Marisol (Marisol Escobar)

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MARISOL (Marisol Escobar)

(b. 22 May 1930 in Paris, France), sculptor whose mysterious beauty and large wood block figures in assemblages caused a sensation during the 1960s.

Born Marisol Escobar, Marisol was the daughter of Gustavo Escobar, a real estate mogul, and Josefina Hernandez Escobar, a housewife. Her first name derives from Spanish words (mar y sol) meaning "sea and sun." Marisol and her brother Gustavo, who later became an economist, lived very comfortable and nomadic lives, constantly traveling with their parents throughout the Americas and Europe. Her mother died when she was eleven, during World War II.

After the war the family moved to Los Angeles, where Marisol attended the Westlake School for Girls. Always interested in art, she decided to become a painter, and she studied with Howard Warshaw at the Jepson School in Los Angeles. Earlier, during her childhood education in Catholic schools, she had won prizes for drawing very realistic copies of icons representing saints.

After a year spent studying painting at the Académie des Beau-Arts in Paris in 1950, Marisol moved permanently to New York City. She studied painting briefly at the Art Students League, then, for three years (1950–1953) at the Hans Hofmann School of Art. She considered Hofmann a fine teacher, but felt she was not adept in his abstract style.

In 1953 Marisol experienced her breakthrough. While visiting a primitive art gallery in New York, she was spellbound by pre-Columbian pottery and Mexican folk art boxes with small, carved figures. She immediately abandoned painting and became a self-taught carpenter and carver, soon developing considerable aptitude at these crafts. "It started as a kind of rebellion," she told a reporter in 1965. Instead of the existential aura of 1950s New York abstract painting, Marisol's new work emphasized the whimsical.

For the next several years her playful sculptures featured roughly carved wooden figures of people and animals, or small, often erotic, bronze or clay figurines. Sometimes she combined the materials, as with Figures in Type Drawer (1954). In 1957 her work appeared at the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery and was discussed in Life magazine. By then she had dropped her last name so that she would "stand out from the crowd," as she later commented.

During the 1950s New York artists held intense panel discussions at a meeting hall. At these discussion group meetings, called "the Club," emerging artists were often grilled mercilessly about their work. When Marisol was invited she wore a stark, white Japanese mask. There ensued a deafening cry for her to remove it, and she did—only to reveal that she had on makeup exactly the same as the mask. Similar stunts garnered much publicity, and she became legendary by the early 1960s, when pop art began to be noticed beyond the glut of then-current abstract painting.

A natural beauty, her chic bones-and-hollows face was complemented by her long, glossy black hair. Marisol wore designer clothes at the newest discotheques, or simple sweaters, jeans, and boots at art openings. Her whispery voice, natural reserve, and marathon silences lent a mysterious allure. It was not for nothing that she became known in the 1960s as the "Latin Garbo."

The scale of her work changed, from tiny figurines in the 1950s to full human-height wooden blocks in the 1960s. The block figures of mahogany or pine would be painted or penciled, and she began to use discarded objects as props. Her inspiration for using found objects came from the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, as well as from the proto–pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, who was famous for his mixed media assemblages from the mid-1950s. Marisol's props ranged from a stuffed dog's head for Woman with Dog (1960) to real trumpets and a saxophone for Jazz Musicians (1964). "I do my research in the Yellow Pages," she once commented. "You could call them a new palette for me."

By the mid-1960s Marisol had become a naturalized United States citizen. Her work was associated with pop art, but though she believed her style was similar to the ironic use of popular culture in pop art, she also considered it fundamentally different. Confusion then was compounded, since she was a frequent escort at parties with the "pope of pop," Andy Warhol, and she made several appearances in his avant-garde films of the mid-1960s. Throughout her career she has told interviewers that her work never had the dimensions of political or social criticism associated with pop art.

In 1962 her best known works were a sixty-six-inch-high portrait called The Kennedy Family, and another, called The Family, which stood eighty-three inches tall and represented a farm family from the 1930s' dust bowl era. By the mid-1960s her works were of larger groups of figures, of which the most critically acclaimed was an environmental group called The Party (1966), consisting of life-size wood block figures, mostly of elegantly gowned and coifed high society wives whose penciled-in faces resemble Marisol. One figure's forehead has a small, working television set. In the midriff of another one is a lit-up slide of a Harry Winston diamond necklace. Figures of a butler and a maid bear trays of real glasses. The aura seems slightly sinister and confrontational because all of the figures face forward toward the viewer. It is as if the viewer has just entered a high-society cocktail party and the figures are evaluating, mask-like, the viewer's social status.

During the later 1960s Marisol received many commissions for portrait figures of patrons and of heads of state. Her portrait of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner appeared on the 3 March 1967 cover of Time magazine. In 1968 she traveled to the Far East and South America and decided to forgo figures of others for what she then called her "quest for self" in many self-portraits. During the 1970s her sculpture was of fish, animals, and flowers with erotic, often violent, overtones. Beginning in the 1980s she returned to large-scale figural assemblages and portrait-homages to well-known contemporary artists and personalities.

Marisol's sculpture in the 1960s combined found objects and wooden blocks as figures. Arranged into complex, life-size figure arrangements, they galvanized the art public of that era.

Marisol's work from the 1960s is examined in Roberta Bernstein, Marisol (1970). Also see Grace Gluck, "It's Not Pop, It's Not Op—It's Marisol," New York Times Magazine (17 Mar. 1965). An informative interview is in Cindy Nesmer, Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists (1975).

Patrick S. Smith