Negative reps: Christina Ramberg and the standardised body1


6:30 AM: ‘MILCH’, crawling out of bed to the kitchen, grabbing the bottle, heating the milk, filling the bottle, handing it over half asleep to the hungry demandée.
6:30 AM: ‘MILCH’, crawling out of bed to the kitchen, grabbing the bottle, heating the milk, filling the bottle, handing it over half asleep to the hungry demandée.
6:30 AM: ‘MILCH’, crawling out of bed to the kitchen, grabbing the bottle, heating the milk, filling the bottle, handing it over half asleep to the hungry demandée.
6:30 AM: ‘MILCH’, crawling out of bed to the kitchen, grabbing the bottle, heating the milk, filling the bottle, handing it over half asleep to the hungry demandée.

This is how most mornings start since my daughter is able to express her needs more vocally. Long had I avoided the binds that I associated with the homemaker’s routine, through selective attention and a high tolerance for disarray, however, the monotony of house-and-care work can no longer be dodged, and I find myself a rookie domestic, deeply engulfed in its vortex. ‘I present you a form’, the film-maker Margaret Raspé states, ‘you can fulfil it with this or that sense. For every picture you can exchange an analogous one. Every sequence of a so-called functional work is a part of the open spiral of life and death, growth and dissolution’.2 In the early 1970s, Raspé strapped a building-site-helmet-cum-camera to her head and began recording the minutiae of her everyday household tasks. The camera was an Agfa Microflex Super 8, its viewfinder was placed in front of her eye, and it recorded her every movement, whether it was dishwashing (Alle Tage wieder—Let Them Swing, 1974), baking (Backe, backe Kuchen, 1972), or whipping cream to butter (Der Sadist schlägt das eindeutig Unschuldige, 1971). What we see is what Raspé sees and does, her hands crumbing a schnitzel, wiping glasses clean in the sink, and kneading the dough for a cake. The structural interest of film-making at the time is rerouted towards the mundane, the domestic routine, that which was familiar to Raspé, and in so doing she implicates herself quite literally in the process of the machine which is making the recording—chronicling concurrently her film-making and her domestic practice. That these films stem from frustration with the effects which the monotony of domestic labour might have had is not surprising, and the work begs the question of what way the mundanity of our daily operations inscribes itself into our bodies and minds, and to what consequence. What kind of muscles are grown, wrinkles are cast, muscle memory is logged?

The effects of the domestic tasks on its worker were also the concern of the Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who in 1926 designed what has been called Die Frankfurter Küche (The Frankfurt Kitchen) for the social housing project Römerstadt in Frankfurt, Germany. Some 10,000 units were built in the late 1920s in Frankfurt and would impact all household design to come; anticipating the need for standardised fitted appliances, the kitchen was built around a unified concept with efficiency and affordability at its core. Inspired by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s idea of scientific management as well as the logistics of dining cars in railway trains, its size, layout, and innovative appliances were all conceived with the goal of alleviating physical labour and time spent by the housewife in the ‘cooking workroom’, and creating a modern, hygienic, integrated, and most of all efficient work environment. In the process of production, steps were counted, arm lengths and standing heights measured, while the final product quantifies, standardises, and choreographs every movement of the domestic labourer anew. In doing so it generated the new ‘woman’. This new woman is a solo worker, whose labour takes place separately to the rest of the family, and whose every movement is clearly prescribed and linked to a desired outcome, and on top of that it must all be reduced to an absolute minimum effort and time. That this innovation did not free women of their domestic responsibilities has become all the more apparent today, and yet it is curious to consider the bodies which were shaped by this new attitude to (domestic) labour as it lingered in the twentieth century.


But this second trip to Pottery Barn, with another woman artist instead of my father, coincided with the moment at which I recognized there was a novice homemaker-consumer in me who was eager to find a rug, an inoffensive scented candle, or a pillow at precisely the time I should be sitting at the chocolatey fake wood table pushing through a difficult piece of work.
The kind of anxiety associated with working alone in a domestic environment is precisely what brought the housewife to mind.3

Around the same time as Raspé was making her camera-helmet films, a young painter in Chicago was developing a practice that sought to disable traditional concepts of identity. The work of Christina Ramberg (1946–1995) discloses and further investigates the constraining and framing conditions which construct identity, both physically and metaphorically. This essay focuses on the tensions between support, surface, process, and standardisation in Ramberg’s work, and the interchange of the body with its lived environment. I aim to trace how Ramberg employed these tensions to shape images of the (female) body in her early paintings, and how over time constrictions of representation develop a life of their own in her work to become hybrid bodies with objects, infrastructure, and architecture. It further seeks to shed a closer light on the female body in traction with its environment, its surface, muscles, and retentions shaped and weathered by everyday exposure.

Through a plethora of small obsessive drawings and studies in sketchbooks and a number of highly finished paintings in acrylic on Masonite, Ramberg observed the human body in various forms of modulation, dissolution, metamorphosis, and distress. From early in her career until 1982, Ramberg drew and painted vignettes of increasingly androgenised bodies, cropped at the neck and knees in varying stages of undress, and draped in and shaped by garments such as bandages, girdles, underwear, and tights. This pictorial investigation doubled for her as an enquiry into larger behavioural questions concerning power dynamics, hierarchies, gender construction, desire, fetishism, and the increasing societal conventionalisation through industrialisation. From the early small-scale depictions of women in a state of undress to the later torso paintings, Ramberg’s surfaces and structural devices gradually emancipate and detach from any recognisable object; figures emerge as something entirely of their own making. The semi-abstract amalgams from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s still have her characteristic human torso as their guiding shape, however, the body is seen as appropriating its own constraints and becomes an androgynous prosthetic, a cyborg half-being, which is no longer merely shaped by outside forces but consists of actual material attributes. We see bentwood, wooden frames, stone masonry, and metal wiring, as well as lace, nylon, satin, leather, braided hair, bandages, wood grain, metal plating, as well as what appears to be the muscular flesh of various parts of the human body. Her main reference, nonetheless, is the world of female garments. Art historian Dennis Adrian acknowledged these garments as motifs that modify and regularise the body ‘in the service of some esthetic ideal such as fashion, convention or style’. He identified Ramberg’s use of these items as an ‘exposure of the artificiality or unnaturalness of these and other conventional forms of dress or even behavior’.4

Christina Ramberg, Strung (for Bombois) (1975), acrylic on Masonite, 120.7 × 94 cm

Her painting Tight Hipped (1974) presents us with a headless torso, entirely constructed from black stockings and wrapped in black shiny hair strands. Before the uniform greyish mute background which Ramberg typically employed, the figure is clearly drawn with strong black comic-style outlines. The dark lines and the rounded, smooth shading are reminiscent of Fernand Léger (1881–1955), one of Ramberg’s artistic idols. The acrylic on Masonite surface is sanded down repeatedly to give the dense, smooth, matt, almost rubbery finish that is so characteristic of her paintings. The wrapped hair strands delineate the shoulders, the underarms, the solar plexus, and the hip region like a form of armour or padding, while the rest of the tightened and distorted figure is engulfed by the stockings—allowing some pale skin to shine through its knit. A series of central diagonal black lines suggest stomach muscles, yet stand in no direct relationship to human anatomy; just as the groin area is not of any gender but more a truncated stump form. The body is genderless. A similar androgynous logic can be identified in her work Strung (for Bombois) (1975), a homage to the naive French painter Camille Bombois (1883–1970). In this work, the outline of the body is created with bentwood in the form of a clothes hanger, of which sections have been wrapped with bandages, and others again delineated with hair, but braided in this case. Thin metal wire supports the structure and runs across the figure in delicate diagonals. The wood of the curved outlines reappears in the wood grain surface painted on the edge of the frame, emphasising the objecthood of the work defined by its own constraints. There is tension at play between the imagery and behavioural codes in these paintings, which can be seen as synonymous with internal, psychological processes. Inside and outside are at times hard to pinpoint and fluctuate between both their metaphorical value and the physical impact on shaping a person.


Ramberg’s focus on how conventions manifest physically is relayed in an often-cited anecdote by the artist, recalling how she would watch her mother get ready for a night out.

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. […] Watching my mother getting dressed I used to think that this is what men want women to look like, she is transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating … in some ways, I thought it was awful.5

Based on this passage scholar Carol Becker observes how clothing was equated with a lack of a woman’s autonomy at the time of Ramberg’s childhood, and how the ritual of the daughter watching the mother dress socialises an understanding of the need to constrain the grown woman. Becker writes, ‘these garments appear like torture apparatus to restrain their untamed bodies and, in doing so, to constrict their psyches, to mold into the proper shape’.6

In relation to other disciplinary fetishes, the binding of the human body appears to be of particular interest to Ramberg. She manages to summon a vast inventory of aesthetic corrective tools, which vary from amorphous body binds, hairstyles, to high-heeled footwear—fetishes overused to the point of erotic absurdity.7 However, the way that Ramberg’s bodies are bound changes throughout her work, from the early accentuation of female tropes to their annihilation and a deeper understanding of the malleability of physical sex in the later paintings, as well as the pleasure to make things strange. Her study on the act of dressing leads to a broad investigation of gendered behaviour and its origins, the inherent power dynamics, desires, fetishes, and the standardisation thereof, foreshadowing our current dismantling of gender concepts.

Judith Butler’s thinking on gender as ‘the act that one does, the act that one performs […] as an act that’s been going on before one arrived on the scene’ comes to mind.8 Building on Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’, Butler positions gender as ‘in no way a stable identity’, but something which the stylisation of the body institutes, and so therefore constituted through ‘bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds’.9 Equally, the notion that social conventions are preprogrammed and perpetually reinscribed through everyday images and performance lies at the core of Ramberg’s practice. Much that we observe in her work is taken from visual cues found in street signs, pop culture, and advertising, as her collection of research slides shows so vividly. The artist’s analysis of behavioural conventions continued in the detailed studies of pictorial strategies found in comic books, which she compiled together with her husband of the time, fellow Imagist Philip Hanson. She writes:

This is a scrapbook my husband and I have been making for the last two years. We made it as a study of the conventions used by comic book artists to portray various themes and objects. For example, the specimens on one page show how different artists depicted shiny objects. […] On another page is a collection of specimens that could be called ‘talking houses’. Either for a change of scene or to give the comic characters privacy, the balloon containing spoken words comes from the house or boat or building or sometimes even from a huge skyline. […] On other pages are frames dealing with particular themes: couples dancing, couples kissing, people sleeping or dreaming, sunsets, people in cars, women crying, people talking on the phone, and television sets.10

The use of repetition, exaggeration, stylisation, flatness, and recognisability in comic books can be read as a tactic for social conditioning very much aligned with schemes in advertising and pop culture. These techniques were appropriated by Ramberg with studied awareness; they can be seen in her thick, almost stencilled outlines and flat colour fields, but also in the gestures and body language of her early drawings and paintings, which could be called ‘a rehearsed pathos formula expressing female subservience’.11 Her later paintings continue to analyse how conformity shapes social conduct, how dressed bodies as well as accessories form generalisations, and illustrate the affective traction between the body and its milieu—the organic and the built.


Ramberg’s investigations of the body as a kinetic site, a responsive zone, a place of exchange, is akin to how theorist Susan Stryker writes about her own body in gender transition, understanding it ‘as a meeting point, a node, where external lines of force and social determination thicken into meat and circulate as movement back into the world’.12 In Ramberg’s work, physical transformation is a matter of handing over a self to the surroundings, whereby a body exists in that very transaction with its habitat. Or as Ramberg noted in her journal, ‘Combine torso with landscape—backbone as garden path’.13

Ramberg’s talking houses stand out in her investigation of comic book conventions for their telling commentary about the blurring of the body and its context. They appear in the common narrative as a stylistic device to zoom out of a given setting, show the locale of interaction, allow for privacy, or uncover that someone else is watching. The speech bubbles are easily read as belonging to the occupants of the edifices, however, if observed only pictorially, the houses appear to speak and their contours become the outlines of the talking bodies. This becoming (part of) one’s surroundings is a curious enmeshment of the individual, setting, circumstance, and cumulative exposure, which I would like to trace further, or to riff with sociologist Eva Hayward, how does corporeality situate more generalisable knowledges?14 Hayward analyses transsexual transitioning as a relational process in the transaction between a body and its environment. In her study, she focuses on the particular neighbourhood of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Questions of proximity and the interplay between an urban setting, a city grid, its population, architecture, and a local scene, but also an entire ecosystem of life forms, of which the human is only one element interacting with a plethora of biological activities, comes to the fore. The question is therefore: How can the body be seen as a force in a state of kinesis, which is equally produced by and reinscribed into its lived environment? The malleability of the human body in exchange with the objects that condition its existence is made ostensible in Ramberg’s paintings, as described, however the proximity to architecture and the creation of object-human-architecture hybrids are more apparent in works like O.H.B. and O.H. #2 from the O.H. series (both 1976). Here, the paintings follow a logic of folding space and material within a pictorial field and exhaust potential spatial arrangements of a structure, which has almost all but consumed the lumpy shape of the human body. Art historian Judith Russi Kirshner writes: ‘She investigates and switches between internal armatures and external appearances and moves from materials in a state of decay to the underneath structure of buildings.’15 The O.H. series and works like 10 Watt Night Table Lamp (1977) merge architecture, domestic objects, clothing, and the body to a degree where it becomes difficult to trace the individual motifs back to their origins. Context is considered as a co-creator, as a terrain that has to be negotiated every day due to its impact on our muscular structure, nutrition, disposition, and overall health. Consequently, it is not surprising that Ramberg’s later series of Untitled paintings focus more directly on questions of space and infrastructure, leaving behind the human body and its flesh as a base. They depict strange structures reminiscent of TV and electrical towers, abstract constructions that radiate with the activity of machines without revealing a certain purpose.


META—signifies between. Over. After. DUPLICATE. RESEMBLING. CHANGE.
Metaphor—a figure of speech by which one word is employed for another, of which it is the image. A method of description, which likens one object to another by referring to it 
as if it were the other.
Metachrosis—the power of changing color as of some reptile through expansion of pigment cells.
Metamorphism—the process by which stratified rocks under pressure, heat, chemical action, etc., have changed from their original structure as limestone to marble.
Metamorphosis—change of form or shape or structure; transformation, as of a chrysalis into a butterfly.16
A corset is an urn.17

The idea of transformation preoccupied Ramberg and her working process considerably. The possibility of chance effects and the crossing of two objects through a practice of drawing sits at the basis of her work. By intertwining language, phonetics, and morphological similarities Ramberg would connect objects in associative chains, playfully, such as ‘Torso head vase garden path inner rib cage’.18 Her delicate little studies repeat an object, each time with a slight variation, until they become a cross between two distinct forms. From this recognition of seeing one shape in another and forcing two such likenesses together, Ramberg developed a practice of hybridisation that particularly traced the interaction between object and body: the ways in which the body is shaped through objects and how objects can be shaped by the body in turn. It also speaks to an interest in genetic engineering, a new technology (and buzzword) in the late 1960s, which was influential for many of the Chicago Imagists, first and foremost Ramberg and Karl Wirsum. This subject is reflected in her choice of titles, consider Hereditary Uncertainty (1977) and A Cross Breeding (1978). Furthermore, her drawings and paintings chronicle a continuous process of folding, unfolding, and morphing shapes somewhat like an exquisite corpse—a game that the Imagists would engage in together on occasion. Though more than just play, the hybridisation that Ramberg developed through her obsessive studies was what she called ‘a search for synthesis’. ‘Showing a progression of the morphing from one image to another. […] The point is: my aim is to make from my obsessions and ideas the strongest, most coherent visual statement possible.’19

Poet Molly McQuade writes in her text ‘To Be Kept: On Being Bound’ that Ramberg’s late drawings remind her of bodybuilders, despite the bound figures looking as though they cannot move a muscle20—indeed being left ‘muscle bound’ describes the impaired flexibility of bodybuilders, leaving many unable to move due to excessive exercise. I concur, there is something highly laboured in her work which suggests the mouldability of our physical self through exercise. When Kathy Acker writes about bodybuilding in her text ‘Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body’, she describes bodybuilding as a place without language, or that which ‘rejects ordinary language’.21 Meaning that in the traditional sense language no longer occurs according to Acker. again we find ourselves in the process of a kinetic exchange, in which the bodies are determined by and simultaneously merge with the instruments of transformation. Language becomes counting, becomes repetition, it merges itself with its target to shape the body through the growing of muscular mass. Acker describes in detail how the stimulus for muscle growth lies not only in exercise but in the muscle’s break down: ‘The general law behind bodybuilding is that muscle, if broken down in a controlled fashion and then provided with the proper growth factors such as nutrients and rest, will grow back larger than before.’22 With the practice of breaking muscles down Acker intended to ‘shock [her] body into growth’.23 This phenomenon is commonly called ‘negative reps’: the lowering of weights against the pull of gravity to place extreme strain on the muscles destroys what habitual use has grown and triggers an immense new (over)growth. It’s a movement through failure, when a muscle is stimulated to the point that it can no longer move and extend any further. There is something exhilarating about the potential not to be bound to what is deemed natural or shaped by one’s daily existence, but instead created and trimmed artificially and according to one’s own digression. The calculated nature of this breakdown, ‘the equation between destruction and growth’ is fascinating and provides us with an interesting alternative to the counting performed in Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen. In one sphere, counting is associated with the effective mastery of the everyday; in the other it is the harbinger of a calculated breakdown for, well, aesthetic and athletic reasons. In one, the body is shaped by the daily run-of-the-mill; in the other it appears to labour directly against that same ‘tameable’ body, making it strange and creating an alternative—the allure of a controlled outcome which is freed of the fixed biology of the body, even, to a degree, free of gender. The bodies that are shaped through bodybuilding are surely just performing to another standardising principle, which may be equally restrictive. Yet, the misconduct that the mere alternative to the mainstream social standardisation presents feels like a welcome relief.

There is also something antiseptic and almost clinical about Ramberg’s take on the body, which goes beyond the question of bodybuilding and female pruning and speaks more to the discipline of the medicalisation and molecularisation of the human body. The potential of shape-shifting and transformation is evoked: the possibility for the body to escape its nature, to become something, someone else, to leave behind age, gender, and biological predisposition. This is especially visible in her later paintings of hybrid figures in which muscles become leather belts, skin becomes metal, and gender a variable. Ramberg foreshadowed the pending hold of biopolitical technologies over the body. Her drawings describe an institutionalisation of the body that is in tune with an understanding of gender ‘as an abstract device of technical subjectivation’. Philosopher Paul B. Preciado writes:

It is glued, it is cut, it is displaceable, it is named, it is imitated, it is swallowed, it is injected, it is grafted, it is digitalized, it is copied, it is designed, it is bought, it is sold, it is modified, it is mortgaged, it is transferred, it is downloaded, it is applied, it is transcribed, it is falsified, it is executed, it is certified, it is exchanged, it is dosed, it is provided, it is extracted, it shrinks, it is subtracted, it is denied, it is renounced, it is betrayed, it mutates. Gender (femininity/masculinity) is not a concept, it is not an ideology, and it is not simply a performance: It is a techno-political ecology.24

Ramberg’s ‘bodies’ sketch out a progression whose synthesis, if taken to its extreme, sees the body having consumed all its constraints and become fully clothing, jewellery, architecture, interior design, machinery, household appliances, and, well, ‘talking houses’. An existence that in its new-found objecthood is no longer just a body conditioned by everyday apparatuses, but that suggests we function according to the inherent logic which is written into these contraptions. It sees us living and replicating the coding that is inscribed into the machines, objects, pills, and environments we create—endlessly reproducing the binary logic of systemic violence and objectivising deregulated, neoliberal, for-profit algorithms, unless we manage to deflect the systemic, retain the sensuous, and change the value structures we attach to what we surround ourselves with.

Anna Gritz

  1. This essay is based on the catalogue essay ‘The Making of Husbands: Standardization and Identity in the Work of Christina Ramberg’, published on the occasion of the exhibition The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue, curated by the author, Anna Gritz, and organised by KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 14 September 2019–5 January 2020.
  2. Margaret Raspé in Margaret Raspé: Arbeiten 1970–2004 (Tübingen: Ernst Wasmuth, 2004), p. 11. English translation from LUX website.
  3. Frances Stark, The Architect and the Housewife (London: Book Works, 1999), p. 10.
  4. Dennis Adrian, ‘Christina Ramberg’, in Christina Ramberg: A Retrospective; 1968–1988, exh. cat. (Chicago: Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 1988), p. 7.
  5. Christina Ramberg in Kerstin Nelje, ‘Christina Ramberg and Luce Irigaray: A Feminist Analysis of Ramberg’s Female Figures’. Master’s thesis, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1990, p. 3.
  6. Carol Becker, ‘Christina Ramberg in Retrospect’, in Christina Ramberg, exh. cat., p. 22.
  7. Anna Gritz, ‘The Golden Madonna’, CURA. 18 (Fall 2014): p. 161.
  8. Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (December 1988): p. 526.
  9. Ibid., p. 519.
  10. From an undated page of Christina Ramberg’s notebook in Judith Russi Kirshner, ed., Christina Ramberg Drawings, exh. cat. (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2000), pp. 89–90.
  11. The term ‘pathos formula’ was coined by the German art historian and cultural theorist Aby Warburg to discuss emotional expressions that carry universal validity and which he found to be cited regularly, like a gesture repeated across historical painting and sculpture.
  12. Susan Stryker, ‘Dungeon Intimacies: The Poetics of Transsexual Sadomasochism’, Parallax 14, no. 1 (2008): p. 42.
  13. From Christina Ramberg’s notebook in Kirshner, Christina Ramberg Drawings, p. 11.
  14. Eva Hayward, ‘Spider City Sex’, Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 20, no. 3 (2010): p. 225.
  15. Judith Russi Kirshner, ‘The Drawings of Christina Ramberg’, in Christina Ramberg Drawings, p. 26.
  16. From an undated page of the personal journal of Christina Ramberg.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Molly McQuade, ‘To Be Kept: On Being Bound’, in Christina Ramberg Drawings, p. 29.
  21. Kathy Acker, ‘Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body’, in The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies, ed. Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993), p. 20.
  22. Ibid., p. 22.
  23. Ibid., p. 23.
  24. Paul B. Preciado, ‘Pharmaco-pornographic Politics: Towards a New Gender Ecology’, Parallax 14, no. 1 (2008): p. 111.