Review: Christina Ramberg’s Female Torso Imagery at the Art Institute Reminds Us of the Glory Days of the Chicago Imagists

Christina Ramberg, a Chicago artist who devoted many of her paintings to images of the female torso, cinched in and bulging out of feminine undergarments, is celebrated in a new Art Institute of Chicago retrospective

Ramberg was part of the cohort of 1960s artists who came out of the School of the Art Institute and were known as the Chicago Imagists. They scandalized the traditional, elitist art world with bizarre, distorted imagery drawn from comic books, cartoons, pop art, surrealism and West Coast underground art. They studied with artist/professor Ray Yoshida, who encouraged them to find inspiration in popular culture as well as folk art and found objects. The artists in the Imagists category also were part of subgroups known as the Hairy Who  the Nonplussed Some and False Image. Some of those artists were Ed Paschke, Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt, Roger Brown and Gladys Nilsson. (A wide array of Paschke’s work—including his recreated Howard Street studio—is on view at the Ed Paschke Art Center in his old neighborhood of Jefferson Park.)

Christina Ramberg. Hair, 1968. Collection of Joel Wachs, New York.  © The estate of Christina Ramberg. Photography by Kris Graves.

Ramberg studied with Yoshida at the Art Institute in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, earning a BFA in 1968 and an MFA in 1973. She met her future husband, Philip Hanson, there; he also was a student of Yoshida. Both Ramberg and Hanson later became SAIC faculty members. In 1968, the year they were married, they both showed work in the False Image show at the Hyde Park Art Center. 

Most of Ramberg’s earliest work focused on stylized paintings—she worked in acrylic paints on Masonite—of female body fragments, constricted by undergarments in vaguely erotic positions, usually headless. Ramberg showed bodies molded into the bondage-like lingerie of mid-century America. (Some readers may remember torture garments called "girdles" or "merry widows.") She depicted various elements—hair (without a face), hands, torsos and garments—as well as abstract forms, denoting surface and structure. Her color palette in this period primarily was blacks, browns, grays and tans. Later in her brief career, her work became more colorful. These paintings still focus on the fragmented female torso and sometimes add collage materials or portray a body expelling part of a smaller human form. Her work at this time retained her heavy black outlines, but added a more colorful palette and included pattern and design.

Christina Ramberg. Black ‘N Blue Jacket, 1981. Collection of Chuck and Kathy Harper, Chicago. © The estate of Christina Ramberg. Photography by Jamie Stukenberg.

She also created quilts using a dark palette and found materials.  

The exhibit includes her later work in geometric abstractions; these paintings, mostly in blacks and grays, are sometime called her “satellite paintings” because they look like satellite dishes on top of industrial towers. But they also bear a resemblance to the human torso. 

The Art Institute adds these insights into Ramberg’s sources. “Ramberg drew inspiration from artwork she saw in exhibitions at the Art Institute—such as Navajo (Diné) BlanketsSculpture of Polynesia and Persian and Indian Miniatures—as well as work she collected from self-taught artists Joseph Yoakum and Lee Godie, and “trash treasures” she collected at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market.”

Christina Ramberg. Japanese Showcase, 1984. Estate of Ray Yoshida, courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago. © The Estate of Christina Ramberg. Photography by Jamie Stukenberg.

Ramberg had a long teaching career at the School of the Art Institute and was head of the painting department 1985-89; as one of the few female instructors, she was popular with students. Throughout her teaching and painting career, Ramberg participated in every major Imagist exhibition held across North and South America, as well as the United Kingdom.

She and Hanson had one child, born in 1975; they separated in 1980 but remained close until her death. Ramberg was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 1989 and died in 1995 at the age of 49.

Christina Ramberg: A Retrospective continues through August 11 in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. Plan your visit on Thursdays through Mondays; the museum is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.