MARISOL ESCOBAR

b. 1930, Paris
d. 2016, New York

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Delicate plaster hands, impassive wooden faces, an occasional painted area of elegance—these ingredients tell little or nothing about Marisol’s work, about the pathos, irony and outrageous satire. Whether she designs a single figure or a large group, she invariably ends up with a biting comment on human foibles . . . . With fertile imagination Marisol transforms daily experiences into unexpected phenomena. No one has deflated Human Pomposity with greater insight. 

 

—Katherine Kuh on Marisol  

 

 

There have been several attempts to locate Marisol Escobar within the New York art world of the 1960s. Her close friendship with Andy Warhol, the florid color palette of her sculptures, and her witty exploration of popular culture have frequently led to her association, both socially and formally, with Pop art. However, her clear concern with the raw power of artistic materials and self-reflection is not at all aligned with the movement’s ironic distance. Such preoccupations instead belie a multifaceted relationship with Abstract Expressionism and its practitioners, with whom she met regularly at both the Club and the Cedar Tavern. The difficulty of categorizing her work is not helped by her infamous reticence, which during her lifetime cultivated a mystique that sometimes threatened to overshadow the art itself. And yet, it is precisely Marisol’s ability to elude pigeonholing that reveals her works’ greatest strength: an unwavering commitment to studying the numerous components of the human experience—be it joy, alienation, anguish, or irony—in both herself and the world around her. 

 

Maria Sol Escobar was born in Paris on May 22, 1930, but divided her time between Europe, the United States, and her parents’ native Venezuela. Family relationships were tense, and in interviews Marisol frequently described the sense of alienation that stemmed from the seemingly frivolous lifestyle of her parents; on one occasion, she recounted the long raucous parties thrown at their house nightly as immoral, eliciting outright fury in the young Escobar. These experiences would inform one of her most consistent subjects: frowning children set against adults who appear indifferent to expressions of anguish or frustration, as can be seen in pieces such as The Family (1963, Museum of Modern Art, New York). 

 

Familial bonds were irrevocably shattered with the suicide of Marisol’s mother. Marisol would later claim this event as the catalyst for her notorious silence, which she described as follows:

 

When I was eleven I decided never to talk again. I didn’t want to sound the way other people did. I really didn’t talk for years except for what was absolutely necessary in school and on the street. They used to think I was crazy. I was into my late twenties before I started talking again—and silence had become such a habit that I really had nothing to say to anybody.

 

Although Marisol’s silence may have emerged at a moment of grief, when it was coupled with her beauty and surprising sociability, it endowed her with a undeniable mystique that she wielded to her own ends. Andy Warhol crowned her the “first girl artist with glamor,” while magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar embraced the “Latin Garbo”—an allusion to the similarly enigmatic actress. Marisol’s disposition has also yielded challenges in making sense of her chronology. Historians needed to turn to her school records, for example, to learn that she studied at the Art Students League of New York (1951–63), the New School for Social Research (1952), the Hans Hoffmann School of Fine Arts (1952–55), and the Brooklyn Museum School (1955–57). Marisol was alienated by the pedagogy at all of these schools, save Hofmann’s. Although Marisol was dissatisfied with her attempts at achieving Hoffman’s Abstract Expressionist style, she nevertheless internalized significant components of his method, which are observable in her drawings and reliefs.  

 

While Marisol’s drawings are a substantial component of her catalogue, she is remembered above all for her sculpture. Inspired by an exhibition of pre-Columbian sculpture in 1952 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, she came to realize that sculpture could be a means by which she could rebel against the Abstract Expressionism. These early sculptures, executed in wood and plaster, would be showcased at her first solo show at the recently opened Leo Castelli Gallery in 1957. Although success came quickly for Marisol, anxiety at her newfound fame triggered a move to Rome in 1958. Work from this period is defined by her first exploration of bronze. These pieces evoke Alberto Giacometti’s surrealist miniatures, featuring several fantastic creatures clumped together on terraced flat planes.

 

A 1962 show at Stable Gallery in New York solidified Marisol’s place as a major figure in the contemporary art world. The sculptures on view incorporated folk art aesthetics to spoof the American art world as well as its popular culture, and were fabricated from a combination of wood, plaster, paint, and found objects. In spite of their playfulness, these assemblages contain complex sentiments not immediately evident. A portrait of an infamous art-world socialite is lovingly mocked and endowed with a sense of dignity; a clownish box of pilgrims appear unknowingly imprisoned upon closer inspection. Her acclaim continued throughout the decade, but her art would grow more confrontational, incisive, and even brutal; it became more totemic and minimal, featuring sharper edges and introducing metal as a key material. 

 

Marisol’s mature career would turn away from the dark introspection of the previous period and herald a return to the aesthetics of folk art. Her reverence for her subjects and interest in capturing their dignity is most evident in her series Artists and Artistes, in which Marisol sculpts the portraits of figures like Willem de Kooning, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Pablo Picasso among others. Her fullest realization of a very literal confrontation with art history is her masterpiece Self Portrait Looking at the Last Supper (1982–84, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In this installation, she gazes at a three-dimensional re-creation of da Vinci’s painting, but executed in Marisol’s distinct aesthetic. 

 

Marisol’s critical acclaim in her lifetime was affirmed by her membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and by her receipt of the Organization of American State’s Premio Gabriela Mistral award in 1997. Marisol was the subject of a major museum retrospective at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in 2014, which traveled to El Museo del Barrio in New York. She is represented in the collections of the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo; Memphis Brooks Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among many others.

 

 

[1]  Katherine Kuh, “Marisol,” in Americans 1963, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1963), 20.

[2]  Marina Pacini, “Marisol: A Biographical Sketch,” in Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper, exh. cat. (Memphis, TN: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 2014), 13. 

[3]  Marisol Escobar, interview with Jeff Goldberg, People Magazine, March 24, 1975.

[4]  Marisol Escobar quoted by Marina Pacini, “Marisol: A Biographical Sketch,” 12.

[5]  Warhol quoted by Douglas Dreishspoon, “The Voice Behind the Silence,” in Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper, exh. cat. (Memphis, TN: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 2014), 122.

[6]  Douglas Dreishspoon, “The Voice behind the Silence,” in Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper, exh. cat. (Memphis, TN: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 2014), 114. 

[7]  Marina Pacini, "Tracking Marisol in the Fifties and Sixties," Archives of American Art Journal 46, no. 3/4 (2007): 60–65.

[8]  Pacini, “Marisol: A Biographical Sketch,” 26.

 

 

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