Essays

Refocusing on Marisol’s Ingenuity as a Sculptor and Draughtswoman

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Marisol, “Self-Portrait Looking at The Last Supper” (1982–84), wood, plywood, stone, plaster, aluminum, dye, charcoal, 121 1/2 x 358 x 61inches (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roberto C. Polo, 1986, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © Marisol/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (click to enlarge)

The generous obituaries written about Marisol Escobar in the last few days have reminded us of the important figure that she was. Many have commented on the great reception her worked received during 1960s and ’70s, while also highlighting memorable aspects of her personal life. There are countless anecdotes of her idiosyncrasies, her celebrity status, and her friendships with acclaimed artists such as Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, as well as her mentoring relationships with Georgia O’Keeffe, Hans Hofmann, and William King, just to mention a few.

Throughout my own writing on Marisol’s work, specifically the close study I did of “Self-Portrait Looking at the Last Supper,” I realized that the full extent of her talents as a draughtswoman and sculptor are often less so discussed. As we celebrate her life, it’s also important to remember that despite being surrounded by very dominant artistic movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, Marisol stood out for having a unique and eclectic style that resulted in majestic and often fascinating assemblages, or what art historian Cindy Nemser termed “collaged sculptures.”

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Marisol, “The Party” (1965–66), assemblage of 15 freestanding, life-size figures and three wall panels, with painted wood and carved wood, mirrors, plastic, television set, clothes, shoes, glasses, and other accessories, Toldeo Museum of Art, Museum Purchase Fund, by exchange (photo by Andrew Weber, courtesy Toledo Museum of Art) (click to enlarge)

The Venezuelan, Paris-born artist first moved to New York in the 1950s. Her work quickly captivated American audiences in unprecedented ways; thousands of people lined up to see her exhibitions and even those not inside the art world knew her by name. The originality of Marisol’s work and material mastery is evident in the ingenious ways in which she played with two- and three-dimensional planes, creating in flat, sculptural surfaces the illusion of volume and depth through drawing. She also saw the formal potential of found materials, frequently appropriating discarded objects, most regularly the beams of the Manhattan piers, which she used as the base of many of her sculptures starting with her “Mona Lisa” in 1963.

Art critics, like Peter Schjeldahl in his 1973 New York Times article “Marisol: A Humorist in Three Dimensions,” accused Marisol of narcissism as she regularly included her face and cast body parts in many of her works, such as “The Party” (1965–66), “Dinner Date” (1964), “Women Leaning” (1965–1966), “Three Woman with Umbrella” (1965–1966), among many others. The artist’s lifelong investigation of portraiture and self-portraiture had more to do with a fascination for the performance of the self than narcissism. A perfect example of this is Marisol’s homage to Leonardo da Vinci (one of two), “Self-Portrait Looking at the Last Supper” (1982–1984). In it she employs the many stylistic techniques she developed and perfected throughout her career to convey what Leonardo so brilliantly referenced: the dramatic reaction of the apostles as they hear about an imminent betrayal of Christ. Close observation and attention to detail gave both Leonardo da Vinci and Marisol the ability to truly capture their sitters’ individual essence. Although less concerned with mimetic representation than Leonardo, Marisol relied extensively on similar habits of studying people’s reactions, gestures, and overall personality, a practice she had established since she was a young student. “I’m interested in people, how do you make someone look stately or sad, how can I capture their personality. The search for beauty is very important to me,” she said in reference to her then-recent work “Artists and Artistes.”

As many scholars have noted, Marisol’s self-portraits addressed a specific critique of the normalization of gender roles in postwar society. In “The Party,” for instance, the artist embodies 13 different characters to reflect on the performance of gender, especially that of upper middle class women. Marisol also naturally used her art as a way of addressing aspects of her personal life. In a sense, her self-portraits became autobiographical performances that resisted objectification by blurring the lines between subject and object. 

While Marisol enjoyed her celebrity status she often chose to escape from the hustle of New York City. In the 1970s the artist left to travel the world, spending extended periods of time in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Marisol’s journey abroad would change her perspective on the subject matter she’d been pursuing in her earlier work, especially in light of the dramatic events of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, among other important historical moments of the 1960s. When she returned to the US, she was poised to make a more poignant social critique. This resulted in works that explored poverty and religion, like “Mother and Child with Empty Bowl” (1984), “Stephanie’s Family” (1983), “Niños Sentados en un Banco” (“Children Sitting in a Bank,” 1994), and the portrait of Elizabeth C.P. Stanton and Lucretia P. Mott, titled “Women’s Equality” (1975).

Often with woman artists, their biographies take precedence over a true understanding of their work. Which is why I dedicate this short eulogy to Marisol’s aesthetic sensibility and critical engagement with the social and political issues of her time. Although Marisol may have been somewhat forgotten in recent years, her centrality in the art world during the 1960s and well into the ’80s is unquestionable, and cannot be considered anything less than a significant contribution to the history of art.

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