"Women and Dog"
wood, plaster, synthetic polymer, taxidermied dog head, and miscellaneous
New York, NY: Whitney Museum of American Art
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Marisol Biography by Jean Westmacott and Mary Beth Looney:Marisol was born in Paris to Venezuelan parents Gustavo Escobar and Josefina Hernandez on May 22, 1930. Marisol has a brother, also Gustavo, who is now an economist living in Venezuela. Financially comfortable, the family lived something of a nomadic existence in Europe, Venezuela and the United States. Their wealth derived from the Venezuelan oil business and real estate that afforded the family a very comfortable, social lifestyle. Marisol’s mother died in New York in 1941 when Marisol was eleven years old. Following the tragedy and for the duration of World War II, the family lived mainly in Caracas, with the children attending a series of local schools. Near the end of the war, Marisol’s father moved the family to Los Angeles, California where Marisol was enrolled in the Westlake School for Girls.
With aspirations to become a painter, Marisol first studied art in evening drawing classes at the Jepson School in Los Angeles when she was sixteen. By this time, she was already proficient in representational drawing. Catholicism imbued Marisol with beliefs in mystery, miracles, intercession and awareness of a spiritual/supernatural aspect of life that permeated both her character and work as an artist. As she revealed to Avis Berman in a 1984 interview for Smithsonian, Marisol suffered self-inflicted acts of penance for a brief period in her early teens. She walked on her knees until they bled, kept silent for long periods and tied ropes tightly around her waist in emulation of saints and martyrs.
Encouraged by her father to pursue her interest in art, Marisol moved to Paris to study for a year in 1949. At the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts, she was instructed to mimic the painting style of Pierre Bonnard. In search of more creative approaches, Marisol moved to New York City in 1950. During that year, Marisol took art instruction from decorative painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi at New York’s Art Students League. From 1951 to 1954 she took courses at the New School for Social Research while studying under her most influential mentor, the so-called ‘dean of Abstract Expressionism,’ Hans Hofmann. At Hofmann’s schools in Greenwich Village and Provincetown, Massachusetts, Marisol became acquainted with notions of the "push and pull" dynamic: of forcing dichotomies between raw and finished states. During this period, Marisol was introduced to the Cedar Street Tavern, the chief watering hole for many of the leading Abstract Expressionists with whom Marisol became friends, particularly Willem de Kooning.
Marisol’s discovery and subsequent study of Pre-Columbian artifacts in 1951 led to her abandoning traditional painting by 1954. She turned to terracotta, wood and fabricated sculpture. Although largely self-taught, Marisol took a clay course at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. She also learned plaster casting techniques from sculptor William King. Marisol shared King’s fascination with early American Primitive pieces like a coffee grinder in the shape of a man and wooden figures on wheels. Marisol took printers’ type cases and placed small terracotta figures in the openings. These votive works (first exhibited at the Tanager Gallery, an artists co-op effort, in a group show that included King and Alex Katz) caught the eye of Leo Castelli. Leo Castelli Gallery featured Marisol’s Pre-Columbian art-inspired carvings of animals and totemic figures in her first one-person exhibition in 1958.
Grave self-doubt followed Marisol’s initial success and exposure with the Castelli show and she left New York to live for a year in Italy in 1959. In Rome she studied the works of the Renaissance masters while she re-evaluated her own work and artistic goals. Feeling creatively freed, Marisol returned to New York to produce an impressive body of work that led to many important exhibitions and the acquisition of her work for the collections of leading museums. With the honing of her woodcarving skills, Marisol began to establish her identity in an era dominated by Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Jackson Pollock and de Kooning. The heavy seriousness of this movement prompted Marisol to seek humor in her own work, which was essentially carved and drawn-on self-portraiture. She expanded her range of materials with the inclusion of found objects (often including her own clothing) – a practice found in the historic sculptures and collages of Picasso as well as the more contemporary ‘combines’ of Robert Rauschenberg.
In the following decade of the sixties, Marisol found herself in the sympathetic company of Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, despite the fact that she rarely used strictly commercial items in her works. Marisol participated in two of Warhol’s movies – The Kiss and 13 Most Beautiful Girls. Exploiting the banality of popular culture was not the sole focus of Marisol’s work: wry social observation and satire have always been integral to her sculptures. As the only female artist within the Pop enclave, she managed to infuse a great deal of individuality in her sculptures – usually through the means of inserting or adopting different identities. One of her most well known works of this period was The Party, a life-size group installation of figures at the Sidney Janis Gallery. All the figures, gathered together in various guises of the social elite, sported Marisol’s face. It is intriguing to note that Marisol dropped her family surname of Escobar in order to divest herself of a patrilineal identity and to "stand out from the crowd."
Throughout the sixties and seventies, Marisol expanded her range of subject matter to include many sculptural portraits of friends, families, world leaders and famous artists. The social and political upheavals of the late 1960s upset Marisol, who had participated in an anti-Vietnam War march. During 1968 Marisol left for what was to be a month’s break that turned into almost two years of world travel. While in Tahiti, Marisol learned to scuba dive. She became enamored with the floating non-human environment of the sea as an antidote to terrestrial turmoil. Marisol did scuba diving in every ocean around the world from 1968 to 1972. She was discouraged from continuing when a friend suffered a stroke while diving. Experiences with the underwater world inspired Marisol to create a series of stained, polished, mahogany fish forms to which the artist’s face was attached. She liked the dangerous and beautiful fish - especially shark and barracuda, which she likened to missiles.
The artist has also illuminated tragic human conditions by focusing on various disadvantaged or minority groups such as Dust Bowl migrants, Father Damien (depicted with the marks of leprosy), poor Cuban families and Native Americans. These subjects set her work apart from the commercially derived imagery that formed the basis of Pop art. In recent years, Marisol received a letter from a Native American group requesting submissions for graphic work. Out of several artists asked, she was the only artist to respond. This initial contact led to her creation of a large body of work based on Native Americans and an exhibition of this work as the United States’ contribution to the Seville Fair in Spain.
Motivated by her admiration for da Vinci as an artist rather than any religious feeling, Marisol executed sculptural renditions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper as well as The Virgin with St. Anne in the 1980s. Marisol based her interpretation of the Last Supper on the original version by da Vinci in which a dagger appeared held by a disembodied hand (later painted out in da Vinci’s Last Supper).
Marisol has consistently participated in numerous one-person and group exhibitions since the first momentous exhibition at the Castelli Gallery. The Castelli Gallery, Sidney Janis Gallery and currently the Marlborough Gallery have represented her at various points in her career. Marisol became an American citizen in 1963, yet was chosen to represent Venezuela in the 1968 Venice Biennale. Joan Mondale chose work by Marisol for the Vice Presidential mansion in Washington, DC during her husband’s tenure. Her public installations and commissions include the American Merchant Mariner’s Memorial in Promenade Battery Park of the Port of New York. To be close to the site of the project, she rented an apartment near the docks in Battery Park area to work on the piece. (An inveterate world traveler, she has found that new environments can be discovered in a mere five-minute walk from her TriBeCa studio.) Marisol also designed stage sets for Martha Graham’s The Eyes of the Goddess, performed in 1992 at City Center Theater in New York.
The artist has received Honorary Doctorates in the Arts from Moore College
of Art in Philadelphia, Rhode Island School of Design and New York State
University. Her works are featured in major American public collections
including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art
in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington,
DC. Marisol is included in numerous public collections in other countries
such as the Galeria de Arte Nacional and the Museo De Arte Contemporaneo
in Caracas, Venezuela, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany
and the Tokushima Modern Art Museum in Japan.
Jean Westmacott, Director
Mary Beth Looney, Assistant Curator
Brenau University Galleries
MarisolLike the child in Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum or like the woman who maintains silence for many years in Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits, Marisol Escobar is an artist with a particular innocence and sensibility. She is a complete New Yorker, but is at the same time a Venezuelan by family heritage. She looks at the world with irony and acute sensitivity: attentive to the smallest details. When one talks with her one notes a certain timidity, which makes her appear distant, almost absent. Her shyness in manner, however, belies an enormous inner strength and one wonders at how she has been able to preserve that spirit of innocence that is so much a part of her presence, so much a part of her creative work.
By Ana Maria Escallon
As a sculptor, Marisol has always followed her own path. "Not Pop, Not Op, It’s Marisol!" was the way Grace Glueck titled her article in the New York Times in 1965, and this difficulty in categorizing her work and answering the question "Who is Marisol" still continues to be evident in much that is written about her today. Marisol passed through many art movements, but it is true that it is difficult to situate her within any one movement. She was close to Abstract Expressionism and was, without a doubt, an important figure of American Pop, producing her John Wayne in 1963, the same year that Andy Warhol created his first Marilyn. But she went her own way appropriating elements from varied sources ranging from American primitive art, the aestheticism of ancient Egyptian art, the legacy of the Italian Renaissance, contemporary social rites and conventions, as well as her own personal history and identity.
Influenced by the language of Duchamp and the spirit of Happenings, Marisol invented a new prototype within 20th century figuration. She began experimenting with assemblage techniques in the 50s. In the early stage of her work, she drew from Cubist and Minimalist sources, refashioning the idea of sculpture in her body-cubes. Later on, in inventing her faces, she distilled ideas from Goya’s Caprichos and borrowed images from contemporary magazines to paste onto the wood. She completed her "collage-sculptures" with found objects from everyday life. Like George Segal, she did not, however, remain immersed or totally comfortable in the world of Pop. Her figures occupy their own particular space. It is a concept of space that tends toward a unified multiplicity. This freedom in her approach to space and to the human figure infiltrates her objects with an effective meaning and allows her to impart a sense of wholeness to her work.
Little by little, her personages became more expressionistic, in part, because in carving follows the dictates of the woodgrain and, in part, because the very act of carving is for her a raison d’être. She uses the process of sanding the sculpture to release the "secrets" underneath the surface of the wood. Drawing also plays an important role in the creation of her objects. She begins her work by drawing a map of the figure onto the wood block. The fragility of the paper surface is replaced by the strength and hardness of the wood. Drawing is both preliminary sketch and final surface. It represents a means for the artist to reflect on form in a disciplined and controlled manner and, at the same time, a way to impart an indelible imprint of her expressivity on the work itself.
From assemblage, Marisol moved to installations. Installation art opened up new possibilities to create "portraits" of particular social and political situations. A frequent theme is the superficiality of established social conventions, such as the rite of the cocktail party with its attendant small talk in which people are categorized as contacts and measured by what they can do for you. She provocatively represents the banal and includes icons of the fashionable, icons perhaps connected to her own Great Gatsby-like childhood. The effect is usually disconcerting.
Like Baudelaire, and with a similar sense of irony, Marisol demystifies the meaning of symbols of power. Series, such as her Heads of State, are monuments that humanize history’s heroes and deflate its socio-cultural archetypes, and are, in the words of Avis Berman, "a bold and incisive way of portraying movers and shakers." The protagonists of her narratives derive from diverse worlds that range from the ordinary domain of everyday existence, through the imaginary realms of an Alice in Wonderland, to the harsh reality of an Emil Cioran. Her personal sense of justice is evidentin works dedicated to poor families and world hunger. She maintains an interest in popular heroes such as Father Damian and Geronimo. In her portrait series Artists and Artistes, Marisol honors "heroes" of the history of art, such as Picasso, Duchamp and De Kooning. In one of her tributes to Leonardo, which took five years to complete, she re-invents a Last Supper in which she recuperates the laws of the master to transform painting to "sculpture-block" in a creative act of independence.
During the early 70s Marisol worked on a curious series in which her own plaster-cast facebecomes an integral part of a fish body – usually as the fish’s face. The manner in which she applies these self-portraits to the rest of the "figure" communicates a sense of isolation and solitude. In these works, she enters into a reflection on silence, evoking a world in which the individual, cut off from human communication, finds peace in an underwater realm of marine life.
Silence in Marisol’s work is very meaningful. She handles silence with mastery. It is thoroughly present in her work. She gives it form and weight. It is interesting that silence is also very much a part of her own personal world. She does not speak with many people and does not use words for background noise and idle chatter. In interviews she tends to respond to questions with a simple yes or no. Summing up her career with characteristic brevity, she says, "I have always been very fortunate. People like what I do."
Westmacott, Jean, and Looney, Mary
Beth. "Marisol Escobar, Venezuela: biography." [http://www.museum.oas.org/exhibitions/museum_exhibitions/marisol/bio.html#bio]