Blurring the line between danger and bliss

Chicago artist Christina Ramberg made a fetish of female beauty, and then things got weird

Styles of painting denote states of mind. Helen Frankenthaler’s blooming stains in diluted oils suggest ecstatic cloud-drifts of reverie. An Andy Warhol silk-screen evokes mind-shriveling, media-glazed detachment. Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots toot chords of innocent irony.

Christina Ramberg’s work summons sex and discipline. And then something extra — something I struggle to get a handle on because I can never answer a nagging question: What is the compulsion behind it? Why did Ramberg need to make it?

All I know is that she did.

Ramberg deserves to be better known. She died in 1995, shortly before she turned 50. But for more than a decade, she had something extraordinary going on — something acutely perceptive, fastidiously executed and wholly original. Every time I see her work I fall under its spell.

This piece, at the Art Institute of Chicago, is called “Loose Beauty.” It was made in 1973, when Ramberg was hitting her stride. In the previous decade, she had been affiliated with the Chicago Imagists, a loose cluster of artists often confused with the Hairy Who, another Chicago-based collective.

Artists from both groups were inspired by cartoons and surrealism, but the Chicago Imagists were not, generally speaking, as manic and anarchic as such Hairy Who artists as Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson and Karl Wirsum. The Imagists preferred taut, highly finished pictures, which invited different qualities of attention, different kinds of focus.

Ramberg, certainly, was intensely controlled. In her small-scale works, she adorned cropped body parts with undergarments, corsets, brassieres and patterned fabrics. She began to distort the bodies themselves and then to blur the lines between body and adornment, so that many of her inventions suggest weird hybrids of woman, fantasy and machine.

A well-worn path, you might think. But Ramberg’s sensibility had something uniquely, almost disturbingly cool about it, suggesting both danger and bliss, and always hovering close, you feel, to a psychological breaking point.

Look at the way curves in her picture turn into straight lines and sharp points, the way serrated edges slice through smooth expanses, and the way elastic hems squeeze soft flesh.

Ramberg’s vision was rooted in her deep interest in the graphic idioms of comics. According to curator Jenelle Porter, Ramberg and her husband, fellow Chicago Imagist Philip Hanson, “compiled a comprehensive scrapbook of clippings to diagram recurring motifs in comics.” Up close in “Loose Beauty,” you can see the contrast between the schematic modeling of the flesh and the very fine, circular mesh pattern of the underwear.

The black, lace-trimmed fabric that folds between the legs on the left and spills out of the bra on the right is characteristic. Ramberg loved these anomalies, these little inserts of the apparently arbitrary into her otherwise fearful symmetries.

Clearly, she liked riffing on conventions of fashion and fashion illustration. But she was also interested, I think, in something deeper — perhaps (to quote Philip Larkin) in “how separate and unearthly love is/ “Or women are, or what they do,/ Or in our young unreal wishes/ Seem to be: synthetic, new/ And natureless in ecstasies.”

Larkin’s viewpoint was masculine, heterosexual. But all of us, flicking through fashion magazines or wandering through art galleries, can be similarly bamboozled, stimulated or appalled by the way sex turns subjects into fetishes as the mind races to impose order and discipline on the knot-loosening anarchy of eros. It was this natureless ecstasy that Ramberg painted.

Loose Beauty, 1973
Christina Ramberg (b. 1946). At Art Institue of Chicago.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.