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Marisol Escobar

By Peter Saul

This is a tribute to Marisol, “Pop Art’s” foremost sculptor. On a purely visual level one could say Pop Art’s only sculptor because where a handful of other sculptors were written into the art movement called “Pop” by friendly critical thinkers, Marisol didn’t need that kind of intellectual permission. You took one look, then and now, and you knew it was “Pop,” just from the way it looks, by anyone’s definition. Perhaps the Pop content was too obvious to be sought after by the intellectuals of 1960.

Marisol was born in Paris, France, in 1930 to a wealthy Venezuelan family and grew up in Caracas and Paris. There was a lot of travel to New York as well, and a year in Los Angeles, 1946, where she attended the Westlake School for girls and studied art with Howard Warshaw. She went to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but left after a year and returned to the Art Students League in New York where Yasuo Kuniyoshi was a decisive influence. Kuniyoshi’s style has been described as “naïve and decorative” in the New York Times, which I think is a little too harsh. More likely he opened up Marisol’s thinking to the possibility that your art can gain importance by being about something of importance, beyond the significance of its own style, I mean.

Marisol herself described the origin of her art style. After painting abstract expressionist works for a few years, she was inspired by an exhibition of pre-Columbian art in 1953 and decided to become a sculptor instead of a painter. “It started as a kind of rebellion,” she told the writer Grace Glueck. “Everything was so serious. I was sad myself and the people I met were so depressing. I started doing something funny so that I would become happier—and it worked.”

Four years later, in 1957, the famed art dealer Leo Castelli included Marisol’s carvings in a group show which also introduced Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg to the gallery-going public. This was a very, very decisive moment for the official art world opinion of what comes after abstract expressionism. Marisol was in the show and her work was very much appreciated to the extent that Castelli gave her a one-person exhibition later in the year. Her exhibition was well received but Marisol, for unexplained reasons, moved to Rome as soon as her show was over, and didn’t return to New York for two years. The art dealer was baffled and supposedly said, “Why leave when things are just starting to happen?” But when she returned to New York, in 1960, Marisol began working on larger, life-sized pieces, and it was really these works, exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1962, that brought her incredible success. Critic Irving Sandler called it “one of the most remarkable shows to be seen this season.” The Museum of Modern Art and the Albright-Knox Museum both bought sculptures from this show. Even before this, in 1961, she was included in “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art. Two years after that, the museum gave Marisol her own room in the important show “Americans, 1963.”

So Marisol entered the sixties with almost total approval from important museums. This was reflected in the probably more important opinion of actual viewers. Supposedly, 3,000 people stood in line to see her show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1966. Even today a long line of people waiting to see a gallery show would be very, very unusual. Under normal circumstances, art shows at galleries are only crowded at the opening.

However, at the same time Marisol’s sculptures were enjoyed by everyone, rich and poor, Marisol herself was not enjoying being talked to by critics, interviewers, or even interested people. Apparently, Marisol was uncomfortable with talking since her mother committed suicide when Marisol was 11 and she took a vow of silence. Of course she started talking again, but no more than necessary, usually restricting her answers to yes and no. She told the critic Brian O’Doherty in a 1964 New York Times interview, “I don’t think much myself, and when I don’t think all sorts of things come to me.”

Consequently Marisol was comfortable with Warhol. After all, he was a kind of non-talker himself, but inclined to take your picture instead. And as Grace Glueck wrote in the New York Times in 1965, Marisol with “her chic, bones-and-hollows face (elegantly Spanish with a dash of gypsy) framed by glossy black hair; her mysterious reserve and faraway, whispery voice, toneless as a sleepwalker’s, but appealingly paced by a rich Spanish accent” was great to look at, very glamorous and Garboesque. Warhol starred her in 2 movies, “The Kiss,” 1962, and “13 Most Beautiful Women,” 1963. This was the new kind of movie, probably invented by Warhol, where you don’t have to read a script, or do something a director tells you to do. You be yourself, and the camera whirs.

Some of her major sculptural works of this time were “The Family,” reminiscent of Dorothea Lang’s photographs of the Dust Bowl; “The Kennedy Family,” which made the First Family look like a set of tribal totems; “The Party,” whose thirteen figures and two servants are all derived from her own features; the British Royal Family; President Johnson; John Wayne; Bob Hope; and “The Last Supper,” a religious scene, of course. I take note that Marisol was very busy in the studio, and had a lot of ideas covering a variety of subjects, all made from large blocks of wood with minimal carving, some items glued, some painting on the wood, but all quite simple, yet easily recognized.

This came to a head in 1968 with her solo show at the Venice Biennale. After that she decided to travel the world instead of being an artist, and when she resumed art, after five years of travel, her work wasn’t the same, but darker. After her longtime dealer, Sidney Janis, died in 1989, she wasn’t able to develop a good relationship with another gallery.

Also, modern art had changed since the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Of course, art has always been a combination of something to look at and something to think about, but at that moment it became something much more to think about, and much less something to look at. This was for no good or bad reason, maybe for no reason at all beyond a need for some kind of refreshment. Art is like movies in that you can’t enjoy “King Kong” or “Citizen Kane” forever: you need to see something else eventually.

Anyway, this change left Marisol seeming to be a lot less interesting to the art world. Did Marisol care? When asked in 1964 how she wanted her work seen by critics and the public, she answered, “I don’t care what they think.” I would guess, yes, a little bit, probably her vanity as an artist was insulted. But also I would say no, not very much, because her idea of art didn’t seem to have anything to do with our modern American definition of an artist as a professional person, similar in many ways to a lawyer or doctor. I would say, just my own opinion again, that she wanted to make these works, she did, and that’s that, visually speaking. Fortunately art appreciation is always on the move, and a number of museum shows, “Power Up: Female Pop Art at the Kunsthalle in Vienna,” a retrospective at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY, and a retrospective from Memphis may start the ball rolling in Marisol’s direction again.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2017.

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