The artist, Marisol Escobar once stated that she was born an artist. Thereafter, she “had to explain to everyone just what that meant.” The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art presents Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper until September 7, 2014. The exhibition re-introduces Marisol Escobar, not only to art critics, but to bring attention to her artwork as a leading figure in postwar American art. The show curates nearly 50 of Marisol’s most significant sculptures and works on paper. It will present an overall scholarly study of the artist’s career and life.
The retrospective will examine the relationship that her artwork had towards postwar art and cultural movements including Pop, Minimalism and feminism. From family portraiture to politically-charged sculptures, Marisol addressed poverty, Native Americans, the Vietnam War, and her own identity as a Venezuelan artist, born in Paris. Assembled chronologically, the retrospective opens with Marisol’s The Family, a 1968 commissioned work for the Memphis museum.
Best known for her large figural sculptures, Marisol also created a significant number of prints and drawings between 1955 to 1998. During that period, she received reviews from art critics such as Lucy Lippard and Irving Sandler. It was in 1962 when Sandler wrote, “Marisol’s pieces are hilarious and caustic parodies of politics.”
Maria Sol Escobar, known as Marisol, spent her youth in New York, Los Angeles, Caracas and Paris. She had formal training in drawing and painting. In 1951, she viewed a pre-Columbian sculpture exhibit in New York. The earthy and masterly depictions of people and animals riveted her. She reflected on the exhibit, and then began to create her own adaptations, first in clay and then in wood.
In the mid-1950s, Marisol carved “families, cats, totem poles and queenly ladies” with rudimentary contours. When she exhibited her work in 1958 in New York City, the sculptures, shocked, charmed and mesmerized gallery-goers. One critic commented on her art as a “creative pursuit of spiritual ancestors.” The figure’s face and hands possessed expressive details, while the bodies remained “block-like in form.”
She swiftly became an intrinsic part of the New York artistic scene in Greenwich Village. While under the tutelage of abstract expressionist painter, Hans Hoffman, she met Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning among other prominent artists. These acquaintances gave her the opportunity to take part in several significant group exhibitions.
The artist received recognition in the 1960s and 1970s art scene. Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazine readers called her the “Latin Garbo.” She topped Life magazine’s “Red-Hot Hundred” list, and even starred in Warhol’s The Kiss and 13 Most Beautiful Women.
In 1965, at the height of her artistic notoriety, Marisol told an interviewer that her assemblage work “started a kind of rebellion.” She stated that the people in her circle were very somber and depressing and that she was also at a low point in her life. Marisol “started doing something funny,” to make herself happier. Her antics became notorious in the art world, but not always in a positive light.
By the 1970s, Marisol’s work was cast aside as quirky, unorthodox, and of no consequence. It was at this juncture, she turned to works on paper (pencil, crayon) and wispy figures hovering in a “colorful, futurist ether.”
Before the 1980s, critics considered her work as “inaccessible” and “entirely without sympathy.” However, in the 1980s, her work became “accessible.” Mostly using wood as her medium, the pieces were of friends and role models, and included Willem de Kooning, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Bishop Desmond Tutu, among others. While these works were not “naturalistic,” her subjects were now approachable instead of being simply archetypal.
The Memphis exhibition reveals Marisol’s witticism, whimsicality and social satire inherent in her work. Her assemblages combined an appealing mixture of abstraction and reality, crudeness and grace. Although she has been identified as part of different artistic movements, such as Pop, her varied techniques and styles reveal distinct principles of Cubist fragmentation and collage.
As an artist of modern life, her wide-ranging works frequently eluded categorization, which was acceptable to Marisol, but often, puzzled art critics. Today, gallery-goers are given a compendium of Marisol’s oeuvre that, more distinctly characterizes the varying materials, styles and techniques that come together as one.
By Dawn Levesque