Venezuelan-American artist and portrait sculptor, noted for her use of multimedia assemblages and monumental scale . Name variations: Marisol Escobar. Pronunciation: Mah-ree-SOLE Acekoh-BARR. Born Marisol Escobar on May 22, 1930, in Paris, France; daughter of Gustavo Escobar (a wealthy real-estate broker) and Josefina Hernandez Escobar; attended Catholic and boarding schools until age 11, Westwood School for Girls in Los Angeles, Jepson School, École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Art Students League in New York, Hans Hofmann's painting schools in New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, New School for Social Research; never married; no children.
Established her reputation in the art world following a solo exhibition at the prestigious Stabler Gallery in 1962.
The Family from the Dust Bowl, Babies, and The Generals (all from her 1962 exhibition); The Party (1965–66); LBJ Himself (1967); Lick My Bicycle Tire (1974); Pablo Picasso (1977); The Last Supper (1983).
One night at The Club, a Greenwich Village establishment that catered to local artists during the 1950s, a new face appeared. But it was a face covered with a mask, pure white and fashioned in Japanese style. Club members, who enjoyed a reputation for friendly harassment of young artists who appeared at their gatherings, demanded that the mask be removed to reveal the identity of the wearer. When the demands became sufficiently insistent, Marisol lifted the mask only to
reveal a face made up in pure white, Japanese style. Granted, this was a stunt, but at another level it reveals much about Marisol. She has worn many masks in her life, masks that protect her privacy, the mask of silence as a defense against the dangers of the outside world, masks that disguise a search for self-identity which blurred appearance and reality. Her art is a form of revelation that transforms solitude into communion through the repeated recreations of herself.
Little is known about Marisol's early life, save what she has imparted to interviewers over the years. Her parents were wealthy Venezuelans who traveled frequently in Europe. Gustavo Escobar, her father, made a fortune in real estate. Marisol, a name that in Spanish means "sea and sun" (Mar y sol), was born in Paris in 1930. The family, which included a son also named Gustavo, returned to Caracas, Venezuela, in 1935 but traveled regularly to the United States. Enrolled in Catholic schools, Marisol remembers that she had a difficult time communicating with anyone her own age. As she told Grace Glueck : "I was always a little bit strange. In school they treated me like an oddball. I never wanted to talk at all." Following the death of her mother Josefina Escobar , in 1941, she decided never to talk again. "I didn't want to sound the way other people did," she told interviewer Jeff Goldberg. "I really didn't talk for years except for what was absolutely necessary in school and on the street." Indeed, Marisol would become famous for her mask of taciturnity.
While World War II raged in Europe, Marisol's family remained in Caracas. It was in 1946, at age 16, that Marisol decided to become a painter. She had always been interested in drawing and won a clutch of art prizes at every school she attended. Fairy stories and comic books provided early inspiration, and techniques were learned in the Catholic schools where "you spent months doing one drawing" of a saint. It was also at this time when Marisol became interested in embroidery.
Gustavo embraced his daughter's interest in art and in 1946 enrolled her in the fashionable Westwood School for Girls in Los Angeles, California. "He liked that I was an artist and he supported me…. I had an income through him." While pursuing a normal liberal arts curriculum during the day, Marisol in the evening took classes with the humanist painters Howard Warshaw and Rico Lebrun at the Jepson School. It is difficult to determine if they had an influence on the later development of her unique style, although art historian Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein noted that "some of their Goya-like influence might be subtly discerned under the humorous facade of her work."
Marisol traveled to Paris in 1949 to further her education as an artist at the École des Beaux-Arts but left after just one year. In her words: "It was like nothing. They wanted me to paint like [Pierre] Bonnard." Study with Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the Art Students League in New York in 1950 also proved unsatisfactory and was followed quickly by classes taken at Hans Hofmann's painting schools in New York and Province-town, Massachusetts. This experience proved more enduring and lasted from 1951 to 1954. Although on one occasion she stated that Hofmann, an abstract expressionist, had taught her to paint like a Hofmann student, at another time she admitted that he was the only teacher from whom she had learned anything.
Hofmann may in fact have influenced Marisol's decision to turn to sculpture. Nancy Grove noted that although Hofmann taught painting, in 1948 he wrote an essay in which he stated that sculpture "deals with basic forms. The basic forms are: cubes, cones, spheres, and pyramids. Every subject has a characteristic basic form. These forms can be intensified by opposing them to other basic forms [push-pull]." Interestingly, an art critic in 1963 saw in Marisol's sculpture a variation of Hofmann's push and pull where "three dimensions sink into two" and "two grow into three."
While taking classes with Hofmann, Marisol also studied at the New School for Social Research but was unimpressed by the students. They "were really unaware. I didn't want to go to college because it was so dead…. Only a few people were protesting," she told Cindy Nemser , and they "were the beatniks. I used to hang around with them in the Village, and everyone thought they were a bunch of kooks." By her own admission, the main influences on her life, if not her art, during the early 1950s, were the streets and the bars. She was searching.
It was at this time that she turned to sculpture and was influenced by the work of William King, who shaped figures in wood, clay and other materials. King and some of his circle "bought some houses in Maine," Marisol told Nemser, "and they had early American furniture [and artifacts] in their homes…. That's why Igot involved with [Early American Art]. I was looking at all the things that people didn't take seriously before, instead of getting influenced by the Hofmann painting. But I'm not really a folk artist." Marisol appreciated folk art, however. She told Grace Glueck that she began to work with sculpture in 1953 after viewing both an exhibition of pre-Columbian Mochica pottery from South America and a friend's collection of hand-carved and painted South American folk-art figures in boxes. Her experimentation with sculpture, Marisol said, "started as a kind of rebellion. Everything was so serious…. I started doing something funny so that I would become happier—and it worked."
As she gained confidence in her work, Marisol forged a new identity by dropping her family name, Escobar, in 1957. Marisol would stand alone. In that same year, the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City featured a solo exhibition of her work, which won high praise from the critics. Some wrote of Marisol's search for identity or commented on how her work reflected primitive folk art that would not have been out of place on an archaeological dig in the South American jungles.
Abstract expressionism was new and controversial in 1950 and its artists were accorded a cold reception by mainline galleries and museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Undaunted, they organized their own showings and sponsored their own galleries. Marisol exhibited a sampling of her early sculpture at the Tanager Gallery, which was founded by King and other artists. Some of her pieces reflected fresh influences on her work. According to Grove, Robert Rauschenberg, who experimented with paintings that combined paint and "found" or appropriated objects, made an impression on Marisol. Jasper Johns, who incorporated plaster casts of parts of his body in his painting, was a direct source of inspiration. His 1955 work, Target with Four Faces, combined art, or appearance, with life, or reality.
Marisol, who was experimenting in the 1950s, was worried by the attention given to her works. She was still unsure of her direction and felt that such critical scrutiny was premature. She told Glueck: "I got scared …. I thought when you start getting publicity, you lose everything you have." To escape briefly and to gather her thoughts, she traveled to Rome. Upon her return to the United States in 1960, she entered the most productive period of her life. Many of her assemblages featured plaster-cast masks of her face or other body parts and the themes Marisol developed apparently reflected a degree of social commentary. Both the critics and Marisol herself reflect some ambivalence as to the content and meaning of her work.
When asked about the use of her own face in her work, Marisol's initial explanation was that she was "available" and free of charge. She later admitted to Glueck that her self-focus was in part a search for identity. "There comes a point where you start asking, 'Who am I?' I was trying to find out through my sculpture. That's why I made all those masks and each one of them is different." A few critics saw her self-focus as narcissism while others supposed that Marisol used herself to project an image of present-day society. If Marisol's Latin American heritage is considered in an interpretation of her work, a more profound image emerges. The Mexican author Octavio Paz in his classic Labyrinth of Solitude wrote:
We are not afraid or ashamed of our bodies; we accept them as completely natural and we live physically with considerable gusto. It is the opposite of Puritanism. The body exists, and gives weight and shape to our existence. It causes us pain and gives us pleasure; it is not a suit of clothes we are in the habit of wearing, not something apart from us: we are our bodies. But we are frightened by other people's glances, because the body reveals rather than hides our private selves. Therefore our modesty is a defense.
Roberta Bernstein captured this dimension perfectly when she wrote that when Marisol did a self-portrait she felt "self-consciously that it is a part of herself and in using her own body parts she feels she is brought back to reality."
With regard to social commentary, Marisol again initially argued—perhaps as a form of self-defense—that she was primarily interested in shapes and colors, or, as she told Glueck: "an artist is an artist. I have no social intention. I think about the forms, not the meaning. People think too much about subject matter in art. But whatever they want to call me is okay—Pop or anything." Interpreters of her art found much social content. Nemser noted that Marisol in the 1960s created tableaux that mirrored the political and social attitudes of the period. Her work brought to life people from all classes, from Family from the Dust Bowl to the stereotyped women in The Party to Britain's Royal Family. Political leaders such as Lyndon Baines Johnson and Francisco Franco became the targets of "her deft political and social analysis." Critic Katharine Kuh commented in 1963 on "the pathos, irony and outrageous satire with which [Marisol] invests her sculpture. Whether she designs a single figure or a large group, she invariably ends up with a biting comment on human foibles…. No one has deflated human pomposity with greater insight."
Be that as it may, on occasion Marisol's work has been misinterpreted. "I'm surprised that … some people never understood what I was saying," she noted. "People don't think." By way of example, her sculpture Baby Boy, a giant infant holding an adult toy, has been cast as the power of a child to manipulate adults. Marisol said that, for her, the baby "meant America. This huge baby monster taking over. I even had the flag here—stripes." South Americans were more adept at seeing the messages that Marisol intended. Once she took a piece to South America "and they wouldn't show it. There they notice."
Marisol's niche in the history of art is equally unclear. Pop Art expert Lucy Lippard concluded that "Marisol has contributed enormously to the enrichment and scope of Pop imagery." Grove argued that even though Marisol's works were based on mass-media images of popular figures and utilized found objects, "her techniques have never been impersonal, and her work has elements of absurdity and irony that are unlike the deadpan literalness of hard-core New York Pop." Others, such as Rubinstein, place her in the "New Realism" school.
Even though her art was not "pop," she frequented the Pop Art scene. She played a glamorous role, seemed to be a fixture at jet-set parties in the company of Andy Warhol, and even starred in one of his underground films, The Kiss. Her work was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The themes in her assemblages—social role playing and isolation in a group—were played out in life. Marisol became known as the "Latin Garbo" and was famous for her long periods of silence in the midst of a party. Artist friend Conrad Marca-Relli observed that Marisol used her silence "like a shield. But she seems comfortable behind it." Silence, too, was a mask.
By the late 1960s, as life in the United States turned menacing and as her fame produced a growing alienation, she journeyed to Asia, South and Central America and the Caribbean. Impressed with the art of India, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia, Marisol said that its magnificence surprised and shocked her. "I was influenced there." Scuba diving off Tahiti and in the Caribbean in combination with what she had seen in the Far East set her on a new course. She returned to New York in 1970 with the intent to do "something very pure … I wanted to do something very beautiful." The result was a school of large, beautifully carved, stained and varnished mahogany fish—almost all bearing a mask of her face.
It was also in the 1970s that Marisol's work turned sharply inward, and she focused on graphics, making prints, and "a series of disturbingly explicit and autobiographical erotic drawings" that, in the view of Bernstein, told of anger, pain and sexual frustration. Marisol also produced in the 1970s a whole series of masks that included not only the usual self-portraits but also archetypal females—goddesses, shamans, and fertility figures. Bernstein feels that this was an expression of the interconnectedness of nature and humanity and of the archaic with the contemporary.
Casts of her face were no longer used by Marisol after 1975 as she entered yet another phase of her career. The crisis of the late 1960s and 1970s, if, indeed, there had been a crisis, was past and she carved rough portraits of older artists whom she admired, including Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe , Willem de Kooning, Louise Nevelson , choreographer Martha Graham and writer William Burroughs. In 1983, she produced her version of da Vinci's Last Supper, which for her symbolized the decline and fall of Western culture and its loss of morality. "I inserted myself because I am watching it happen."
A number of critics have attempted to interpret Marisol from a feminist perspective. Two other female artists, Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan , impressed Marisol. "Those women paved the way for me." Bernstein correctly observes that Marisol was never overtly "identified with feminist concerns." Her role has always been that of the "artist" and not the "woman." "However, because her works are self-portraits of an introspective, sensitive and independent woman, they present a powerful and insightful examination of female identity which lends itself to feminist analysis."
When art historian Elsa Fine asked her about problems she may have encountered as a woman artist, Marisol replied: "I always knew I would have [difficulties] whoever I was, because of the way I have always lived outside society. I never expected to be treated nicely by people and their customs I was rebelling against."
Bernstein, Roberta. "Marisol's Self-Portraits: The Dream and the Dreamer," in Arts Magazine. Vol. 59. March 1985, pp. 86–89.
Glueck, Grace. "It's Not Pop. It's Not Op. It's Marisol," in The New York Times Magazine. March 7, 1965, pp. 34–35, 45–49.
Goldberg, Jeff. "Pop Artist Marisol—20 Years After Her First Fame—Recalls Her Life and Loves," in People Weekly. Vol. 3. March 24, 1975, pp. 40–43.
Grove, Nancy. Magical Mixtures: Marisol Portrait Sculpture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Nemser, Cindy. Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists. NY: Scribner, 1975.
Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present. NY: Avon, 1982.
Andersen, Wayne. American Sculpture in Process, 1930–1970. Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1975.
Lippard, Lucy. Pop Art. NY: Praeger, 1966.
Paul B. Goodwin , Jr., Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut