Marisol Escobar, whose penetrating and playful, large-scale wooden sculptures were their own unique blend of Pop and folk art, died on Saturday morning, April 30, at the age of 85, El Universal reported. The artist’s estate confirmed her death. Marisol, who went simply by her first name, had Alzheimer’s Disease and was at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Lower Manhattan at the time of her death. She was three weeks shy of her 86th birthday.
Marisol was a star of the New York art scene in the 1960s, breaking through with a 1962 solo show at the Stable Gallery that featured her bright, boxy sculptures of people representing a range of American life — everyone from the Kennedys to a dustbowl farm family to the artist herself. The works, which combined painted and minimally carved wooden figures with found objects like shoes and doors, were funny but incisive, simple-looking but expertly made. They helped launch a career that included great artistic success and stardom, followed by decades of obscurity and, more recently, a revival and renewed appreciation of her exceptional work. The latter has been largely spearheaded by Marina Pacini, chief curator at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and organizer of a 2014 Marisol retrospective there.
“I undertook Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper initially because of the excellence of ‘The Family,’ a sculpture the museum commissioned in 1969. But it quickly became a recovery project,” Pacini told Hyperallergic. “Marisol was among the most highly respected artists of the 1960s. As the decades passed, she was inappropriately written out of that history. My aim was to return her to the prominence she so rightly deserves. Her inimitable sculptures and works on paper address some of the most compelling and topical issues of the last half century, from women’s roles and the disenfranchised, to a discussion of creativity and old age. Her works remain as important today as they were when she made them.”
Marisol was born Maria Sol Escobar to Venezuelan parents in Paris in 1930. The family traveled constantly, officially moving to Caracas in 1935 but continuing to float between the Venezuelan capital and New York. In 1941, her mother committed suicide, and Marisol, then 11, “decided never to talk again.” She did speak at school and when necessary, and gradually found her voice again while in her 20s, but her habit of silence never left her. A 1965 profile of Marisol, written for the New York Times by Grace Gluek, describes her “marathon silences” at art openings and parties, including one museum brunch that she allegedly attended for four hours without saying a word. “Marisol has not become more voluble with time,” reported a Times piece in 2007.
Growing up, Marisol lived briefly in Los Angeles and studied for a year at the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris. But it wasn’t until she came to New York, in 1950, that she “at last found people like myself,” she said. On the East Coast, she attended the school run by famed Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffmann, whom she called “the only teacher I ever learned anything from.”
Marisol painted in the Abstract Expressionist style for a number of years, but in 1953, inspired by an exhibition of pre-Columbian art, she decided to take up sculpting. “It started as a kind of rebellion,” she told Gluek. “Everything was so serious. I was very sad myself and the people I met were so depressing. I started doing something funny so that I would become happier — and it worked.”
She began making small, carved figures that got her noticed by the art dealer Leo Castelli, who included her in a 1957 group show and then gave her her first solo exhibition the same year. The show was well received, but Marisol panicked at the first sight of fame and fled to Rome. When she returned to New York, in 1960, she began working on a larger, life-size scale, and her debut of those pieces in 1962 at the Stable Gallery was an 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 Gallery both bought pieces, and she was listed in Life magazine’s 1962 “A Red-Hot Hundred” list. According to the Boston Globe‘s Sebastian Smee, 3,000 people waited in line to see her 1966 show at Sidney Janis Gallery.
At the height of her fame, Marisol was known not just as an artist but also as a persona. “In fact, considering her work habits, the frequency with which Marisol appears at uptown art openings and parties is nothing short of astonishing,” Gluek wrote in her profile, whose first five paragraphs are spent discussing the artist’s beauty. A good friend of Andy Warhol — she appeared in his films “The Kiss” and “13 Most Beautiful Girls” — Marisol seemed to understand and accept that her celebrity status could help her art career. “It has happened because I have made it happen,” she said of her success.
But in 1968 — the same year she had a solo show at the Venice Biennale — she gave up much of it to travel the world. When she picked up art again, five years later, she experimented with colored-pencil and crayon drawings, making work that was far darker, more personal, and more violent than before. By the end of the ’70s, she’d returned to her large-scale, sculpted portraits and figure groups, but such folksy, figurative art was out of sync with the cool-headed Minimalism and Conceptualism of the time. “She packs her bags and basically disappears for two or three years, goes around the world, and when she comes back to New York, the art world is a very different place,” said Pacini.
She continued working, rendering Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and others in her signature wood, but without the fame of decades past. And after her longtime dealer Sidney Janis died, in 1989, she never again found her footing with a gallerist who understood and could properly position her work, Pacini said. It was only very recently that the attention began to return: In 2014, Pacini organized the Memphis Brooks retrospective, which Smee called “the first show to offer a credible overview of Marisol’s entire career.”
But it seems that Marisol accepted, or at least understood, the vagaries of both fame and critical acclaim. In 1965, at the peak of her popularity, she told Gluek, “It doesn’t make any real difference whether I continue to be successful. If one artist that you respect says he likes your work, that’s the important thing. I could go on working even unrecognized.”