The Savage Mind

John Haber
in New York City

Carol Rama, Alan Vega, and Delirious

When does madness end and theater begin? If you trust Carol Rama in Italy, Alan Vega in the punk scene, or "Delirious" at the Met Breuer, the change could not come soon enough. Rama liked to say that she painted to cure herself. Do not believe it for a second. Over seventy years of her art, she kept finding new ways to sustain and to relish the disease.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, and her busy retrospective at the New Museum opens in an asylum. The only surprise is that she is not an inmate. A self-portrait at age twenty, in 1937, already takes a wry look at herself and her madness. Its flat colors and yellow background recall German Expressionism, Alan Vega's Stars (Invisible-Exports, 2016)but she leans on one hand with a mix of girlish innocence and composure. The rest of the room, though, tosses both to the winds. Dozens of watercolors from 1936 to 1944 revel in the madness.

If too few remember Rama, Vega was always a cult figure. He was the front man for Suicide as early as 1970, shrieking and wailing with only Martin Rev behind him on keyboards or a drum kit, but few had yet heard of what they called punk music. They issued their first album in 1977, when CBGB's was in its heyday, but he was more likely to perform at Max's Kansas City or in a gallery. He studied art, joined museum protests, and exhibited with one of Soho's earliest and most influential dealers, O. K. Harris, but then he gave up his art for years. He found champions as powerful as Jeffrey Deitch, but at his death in 2016 he was not on the upscale dealer's roster. As his wife put it, "He was never really part of the 'art world.' "

Je ne demande plus qu'à sentir mon cerveau: for Antonin Artaud, "I ask no more than to feel my brain." Can art, too, ask no more? In 1972, Nancy Spero created her Codex Artaud. On its thirty-three scrolls, the words of the French poet and playwright float amid crude figures in a field of white, in a desperate attempt to recover sensation. For "Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason," contemporary art is still emerging from a clinical disorder.

The joy of black

For Carol Rama, men and, especially, women bare their flesh, in contortions that thrust their breasts and butts at the viewer. They seem to have no substance beyond their skin and no background beyond a wheelchair or hospital bed. One woman lies beneath an ominous rack of belts, like a massive instrument of torture, but the watercolor's title speaks of passion—or rather Appassionata, as in Beethoven. It could have existed in quite another room of the asylum, as storage for nasty means of restraint, or entirely in her mind. Other women draw snakes into or out of their bodies. They could be turning pleasure into sin or sin into pleasure.

Rama had every reason to question her sanity. She lost her father to bankruptcy and suicide and was visiting her mother all those years in the clinic in Turin. Somehow, though, she had found a home. In her watercolors it has shoes, for clothing or a fetish, and shovels, to clean up after the mess. "The entire world looks like this," she told herself. "That helps me a lot."

Her world continued to look like this until well into her eighties, when her output slowed ten years before her death in 2005. She followed the watercolors with more detailed, flat, and grisly etchings of much the same things, as "bodies without organs," and she returned to etchings near the end. By then she was also designing clothing and, yes, shoes. Earlier the snakes and restraints had become rubber belts slashed off of used tires, recalling the bicycle factory that her father had owned, protruding limply out of more abstract paintings—and now the tortured flesh had become tortured black oil. "I like to paint everything black," she added. "A wonderful joy."

The curators, Helga Christoffersen and Massimiliano Gioni, quote Rama often in wall text. It helps in pinning down the continuity and contradictions in her art. Between her self-taught style and her mad subjects, she can seem the ultimate in outsider art. She had, though, shifting encounters with the latest European art, only starting with German Expressionism. She associated with the Italian version of Art Concrete, which encouraged her move to abstraction, although she had little patience for plain geometry. Her heavily worked surfaces give her a place with Art Brut and Arte Povera as well.

Carol Rama's Appassionata (photo by Studio Gonella, GAM Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin, 1940)Not even madness was entirely out of her control. She moves to murkier canvases in the 1940s, with seeds and rice mixed into paint. Eyes and stars merge with blackness. She approaches geometry again in the 1970s, with those rubber strips, before a final return to representation. Materials include textiles, raw canvas, syringes, and human teeth. The naughty bits alone mark her as a feminist. They bring her closer to Lara Favaretto and Marisa Merz, also in Italy, as well as to Joyce Pensato or Betty Tompkins in New York today.

When she speaks of bodies without organs or of a cure, the museum takes her at her word. It calls her retrospective "Antibodies," for a pun on both. Still, I wonder. "I love fetishes," she also said, and she finds new versions of painting as fetish with each decade. She may allude to that as well with a series of Bricolages, a word that Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology used to describe "the savage mind." It means making do with the materials at hand, rather than following the rules. Frustrating and wearying as it can be, it also describes her art.

A cult of one

Alan Vega sought cult status not just in his music, but also in his art. Everything looks like a religious relic, but from a cult of one. A shadowy canvas could pass for a Byzantine icon. Scrap wood takes the shape of crosses. One assemblage incorporates Christmas lights. Titles speak of Prayer, Prophecy, Vision, and Screaming Jesus.

Vega had only recently returned to art, for portraits of what he called "old guys." Are they saints or sinners? The gallery has a strong focus on conceptual art, gender, and the body. And it is hard not to encounter a room of men from the waist up and not think of all three. Many reduce to little more than empty clothing. They could be torn and stained fabric in its incarnations from Robert Rauschenberg and Magdalena Abakanowicz to Iva Gueorguieva and others today.

Vega's portraits and light sculpture come together as variations on a single installation. Additional lights train directly on the paintings. Seven portraits hung side by side, touching, could mark a shrine. Two works on paper from 1965 have the more crowded look of outsider art, but the same air of mystery. It is hard to know how is worshipping, who is worshipped, and why. It is hard, too, to know who is among the living.

Vega has entered self-abnegation territory, but then he did sing for Suicide. Art knows that territory well from bad boys like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who loved the band. The lack of obvious humor takes Vega closer still to Andres Serrano and the latter's "Piss Christ," and the Jewish kid from Brooklyn did identify himself as Catholic. The installations, though, also suggest stage lighting. Does that make Vega's subject only and always himself? At least he has the kindness to keep the viewer out of the spotlight.

Jeffrey Deitch may be late to the party, but he has helped a Lower East Side gallery get some serious press for that late work. A few weeks later, he also supplies some useful context. What counts as context for the spare insistence of punk rock? If you are thinking "more of the same," earlier work has still more lights and crosses. A row on the mezzanine feels like a repeated pounding. So do images of a boxer.

The pounding might have crushed the faces in drawings from 2015 as well. It also translates into photographs and film. They show Vega as an art student and a rocker. They show him, too, reflecting on his critics, his cult, and his music. There as in life, he could claim a happy ending rather than a suicide. He died in his sleep at age seventy-eight.

After the fever

Let me tell you about the 1960s. In art, it was a culmination of everything rational and modern—in formalism, spareness, and the logic of the grid. For others, it was the summer of love. It was a time of expanded opportunities and long overdue demands, most especially for blacks and women. When the logic shattered and the love gave out, in the 1970s, the horizons could only expand still further, taking in Latin American art and the resurgent individualism of Neo-Expressionism. The cynicism of the 1980s was still to come.

Or is that all a lie? With "Delirious," the Met Breuer sees only art in the throes of a bad trip. It divides into four sections as "Vertigo," "Nonsense," "Twisted," and "Excess," to locate the breakdown in drugs, language, physical sensation, and the very impulse to abstraction that had promised so much clarity. It includes dark voices speaking for the oppressed like Spero or Nancy Grossman, but also the cheery spectacle of Yayoi Kusama. It includes the Post-Minimalism and body parts of Paul Thek, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse—but also the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt and Al Loving, the Pop Art of Claes Oldenburg and Philip Guston, the cartoons of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul, and the experimental videos of Gary Hill and Stan VanDerBeek. By the time you exit, you, too, may be delirious. Hanne Darboven's Konstruktion (Dia Arts Center, 1998)

It starts innocently enough, with what looks like standard fare in abstraction, including Loving. Yet he has peeled and flattened a cube, much as Agnes Denes seeks alternative projections of the 3D geometry of planet earth. The next room brings in Robert Smithson, who devoted himself to entropy, and Lygia Clark, for whom The Inside Is the Outside. Grids include LeWitt, but also Dara Birnbaum with clips from The Hollywood Squares, Andy Warhol with Electric Chair, and Paul Sharits with Cellular Disorder. The terrors of the body are already in evidence, even before Anna Maria Maiolino presses her mouth to the camera and Ana Mendieta her cheeks to glass. For artists like these, delirium means abjection.

The breakdown of language begins with Léon Ferrari and his Tower of Babel in wire, tin, and lead. It includes VanDerBeek's fragmented poetry and Mira Schendel, with unreadable graffiti. And it all gets an unhealthy boost from drugs, only starting with a book by Timothy Leary. Lee Lozano declares herself Stoned Drunk Sober, Henri Michaux has his Mescaline Drawing, and Dan Graham charts the side-effects. When Carolee Schneemann confronts the atrocities in Vietnam in grainy film, she takes as her soundtrack the Beatles and "We Can Work It Out," because she no longer can. Still, something gets lost in the fever dream.

Museums are feeling a welcome pressure to display the permanent collection, after so many blockbusters and wasted atriums. They are also feeling the pressure to keep up with contemporary art—which is, after all, what drew the Met to lose money by taking over the Met Breuer. Here it borrows two-thirds of the show, but the same factors are at work. Is it fair to the period and to art? As curator, Kelly Baum includes too many lesser artists and unrepresentative work. She also needs way too much wall text to fit it all into a thesis, but it breaks away, often movingly, all the same.

To force the work into excess, the show has to separate Warhol's electric chair and Saul's by an entire floor. It also has to see disintegration, where a collector like Hanne Darboven or a black woman in abstraction like Howardena Pindell saw freedom—or where Jennifer Bartlett saw Rhapsody. It includes illustrations by LeWitt and Jasper Johns with text by Samuel Beckett, but does that reduce them all to apostles of nonmeaning? As its saving grace, the show eats away at the distinction between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, along with the privilege of the prosaic. For Smithson, "Here language 'closes' rather than 'discloses' doors to utilitarian interpretations." Yet it allowed him to open doors to perception.

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Carol Rama ran at The New Museum, through September 10, 2017, Alan Vega at Invisible-Exports through July 29 and at Deitch Projects through September 30. "Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason" ran at The Met Breuer through January 14.


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