Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Uncanny Presences: The Dynamic Sculptures of Marisol

Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper at El Museo del Barrio

October 9, 2014 to January 10, 2015
1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street
New York City, 212.831.7272

The New York showing of this traveling retrospective, curated by Marina Pacini of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, is enjoying its last few days at el Museo del Barrio. Just down Fifth Avenue, in conjunction with the show, the Metropolitan Museum offers a special room display of her monumental Self–Portrait Looking at The Last Supper, 1982–84. And Marisol’s LBJ, 1967 can be seen in the permanent display at MoMA in their gallery devoted to Pop Art.

Marisol, The Funeral, 1996 © Marisol Escobar/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY
Marisol, The Funeral, 1996 © Marisol Escobar/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY

Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper states as its aim the re-establishment of this artist as a major figure of post-war American art. This unapologetic mission makes sense for Marisol who enjoyed near-celebrity status amongst previous generations while remaining virtually unknown to more recent followers of contemporary art. The eclecticism of her work – visible in its spirit, intention, materials and subject-matter – have always made for an uneasy fit alongside the monolithic careers of many of her famed peers of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Range and diversity are, however, qualities far more likely to be viewed positively through the lens of the present day, and for the viewer willing to forego the culminating arc normally anticipated from a retrospective, there is much among this collection of works to treasure.

Born in 1930 in Paris to parents of Venezuelan descent, Marisol Escobar moved to New York in the 1950’s where she studied with Hans Hofmann and associated with the Abstract expressionists. She attracted critical acclaim a decade or so later, when her work became linked to the nascent pop movement of the 1960s, a context in which her work is still often placed. The exhibition makes explicit, however, the error of so limited a reading of Marisol’s work, showing that on the contrary her influences were far-removed from, even contrary to, the object/image gestures of her Pop contemporaries. Figuration, expressionism, appropriation and the influence of folk art and of Latin American art are all strains that run through Marisol’s diverse oeuvre, which comprises single and multi-figure sculptures, portraiture in two- and three- dimensions, and fantastical drawings of all sizes.

Marisol, Mi Mama y Yo, 1968 © Marisol Escobar/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY
Marisol, Mi Mama y Yo, 1968 © Marisol Escobar/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY

This show makes clear just how powerful, hands-on a sculptor Marisol is, able to wrestle dynamism and uncanny presence from inert form. Wood sculptures like Queen (1957) or Boy with Empty Bowl (1987) retain reference to the block-like origin of their initial material, and are especially reminiscent of a kind of folk influence in which compact bodies and rough-hewn faces emerge forcefully from the planes of their substance. In her Artists series, Picasso (1977) conveys through carved hands and heavy features his legendary stare and authoritative posture, while Magritte (1998) depicts that artist’s sly gaze in a sort of inverted low-relief beneath the simple silhouette of a bowler hat. Elements of these works might even bring to mind William Edmondson, the tombstone carver-turned-visionary sculptor, whose dense stone effigies exude a peculiar grace.

Marisol is, of course, far from being self-taught. In several mixed-media figurative sculptures she frequently plays organic off of geometric forms – affixing modeled arms, feet and faces to rectangular “torsos” – in a combination that alludes to iconic pop motifs, not to mention minimal art. This hybrid sensibility points to what is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects Marisol’s work, namely her ability to employ the “cool” means and materials associated with dominant art movements of her age to engage with the largely un-ironic depiction of living human beings.

There is a poignant sense that the physical making of Marisol’s figurative works is fuelled by a desire to attain further, or special, knowledge of the subject depicted, or at least to address to what extent knowledge of other people is in fact possible. The interchange of essential, aloof, platonic forms (cubes and rectangles) with closely observed attributes (carefully carved hand and feet, for example) effectively captures the flux of sensation felt when assessing the presence of other people. Women Sitting on a Mirror (1965) evokes the casual and impersonal sense of recognition felt towards groups of strangers, here of-a-type- beachgoers, unspecified but unmistakable in dappled-disk hats. Mi Mama y Yo (1968) conveys, through a claustrophobically close arrangement of cubes, hands, colors, smiles and frowns, the fraught relations immediately apparent in a scene of the artist’s own mother and herself as a young girl.

In a more naturalistic strain of figuration, the show includes a wonderful early sculpture of George Washington (1958). He is here presented recognizably – upright, stately and steadfast, but entirely nude, corpulent and vaguely feminine in softly glowing alabaster. It was as though the artist were aiming to pay tribute to the subject, in the tradition of commemorative statuary, while satisfying an artistic need to address the actual bodily presence beneath the historic legend.

Marisol, Lick the Tire of My Bicycle, 1974 © Marisol Escobar/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY
Marisol, Lick the Tire of My Bicycle, 1974 © Marisol Escobar/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY

Marisol’s lack of self-consciousness in relation to her human subjects allows naturally for access to more psychologically complex subjects such as family, historic narrative or modern myth. This is a tangible artistic contribution, and valuable reminder to contemporary viewers of just how wide and rich visual content can be. It might well prove that hard-to-define artists like Marisol who engage with very broad subject matter (R.B Kitaj comes to mind as a kind of counterpart) could act as more relevant touchstones for many of today’s artists than their canonical contemporaries.

Occasionally, however, the impossibility of being both diffuse and focused comes across in work that seems deliberately digressive or overly self-referential. The large works on paper, for example, which treat highly internal, possibly erotic sensations and states of mind, tend to reduce somewhat predictable body-based imagery into monotonous rhythmic colored pencil strokes. They seem a little flat from an artist so clearly capable of emotional impact on a large scale.

Deeply affective work, for instance, like The Funeral (1996). This multi-figured work depicts John Kennedy Jr. as a four year old saluting the coffin of his assassinated father, carried within a toy-scaled procession at the colossal boy’s feet. It is a heart-wrenching image of a boy, seemingly conscious of public eyes, caught in a moment of baffling grief. Possible charges of sentimentality are outweighed by the effectiveness with which this public image of real, lived, history retains both intensely personal and mythopoeic force – a remarkable example of art used to amplify shared human experience.