Pioneers: Rediscovering Christina Ramberg

Fredi Fischli und Niels Olsen in conversation with Albert Oehlen

OehlenFig. 1

Albert Oehlen: The first time I saw work by Christina Ramberg was at an exhibition about Ray Yoshida at the Art Institute of Chicago. There were other artists on view in that context as well, including works of hers that I thought were excellent!

Niels Olsen: Which ones – do you mean those corset anamorphoses?

AO: Yes, it was a corset piece. I noticed it in the exhibition because of its surface. And of course you can't tell from the catalog just as you can't with Jim Nutt. You have to see the surface and the delicacy of the hatching. All of a sudden it's a completely different work of art! And because you could see it live there, that it clicked and then the penny dropped.

N: Later, there was the exhibition Painthing on the Möve at Thomas Dane Gallery in London. You curated it with John Corbett und Jim Dempsey, didn't you?

AO: Yes, that's what they say afterwards. Basically, I was supposed to have the job of curating or hanging this exhibition. But Corbett and Dempsey from the gallery are experts on the Chicago Imagists. So the roles were reversed. They hung the exhibition and all I had to do was give my okay. We’d discussed the works in advance, then they hung them and it was absolutely wonderful.

Fredi Fischli: What did you show by Christina Ramberg?

AO: One thing that was special was the painting of the shoe.

N: The frame is so prominent.

AO: Yes, focus on frames is a distinctive feature in the work of the Chicago Imagists. The execution is meticulous for the most part and the surfaces are fabulous. They take this to extremes.

N: The manual skill is really striking in contrast to the "laissez-faire" aesthetics of New York Pop Art.

AO: Yes, in this respect the Chicago Imagists are closer to Artschwager.

N: This is especially true of Christina Ramberg’s late works. Abstract patterns and texture become increasingly important. Another thing I notice is that there is something very fusty about her paintings. Do you think that’s because of the tones of brown that she uses?  

AO: I don't think her work is so fusty. Other artists in that circle, like Ray Yoshida, are fustier. His exhibition had a kind of Laura Ashley palette that I find very unpleasant. How can anybody paint like that in the age of Pop? There were a lot of local subcategories within Pop. In Europe there were Italian, English, and German Pop artists who tried to chart their own territory. There was something bizarre about their works but they were still very colorful. So what makes Ray Yoshida paint only in broken colors, like wine red and olive green? Isn't it ghastly? But it must've been intentional and not a glitch. One thought that occurs to me is that the paintings and their formats were meant to be compared with the history of painting, for example, with painting of the Renaissance. The subject matter---still life, portrait, figure---also evokes the characteristics of classical painting. The treatment is meticulous, which is of course presented as a joke here. With Pop you associate something casual and flaky. You would never envision somebody with a paintbrush and a magnifying glass.

F: The kind of Pop cultivated by the Chicago Imagists is a subculture. Not mandatory Pop that returns to clear signals, but rather Pop that invests symbols with new meaning.

AO: Pop obviously has lots of facets. Before Warhol and Lichtenstein became sacred cows, I remember people being interested in the Independent Group in England and in German Pop.

N: The Chicago Imagists are sophisticated in the sense that the artistic study was important to them, like for artists of the Renaissance, that you mentioned; it was about drawing...

F: … Exactly! The drawing, the study, which is expressed in comics and films in Ramberg's work. A wonderful reinterpretation!

AO: Presumably, those are also, in a certain sense, academic people, who applied what they had learned to current themes and motifs. That makes me think of somebody who should be mentioned here: Heinz Edelmann. He may even have been more famous in those days than Warhol was.

N: Edelmann, the graphic artist?

AO: Yes, the German graphic artist who did the Yellow Submarine. The cover, the film, everybody was familiar with his art, everybody. There was an American artist who did similar work and the Americans thought he'd done it. His name was Max. (Laughs). But we knew better in Europe!

N: It's also remarkable that Ramberg, like Ferdinand Kriwet, worked on the idea of an encyclopedia of typologies. She created her own vocabulary of symbols, almost like a toolbox, or like a score that you can play. Comparison with Kriwet is illuminating because it makes you realize that there was not only monumental Pop Art, but also more ephemeral art.

AO: Yes, that's true, like building blocks or a set.

F: You're interested in the execution?

AO: Since I'm really ignorant, I can't say that something really interests me. I'd be faking it! But I did notice the execution. The lamella, how the texture became sculptural. It was shiny and even varnished. Accuracy becomes a feature that you can also see in the work of Konrad Klapheck. The meticulousness and the execution are almost uncanny and it makes you wonder: why does he do it? The work struck me because it was mounted there like something precious---the same effect created by Jim Nutt’s pictures when you see them live. When you see reproductions you think, “oh yes, that comes from the comics, reminds me of Gary Panther or somebody.” But the whole point is that the execution catapults it into an entirely different category. In other words, the work that has gone into the making of it gives it a different meaning. You have to see it that way. (Laughs.)  I mean, really!              

N: In Zürich, Karma International Gallery showed a little box by Ed Flood in an exhibition. It's an incredibly fetish kind of object. It's remarkable how the Chicago Imagists, other Pop artists, and the Japanese artist Keiichi Tanaami place so much emphasis on craftsmanship. Some people even feel it's almost oppressive when the craftsmanship is so beautiful. These little boxes that Ed Flood constructed are incredibly seductive and actually do have something oppressive about them precisely because they’re little boxes and don't embody the freedom of a Warhol. He has a "laissez-faire" that they don't have. Isn't this an issue for you as well? That you work with rigid rules that you always end up ignoring?

AO: Yes, not at all rigid… I'm interested in how rules change your thinking. So they're not strictly applied. That would ruin everything because then things would work according to certain rules that everybody can recognize.

N: But it is curious that she kept working with different browns. She was actually the only one in the group who didn't use bright colors.

AO: Like Ray Yoshida

N: Yes.

AO: What they say about Pop makes sense, namely that it's in the motif and not in the color. A very simple thought. If she does feel an affinity with Pop, then that would be a simple explanation.

F: But I keep having to think of what you said about this traditional Renaissance artist’s painting.

AO: I don't know how important it is, but you can certainly get a kick out of saying to yourself: I want it to have the format, the composition… or whatever, the head in the middle of the canvas and meticulously executed. Those are a couple of aspects and then there's the brown palette. I had a similar idea when I started out. I used  browns too. It was a simple decision: Brown is classical, brown is appreciated, brown commands respect. (Laughs.)

N: Curious, because for me brown is not such an appreciated color. It was a key experience when I saw your earlier pictures at mumok in Vienna. At first they struck me as ugly, because those browns have such ugly connotations.

AO: Yes, but I made those pictures as ugly as I possibly could. There are various reasons for choosing a particular palette. For a long time, the choice of color tried to imitate nature. If you paint after nature, then you tell yourself: whatever is green, I actually have to paint green and I have to try to capture the right green. That prevailed up to Impressionism and then people started talking about various approaches to perception. The idea was abandoned for the first time in Expressionism. No idea what they were getting at. In Pop, color essentially became independent. It referred to the picture itself and not to what was being represented.

N: And the special thing about Ramberg is that she takes a pseudo-naturalistic approach. She starts doing studies of hands again.

AO: Exactly! They're basically jokes about studies of hands, about being academic!

N: Because it's estranged. The studies of hands are caricatures, and that makes them Pop Art. They become language or rather symbols…

F: Their execution is like a symbol. What makes her different is that through rule and repetition, she becomes filmic, like a comic or the Muybridge effect.

N: Her work is also related to postmodernism because the anamorphosis is so important.

AO: What do you mean?

N: There are optical illusions and the motifs change. The corset is transformed and acquires aspects of Mannerism, in which an object can also be perceived as something else.

F: There is always a rule. When she departs from it, there is always a justification for it.

N: Another thing I like is her detachment. The works generally consist of female attributes, which could lead you to believe that a feminist attitude is involved. But somehow she has a detachment, which ultimately gives formalism priority and distinguishes her from other contemporaries like Carolee Schneemann or Judith Bernstein, who made art that explicitly emphasized the body.

Oehlen Fig. 2

F: The question is how important the symbol was to her. Was she even interested in it? Was her work possibly more about lines, silhouettes? Or the pattern that emerges? So maybe she painted hair because that gave her a chance to paint fabulous patterns, or the sweater… Is a conceptual?

AO: I'm not sure but I don't think it's about the line. Repetitions and variations, making series were in the air at the time. It was what was happening and it was fresh, like conceptual art, too. You could assimilate these things and make your own mixture. Because it wasn't possible to predict what would be a hit or what would define what Pop looks like or whatever it is that was going be called Pop. Everything was still open-ended. But in Ramberg’s work, you can also recognize the canon of pop in the sense of popular culture. The variations on a figure with hair could be derived from a single advertisement drawn for a drugstore. These variations probably also referred to the print or they originated from newspapers.

N: Like a catalog of samples?

AO: Yes, exactly. And then the comic strip keeps cropping up. Basically, this is the involvement of trash culture. Except that she ennobled them by painting them and not simply copying them, the way Liechtenstein, Warhol, and others did. She painted and drew them; she made and shaped her own compositions…

N: She took photographs as studies for her paintings. Her models were always her husband Phil Hanson or Jim Nutt. She also took a lot of inspiration from the European avant-garde. For example, her works remind me of Hans Bellmer and his treatment of the body. Do you think she knew Richard Lindner?

AO: Definitely. All of these people who are on the threshold of Pop Art, even Saul Steinberg, should not be underrated in this regard. Forms of Pop appeared when Steinberg was inventing different styles of drawing. He was certainly not committed to any old art. He was connected to the Abstract Expressionists, too, they knew him, didn't they? I'm not informed about that but Steinberg was not at all compatible with the group of people he was involved with!

F: What group was that?

AO: I think he was befriended with people from the New York School.

N: But more from the generation of Jasper Johns and William Copley?

AO: That's one thing I must or can say: I was interested in that as a child.

Oehlen  Fig. 3


The conversation has been initially published in Kaleidoscope #20, February 2014.

Fig. 1:
Christina Ramberg, Black Widow, 1971, Coutesy of Illinois State Museum, Springfield, Illinois

Fig. 2:
Christina Ramberg, Freeze and Melt, 1981, Courtesy of Chazen Musuem of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fig. 3:
Christina Ramberg, O.H.D., 1976, Courtesy of the Estate of Christina Ramberg and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago

©Translation: Catherine Schelbert