Marisol Escobar, a 1960s Pop Culture Icon
Marisol Escobar was so well-known that, like Prince or Madonna of later eras, she didn’t need a last name. She was simply Marisol. She was not just an artist. She was a pop culture icon. In the 1960s, her innovative wooden sculptures of family groups and famous people brought her fame. She was also known for her beauty, enigmatic persona, and mysterious appearances at Manhattan art openings.
Marisol, the Quiet Party Girl
In the 1960s and 1970s, pop culture embraced Marisol and her work. She became part of the New York art scene, often at the side of Andy Warhol. She created assemblages unlike any other work being done at the time, working with plaster casts, wooden blocks, woodcarvings, drawings, photography, paint, and pieces of contemporary clothing. Experimenting with Pop art, Dadaism, folk art, and surrealism, Marisol constructed pieces that made people laugh at the current fashions, politics, television culture, and even other artists.
Although she enjoyed festive occasions, Marisol was a quiet person who observed people more than she talked to them. In a 1965 New York Times profile of Marisol, art journalist Grace Glueck described a museum brunch where Marisol attended for four hours without saying a word. A 2007 New York Times piece about Marisol wrote that “she has not become more voluble with time.”
When we view her awe-striking The Party sculpture, we join Marisol in her keen observations about people. The statues stand apart, not interacting with each other, and seem snobbish, showing off their up-scale fashions. The women are social-distancing and either closing their eyes or looking straight ahead, not at each other.
The Party critiques the models’ self-absorbed nature and uses Marisol’s signature deadpan satire to observe the fashionable ladies and their servants in their habitat. A wonderful movie from the Toledo Museum of Art will help you understand the work better than a 2-D image of it, and we highly recommend this video:
Marisol is best known for her bright, boxy sculptures of people representing a broad range of contemporary life. She especially liked to depict families and often added family pets, as in her delightful Women and Dog 1963-1964 sculpture. In addition to sculpture, Marisol also created works on paper, using colored pencils, crayons, and paint, and used her painting and drawing skills in her sculptures.
Marisol liked to juxtapose wooden block forms with found objects and painted faces, often using her own face in her work. Many of her sculptures spoke to the role of women in society. For example, her Baby Girl sculpture asks the viewer if women should be infantilized, a question brought about by the culture at the time which sold “babydoll dresses” to women and called women “babes.” The baby girl in the sculpture is holding a statue of Marisol herself.
Marisol used humor and irony in her work, sometimes referring to her childhood. Tea for Three brings together the colors of the Venezuelan flag: yellow, red, and blue. The three funny animals mounted atop the narrow rectangular columns wear hats that the artist found. She carved the sculpture out of wood, painted it, and adorned the animal heads with plaster mouths and glass eyes. Two hands stand out from the center of the sculpture, the larger of the two based on the artist’s hand. The smaller hand offers a cup of tea to the viewer.
Marisol, whose original name was Maria Sol Escobar, was born in Paris on May 22, 1930 to Venezuelan parents. Her parents were from wealthy families and travelled frequently. They lived off assets from oil and real estate investments.
Marisol’s mother, Josefina Escobar, committed suicide in 1941, when Marisol was eleven. The tragedy affected Marisol deeply. She was very religious, and coped with the trauma of her mother’s death by walking on her knees until they bled. She also decided not to speak again, although she made exceptions for answering questions in school. She did not regularly talk again until her early twenties, and was still known as an adult for her long silences.
Marisol began drawing early in life. Her parents encouraged her talent by taking her to museums. Her talents in drawing frequently earned her artistic prizes at the various schools she attended. After her mother died, her father sent her to boarding school in Long Island, New York, which made Marisol even unhappier than she had been before. She left the school after a year.
The family traveled between New York City and Caracas, Venezuela, and in 1946, when Marisol was 16, they relocated permanently to Los Angeles. Marisol began her formal art education in 1946 with night classes at the Otis Art Institute and the Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles. She also studied art at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts in 1949.
In 1950 Marisol moved to New York City and said about the time that she “at last found people like myself.” She studied at the Art Students League, the New School for Social Research, and the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts, where many of New York’s Abstract Expressionists studied with Hans Hofmann. She made ties with Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, among others.
Moving to New York gave Marisol a chance to join the social and artistic milieu of Andy Warhol, a leading figure in the Pop Art movement and a magnet for bohemians, intellectuals, and counter-culture eccentrics who partied with him at his studio, The Factory. Warhol said she was “the first girl artist with glamour” but he also took her art seriously. The two artists inspired each other and did some of their best work as their friendship flourished. She played roles in two of his films, Kiss (1963) and 13 Most Beautiful Women (1964). Marisol, in her turn, created a wooden block portrait of Warhol.
At the beginning of her career, Marisol painted in the Abstract Expressionist style, but in 1953 she decided to take up sculpting. “It started as a kind of rebellion,” she told arts journalist Grace Glueck. “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.”
Marisol began making small, carved figures that got noticed by art dealer Leo Castelli, who included her in a 1957 group show and then gave her a solo exhibition the same year. The show was well received, but Marisol didn’t like the fame that it brought and fled to Rome. When she returned to New York in 1960, she began working on larger, life-size sculptures.
In 1962 she showed her work at the Stable Gallery. Art critic Irving Sandler called the exhibit “one of the most remarkable shows to be seen this season.” Her painted-wood sculpture The Family, which was part of the show, depicts a family that is reminiscent of photographs of the Dust Bowl by Dorothea Lange.
Her 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery received up to two thousand visitors a day, and her first solo show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1966 was even more popular. Every day there was a long line of thousands of people waiting to see her remarkable life-size figures.
Marisol’s 1967 sculpture portraits of Charles de Gaulle and Lyndon B. Johnson are irreverent but delightful. Her imitation of President Charles de Gaulle pokes fun at his autocratic style of leadership, showing him as an older man who looks confused. She depicted President Lyndon B. Johnson holding diminutive portraits of his wife and two daughters in the palm of his hand. They look like little birds in a nod to the name Mrs. Johnson used, Lady Bird. She also built a sculpture that depicts the Kennedy family.
Marisol received many commissions to create public art, including her 1969 Father Damien, which is in front of the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu, Hawaii. The statute honors Father Damien, a Catholic Church priest from Belgium who sacrificed his life for the lepers of the island of Molokai.
Sixty-six artists bid for the commissioned project to create a sculpture for the Capitol, and only seven were selected to create models for review. Marisol’s design won the bid because of the contemporary look of her work. Her statue was based on a photo she saw of him near the end of his life, which is why he is wearing glasses and his arm is in a sling.
At her high point, Marisol was the woman artist to watch. Her art was on the cover of Time magazine. Gloria Steinem profiled her for Glamour. She was included in a Life magazine special issue, The Take-Over Generation: One Hundred of the Most Important Young Men and Women in the United States. But Marisol didn’t like the limelight.
In the late 1960s, she once again fled fame and left New York to travel around the world. She returned in the early 70s, but never regained the popularity she once had. She continued to work though, making portrait sculptures of artists (Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1977, and Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1981) and political figures (Bishop Desmond Tutu, 1988). In the 1970s, she also worked on lithographs, creating an astonishing set of prints that build upon each other, called Untitled.
One of her most moving works is from 1991, her American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial. The sculpture is at the lower tip of Manhattan in Battery Park, on a pier. The memorial features a sinking ship, torpedoed by a U-boat, and three sailors on an abstracted deck, one calling for help, and one reaching down into the water. From the water, only visible during low tide, another sculpture emerges, his arm outstretched, looking for safety, and not quite making it.
Marisol died in a New York hospital on April 30, 2016, after living with Alzheimer’s disease. She had been living in the same Tribeca loft apartment for almost 30 years. The cause of death was pneumonia. The world lost a pioneering artist, who once was famous, but had been overshadowed by more flashy Pop artists and Dadaists. Following her death, she became better known again and her art can be seen at many museums.
Today, her works are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Dallas Museum of Art, among others.
The biggest collection of her art is at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Upon her death, Marisol bequeathed her entire estate to the gallery. The gallery had been the first museum to acquire Marisol’s work, having purchased The Generals from her solo show at the Stable Gallery in 1962 and her Baby Girl sculpture in 1964.
With the bequest, Albright-Knox now holds the most significant collection of Marisol’s work, including 100 sculptures spanning Marisol’s 60-year career, more than 150 works on paper, thousands of photographs and slides, and a small group of works by other artists Marisol had collected. The bequest also included the artist’s archive, library, studies, tools, and New York loft apartment.