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A rectangular quilt composed of various fabrics in dark or muted colors in a 4-by-5 section grid. Each section has a horizontally striped fabric as a background. Overlaid is a thick X shape in solid black, and overlaid on top of that is a square of a different striped fabric. Two stripes of black separate the outside columns from the two inner columns. A rectangular quilt composed of various fabrics in dark or muted colors in a 4-by-5 section grid. Each section has a horizontally striped fabric as a background. Overlaid is a thick X shape in solid black, and overlaid on top of that is a square of a different striped fabric. Two stripes of black separate the outside columns from the two inner columns.

Exuberant Experimentation: Christina Ramberg’s Late Works

Inside the Exhibition


Respected as an artist, beloved as a teacher, and valued as a friend, Christina Ramberg (American, 1946–1995) was a central figure in the contemporary Chicago art world.

While she’s often affiliated with the Chicago Imagists—a loose fellowship of artists whose varied artwork nevertheless relied on a shared commitment to powerful, personalized imagery that frequently drew from popular culture—Ramberg’s distinct aesthetic set her apart.

A painting held on a wooden stand with two vertical supports shows a head from behind. A dark cap covers most of the head, but voluminous dark curls protrude from the bottom. A hand, presumably of the same figure, with dark-orange nail polish touches the top side of the cap on the right side.

Hair, 1968

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

This spring the museum will open the largest and most comprehensive exhibition devoted to the artist in more than 30 years. Christina Ramberg: A Retrospective ranges across her too-short career—from her signature paintings of cropped female bodies in decorative and detailed lingerie to her late abstractions to rare archival material from her estate, including her extensive doll collection.

A painting of a light-skinned torso from armpit to hip. A small bit of thick red tresses hang down the back. The figure wears a waist-cinching, shiny black girdle around their hips. Gathers of white fabric can be seen below and a small bit above the girdle. A hand with red nail polish slips a finger into the top of the girdle in the center of the figure's back.

Probed Cinch, 1971

Christina Ramberg. Private collection, New York. © The Estate of Christina Ramberg. Photography by Clements/Howcroft, Boston

It’s this full-spectrum look at Ramberg’s career—the sweep of both her artistic production and the various personal collections that fueled it—that makes this show and the accompanying catalogue so special. Her art and collections not only run parallel to one another but eventually permeate and emulate one another, so presenting them together exposes the connections between the disparate moments, scales, and media of her career.

This multidirectional inspiration is nowhere more evident than in the quilts Ramberg produced in the 1980s. She was obsessed with craft, pattern, and domestic textiles well in advance of our current culture’s renewed attention to these practices. Having learned to sew and quilt as a young girl, she had long quilted as a leisure activity (and at the height of six feet, one inch, she often sewed her own clothes). But in 1983, when she became frustrated with the tightly controlled nature of her painting, quilting became her primary artistic activity and remained so for the next three years.

“I was really stuck [with painting]. I felt everything was coming out awful. The quilts bailed me out when I was in trouble.”

—Christina Ramberg, 1989

Although quilting demanded a lot of the controlled work that she was trying to relinquish—formal problem solving, indexical logic, and precision of execution—Ramberg derived a great degree of freedom and pleasure from quilting. She began exhibiting her quilts in galleries and museums and, with her quilting partner and former student Rebecca Shore, started sharing fabric and exchanging source material. The pair also encouraged and critiqued each other’s works. Together, they drew inspiration from traditional patterns and historical makers, which Ramberg described in impassioned detail in a 1989 Chicago Tribune interview: “[My] quilts are contemporary in the sense that [I’m] alive and making them now, but they’re not separate from the tradition of quiltmaking. African-American quilts are the equivalent of jazz; they ignore the rules, they break the rules, and the result is some of the most exuberant things you’ve ever seen. Making these quilts taught me that you can do what you want; you don’t have to control everything.”

A rectangular quilt composed of various fabrics arranged in a 6-by-5 section grid. Each section comprising four octagons, two stacked over the other two, all in the same fabric. The edging is in various patterns of orange-based fabrics.

Octagons, 1983

Christina Ramberg. © The Estate of Christina Ramberg, courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey

This improvisation and experimentation is evident in Ramberg’s early quilts and their playful use of atypical fabrics, patterns, and colors. As she had done with her large figure paintings that were hyper focused on fastidiously rendered strands of hair, flames of woodgrain, and loops of lace, Ramberg played with the parts-to-the-whole relationship intrinsic to quilts, innovatively adjusting the way the quilting squares related to the overall composition. She also continued the conversation begun by the historical quiltmakers she so admired—and who arguably produced some of the first abstract art in America.

A rectangular quilt composed of various fabrics in dark or muted colors in a 4-by-5 section grid. Each section has a horizontally striped fabric as a background. Overlaid is a thick X shape in solid black, and overlaid on top of that is a square of a different striped fabric. Two stripes of black separate the outside columns from the two inner columns.

Japanese Showcase, 1984

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

An important turning point in Ramberg’s quilting practice came in 1984 when she returned to Japan on a grant-funded trip. (Ramberg lived in Yokohama for several years as a child while her father was stationed there for military service but had not been back since.) While there, she acquired the kimono fabric she incorporated into Japanese Showcase (1984), a work whose hybridization of traditional quilting patterns and unique, unexpected fabrics signaled a move away from traditional quilting sources in favor of more personal and invented resources.

Ramberg’s quiltmaking culminated in triumphant and wildly original quilts that behave more like paintings made from fabric and were, in fact, inspired by paintings, both her own past work and the work of others. Instead of organizing quilting squares in a gridded matrix, Ramberg layered strips of fabric to create works such as Untitled [I] and Untitled [V] (both 1989) from the bottom up. This approach recalls numerous previous painting series that were similarly constructed and that also feature a striking use of negative space. She also drew inspiration from the paintings of Augustin Lesage (French, 1876–1954), one of several self-taught artists Ramberg greatly admired.

A painting that vaguely recalls an architectural shape with columns and arches. The shape is composed of dozens of tiny strips of intricate decorative patterning—some abstract, some featuring floral, animal, and people designs.

Composition symbolique sur le monde spirituel (Symbolic Composition on the Spiritual World), 1923

Augustin Lesage. Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, France. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, France

The freedom and pleasure Ramberg derived from her quilting practice helped foster a return to painting in the mid- to late 1980s and influenced the media, technique, and imagery of that work. For an artist who initially championed the “withholding of information” in her artwork, Ramberg began to reveal a surprising amount of her creative process through the use of visible underpainting, thick impasto, and scumbled surfaces.

Like her final quilts, these paintings also reference the work of self-taught artists, such as Alfred Jensen, who inspired Ramberg in a marriage of art and archive. And like her quilts, these late paintings are little known within the arc of her overall artistic production.

Both Ramberg’s quilts and final geometric abstractions are exquisite artworks in and of themselves. Their inclusion in Christina Ramberg: A Retrospective not only affords visitors the rare experience of these pieces but also demonstrates the many directions that inspiration flowed in Ramberg’s art and life—her edgy yet empathetic body of work and her idiosyncratic collections often in concert.

—Thea Liberty Nichols, associate research curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

Hear more about Ramberg’s wide-ranging practice and interests from Nichols at the member lecture on Friday, April 19, at 1:00, or join us on Saturday, May 11, at 2:00 for a talk with artist and author Riva Lehrer as she discusses Ramberg’s artistic production through the lenses of disability activism, gender queerness, monster theory, and the creative process.


Major support for Christina Ramberg: A Retrospective is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art, Douglas M. King in honor of Linda L. Spahn and Gene L. King, and Fred and Susan Novy.

Additional support is provided by Kathy and Chuck Harper, Mark and Judy Bednar, and an anonymous donor.

This exhibition is part of Art Design Chicago, a citywide collaboration initiated by the Terra Foundation for American Art that highlights the city’s artistic heritage and creative communities.

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Members of the Luminary Trust provide annual leadership support for the museum’s operations, including exhibition development, conservation and collection care, and educational programming. The Luminary Trust includes an anonymous donor, Karen Gray-Krehbiel and John Krehbiel, Jr., Kenneth C. Griffin, the Harris Family Foundation in memory of Bette and Neison Harris, Josef and Margot Lakonishok, Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff, Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel, Cari and Michael J. Sacks, and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.



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