaissance as well as non-Western traditions, especially in person at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History—which Karl Wirsum, another artist who emerged from this ‘60s Chicago milieu, has called “the Louvre of Chicago art”—and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. She touted “the power of creative impulse emerging from the unconscious.”
At the Field Museum then, you could find cases full of masks from New Zealand or birds or other fabulous curiosities. “There’d be these categories of things and they weren’t explained so much as they were just a glass case full of stuff and you could go look at them,” Hanson says.
A teacher they did study with in the late 1960s was the painter Ray Yoshida, who became a longtime friend. He personally collected tramp art, cards of buttons, tools, African masks, model churches, fishing lures. He inspired students like Ramberg to assemble their own collections. She and Hanson hunted for old circus posters, game boxes, dolls, tin toys and other treasures at the Maxwell Street Market, a giant outdoor flea market/junk extravaganza on the city’s South Side.
“This is with the hope that we can do something with that material,” Rossi says. “Not make literal representations of it, but reinvent it in our own work.”
In addition, Ramberg photographed scarecrows, garden planters made from old tires, medical illustrations of wounded hands, advertisements for wigs and gloves.
“By looking through a bunch of examples of things, categories of things, you could start to see that form and work with that form,” Hanson says. “That came out of Blackshear too. She would send people to the Field Museum—this is something Ray [Yoshida] told me once—a problem would be find all the different ways that eyes are depicted in in different cultures—Chinese, Egyptian, Maori, American Indian, cave paintings.”
“All those guys were forcing them to look at the world in a different way, and to look at it in as democratic a way as possible,” says John Corbett of the Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey, which represents Ramberg’s, Hanson’s and Wirsum’s art. “To look at all things of interest without regard to where they’ve come from.”
In February 1966, Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center began a series of exhibitions of young Chicago artists developing a new, meticulously painted, funky, neon, pop style with the show “The Hairy Who.” It introduced sassy, cartoony painters Wirsum, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson. “A barbaric yelp on canvas,” Chicago Sun-Times critic Harold Haydon described it at the time. In 1968, Ramberg and Hanson, who married around this time, joined this club as they exhibited in a follow-up group show called “False Image” at the art center.
Much as the early 20th century Cubists in Paris had developed a flattened, graphic way of representing the world by turning to traditional African tribal art for ideas of how to burst out of French Academy dogma, these “Hairy Who” painters—who would later come under the broader title of “Chicago Imagism”—studied hand-painted signs, comics, cheap advertising and folk art (many in the group visited the Chicago outsider artist Joseph Yoakum; “He would call up and sort of encourage us to visit,” Hanson recalls) to pioneer a new art outside, what seemed to them, the airy detachment and strictures of the New York School.
Their inspirations also included Surrealism (which major collectors in Chicago were then buying) and the details, awkwardness and passions of early Renaissance art. But they infused it with their own ‘60s Chicago love of seedy underbellies, outsiders, undergrounds, messiness, sex, bodily fluids, visions, magic, horror, the grotesque and tawdry.
“The same things were happening in New York too, but in a different kind of way,” Hanson recalls. While Andy Warhol and other New York Pop artists often just copied popular commercial imagery, the Chicagoans fell in love with the comics and blinking neon signs and transformed them into their own visual language. It’s a language that’s part Cubist, part cartoon, and often rendered with highly skilled, sleek precision.
“Their [New York] idea was a little more the transforming of popular art into high art. Ours was a little more just interested in it as some kind of language in which you could talk about things,” Hanson says. “We saw a power in it. We saw an energy in it. And kind of didn’t think we had to be ironical about it.”
“She was always making drawings,” Hanson says. “They were made on little note cards, those library cards.”
Ramberg mined romance comics and wig advertisements for ideas. In sketches, she worked out permutation after permutation of the gesture of a hand, of the bend of a hip, or the fall of a woman’s slip, as in her 1971 painting “False Bloom.” It shows the torso of woman wearing black stockings with her legs pressed tightly together. A hand, with red nail polish, reaches into the picture holding a black rose in front of her flower-patterned orange slip. In paintings of this period, hands primp and fingers probe with medical precision or the formal gestures of a dance. Here the gesture seems vital, but enigmatic—perhaps something about being suspicious of love.
Ramberg came to this imagery around 1967, the year before she graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, when she made a series of small paintings of invisible hands unbuttoning hoodies or pulling up loose T-shirts to expose the wrinkled, lumpy orange skin of bellies and chests underneath.
This composition—close up to torsos being concealed and revealed—would become her primary subject for the next 15 years. But rather than the loose clothes she began with, she focused on women in tight bras, corsets and girdles of the “Mad Men” 1950s and early ’60s variety. These were the fashions of the generation before Ramberg, the styles she recalled watching her mother put on. Ramberg’s own generation was switching to flowing, unstructured hippie attire whose very looseness indicated a loosening of physical and political constraints throughout society, but particularly for women. (Ramberg herself was tall and had an intimate knowledge of clothing because, early on at least, often sewed her own clothes, Hanson says, because it was hard to find things that fit.)
At the same time, the women Ramberg painted became more erotically charged. She kept the view close to their bodies and the women’s faces hidden for a voyeuristic vibe. She honed compositions to essential symbolic details, painted with a precise, cool detachment that seems to contain something smoldering underneath.
In another 1971 painting, “Black Widow,” a woman stands in profile wearing a shiny silk and lace corset, panties, stockings and beaded necklaces, which are all revealed as she seems to lift a dress over her head and a skirt falls to her thighs. Ramberg’s paintings often have a greenish cast, like photos taken indoors at night under artificial lighting. She never showed where things in her pictures were happening, but you sense her women are in bedrooms or boudoirs dressing for nights out.
Ramberg’s 1974 painting, “Istrian River Lady,” indicates a change. She again painted a woman in profile but this time wearing a form-fitting coat and skirt assembled from strips of lace and dangling ponytails. The fashion is more fetishistic, more sadomasochistic, more “Barbarella.” During this same year, she made paintings called “Tall Ticker,” that resemble weird vertical, lacy totems bound with hair. The titles suggest that we should see them as erect penises exotically attired to offer more pleasure to sexual partners.
Ramberg’s compositions grew even more abstract, with the bodies seeming more alien than human. Her 1975 painting “Wired” depicts something that looks at times like a bearded face and at times like a headless body clothed in fraying lace (the frays resembling public hair), with pincer hands and hairy labia.
The creatures in these paintings seem ominous and unyielding. Hands and hairdos, which had been key subjects, disappear. Bodies bulge and arms often end in disconcerting stumps. Gender becomes ambiguous. Her earlier paintings suggested all the effort and backstage buttressing of women getting ready to go out. These seem to symbolically channel the furtive passions of things people do in the privacy of their own homes late at night.
With Ramberg’s graduation from the Art Institute in 1968, Hanson earning his master’s degree there in 1969, and their marriage, they found an apartment in Chicago, where they both set up studios (though after a couple years Hanson found a studio outside the home).
Hanson’s art also displayed a fascination with women’s fashion. He painted ladies in dresses, seemingly made of shells and orchids, dancing with mysterious men at aphrodisiacal, undersea balls. Hanson’s work is gregariously florid, wildly patterned, while Ramberg’s paintings have an interior, solitary, severe, bound-up hum.
Ramberg tended to focus on one painting at a time, often working at night. If the Liquitex acrylic paint got too thick on her masonite panels, she’d sand it down to smooth again. “There’s a slightly elegant and repressed quality to that,” Hanson says.
Two camps of interpretation have formed around Ramberg’s art, those who see this first decade of painting as erotic and those who interpret it through a feminist lens that sees Ramberg critiquing social rules and codes of female allure. Ramberg seems to have been interested in both.
“Now it appears to be S&M, but it those days, those were just all the things women put on to shape their bodies,” says Carol Becker, who became friends with Ramberg when they both worked at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1980s. Becker wrote about Ramberg’s art in the catalog for her 1988 retrospective at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society. “She didn’t like the fetishizing of it.”
“There was this idea that women were supposed to be controlled,” Becker says. “The ‘60s tried to liberate women from a lot of this. … The idea of ridding yourself of these constraints so that you body could just be as it is was very important.”
In one sketchbook list, Ramberg described corsets as “containing, restraining, re-forming, hurting, compressing, binding, transforming a lumpy shape into a clean smooth line.”
It’s hard not to see feminist ideas percolating through her art because, like many of the Chicago Imagists, her work demonstrates her fascination with commercial advertising, in particular for women's beauty products and fashion. “She was getting at how different kinds of forms have been deeply encoded with meanings,” Corbett says. “She was very involved with looking at questions of connotation.”
Ramberg and Hanson marched in protests against the Vietnam War. Later she was active in the anti-nuclear movement. But “she didn’t like the category of feminist. Not because she was against feminism, but she didn’t have that intention when she made the work,” Becker says. “I just don’t think that was the word she was interested in because it came with a lot of baggage.”
As the 1970s went on, Ramberg moved away from eroticism and began to paint more vulnerable characters.
“Somebody who makes work that has some sexual reference, everybody else thinks it’s their right to talk to them about sex,” Hanson says. “That isn’t exactly what you meant to have happen. Or people would want her to talk about kinks. … She did not want to go there. It was disturbing to her.”
Becoming a mother with the birth of the couple’s son, Alexander, in 1976, surely also gave her a different sense of the nature of bodies.
In her 1977 painting “Schizophrenic Discovery,” the left side of a male-looking figure is bandaged up. A hand is missing. The person wears briefs and part of a shirt collar. The right side is a framework of broken wood or bone shards barely held together. It’s one of a series of her paintings in which bodies crack up and are stuck back together, revealing themselves as fragile, brittle, and hollow inside.
She followed up with paintings of figures attired in patchwork layers of increasingly baroque fabrics. Some figures have smaller, doll-like clothes attached to their bellies or perched on their shoulders or birthing from between their legs. The imagery feels more contrived, the emotions less urgent. She seems to exhaust her subject with paintings from 1981 and ’82 of skirt-suits that also seem to be part stout clay jars.
Ramberg’s brushwork, which had been so tightly controlled, became looser. It feels less distinctive, just one more artist adopting the expressionist style popular in the 1980s. She seemed now to be painting the women’s fashions of her time—the return of more structured, confining outfits, with their signature shoulder pads, that coincided with a conservative shift in the nation’s Reagan era politics. For a time around 1984, she gave up painting for sewing geometric quilts.
“She stopped making those figurative things,” Hanson says, “and went back to quilts and sort of pulled back.”
When Ramberg finally returned to painting around 1986, she continued to work loosely, but her imagery was all new. These compositions looked like geometric diagrams of radar arrays or radio antennas or Van de Graaff electrostatic generators or perhaps abstract wire robot faces.
“She had been very interested in all those electrical grid towers that you see when you’re driving across the country, these mighty forms,” Hanson says. “Some weirdly figurative aspect to them.”
“I think it’s about the head, the brain and a sort of diagram of a working mind,” Rossi says.
In 1987, Ramberg, who around this period served as head of the School of the Art Institute’s painting department, told the scholar Judith Russi Kirshner that she missed the “sensation of paint, the opportunity to control illusion and to describe atmosphere. I have always recognized two parallel strains in my work. One was the readable, recognizable-as-figure image, and the second was a more abstract, metaphorical image often reading as torso/urn.” Her late ‘80s paintings feel like an artist beginning to work out a second act.
“I find them very poignant because they’re from a period when she’s starting to go into a problem with her health and her mind,” Hanson says. “We just thought it was depression. Took the University of Chicago Medical Center a while to figure out what it was. Because people don’t see Pick’s disease that much. So there was some kind of sending a message from a distance.”
Ramberg and Hanson’s marriage broke up in the 1980s, but “we were always friends,” he says, and as the neurodegenerative disease began to consume her mind, he cared for her.
“She had a separate house and she came to live with me for six months because we didn’t know what to do,” Hanson says. “I had a house a block away and she moved over here. Then we had to have people here all day with her. Then it was a problem because sometimes she couldn’t sleep through the night. They tried to medicate so she could sleep through the night, but that made her more paranoid.”
The painful solution was that Ramberg spent her last months in two different nursing homes, before she died in December 1995 at age 49.
Greg Cook is a co-founder of WBUR’s ARTery. Follow him on Twitter @AestheticResear.