“It’s not Pop, It’s not Op — It’s Marisol,” reads the title of art critic, Grace Clueck’s March 7, 1965 New York Times Magazine article. Whilst the art world was exploding with bold, simple, everyday imagery, artist Maria Sol Escobar, known simply as Marisol, was taking the mimetic practice of other artists of the time to another level.
Born in Paris, May 22, 1930, to wealthy Venezuelan parents, Marisol lived a nomadic and turbulent childhood. At the tender age of eleven, Marisol’s mother committed suicide. Not soon after, her father sent her away to a boarding school for a year. The tragic and traumatic events of her still very young life led Marisol to cope with her emotions in extreme ways, utilizing religious practices of self harm and endurance such as walking on her knees until they bled, wearing tightly constrictive ropes around her waist, and keeping silent for extended periods of time.
Marisol displayed artistic talent from very early on and her parents supported her creativity. She began her formal art education at the age of sixteen and studied at various art schools in Los Angeles and Paris, as well as in New York under artist Hans Hofmann. Despite studying under and having associations with the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s, Marisol focused less on painting and more on creating three-dimensional works using a variety of mediums, expressing her growing interest in Pre-Columbian art and culture. Not quite ready for the burdens fame would bring, Marisol fled to Italy immediately after her first solo exhibition. After a few years of self reflection, Marisol’s approach to her life and work seemed to relax, and glimpses of popular culture, current events, and humor began to emerge in her art.
The dichotomy that she was, Marisol was both elusive, yet popular. By the 1960s she had befriended the King of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, who featured her in his films The Kiss and 13 Most Beautiful Girls. It was the Golden Age of Capitalism and Marisol was living a luxurious lifestyle, often accompanying Warhol to extravagant parties and social events. Like Warhol, Marisol seemed aloof and uninterested in fame, yet simultaneously enjoyed every bit of it. As William Grimes expresses in his May 2, 2016 New York Times article Marisol, an Artist Known for Blithely Shattering Boundaries, Dies at 85, recognizing that she could generate interest in her work by generating interest in herself, “Marisol turned self-absorption into an art form.”
The Postwar period saw a return of prosperity, as well as a return to traditional values. Once again, the importance of family was in the spotlight, and many reverted back to previous socially prescribed gender roles. For the first time, television began to play a powerful role in society and the economy. Families spent hours each day watching television together, exposing themselves more increasingly to the effects of unscrupulous advertising methods. Many contemporary artists were borrowing the imagery of the familiar products in the ads, employing mass production techniques to create their artwork. Mimicking her teacher Hans Hoffman’s compositional theory of “push and pull” by consciously creating conflict between the animate and inanimate, combined with a Pop Art-inspired satirical and repetitive presentation of persons and personas interacting with mundane objects, in droll yet surprising situations, Marisol created her own experimental version of “Pop” by utilizing a multitude of mediums, materials, and techniques from a range of cultures past and present, as a critical response to the oppressive nature of the role of femininity within the constructs of self, family and society.
Marisol’s piece entitled “Andy”, created in 1962–1963, was perhaps a reciprocal gesture in return for being an elemental part of several of Warhol’s artistic creations, or it may be that she was simply inspired to create his likeness in her own iconic aesthetic. Regardless, the rendering offers many aspects to consider, in relation to symbolic representations of some of Warhol’s most notorious tendencies. Marisol’s rendition of artist Andy Warhol presents him in boxed form in a relaxed, seated position. Hollow wooden cubes surround the structure of a chair, while Warhol’s portrait is illustrated in graphite on the front and each side of the upper portion of the assemblage in respect to their angle. From the front the observer is met with his blank and listless stare, while the side views reveal his slightly turned head, as he gazes leisurely to his right. As in many of her pieces, Marisol created a discernible juxtaposition between the dormant, flat and boxy form of her subject’s body in relation to the lifelike replication of his hands resting gently on his lap, along with Warhol’s very own shoes which, from the front view are placed in their proper and predictable position on the floor. A slow sense of motion is suggested in the way that Warhol’s legs are shown crossing as he sits comfortably back into the chair, as if he is aware that once he assumes this relaxed position, that he will be forever bound to the static state that Marisol has imposed upon him.
The idealized manner in which Marisol sketched her friend, Andy’s facial features on the flat sides of the hollow, three-dimensional form could be perceived as a representation of Warhol’s reputation for shallowness and attraction to beauty lacking substance. The cube, typically expected to exhibit sameness on all sides, here literally displays a different side of Warhol on each individual surface. This may convey to the observer that there might be an untruth about him in the way that he presents on the outside verses who he is on the inside. The intense stare assigned to him creates an unsettling feeling that gives one a sense of being evaluated by Warhol so that he may determine your worth to him, while the nailed-shut boxiness of his form communicates that he has little more to offer in return than perhaps a compliment or two based on his egotistical perspective of you and who you are in relation to him and his own success.
Marisol’s self portrait “Women Sitting On A Mirror” is a triad of totem-like figures which clearly show the influence that Pre-Columbian art had on her work. The thin yet smoothly curved wooden forms seem to represent society’s romanticized version of femininity and womanhood, while the manner in which she has stacked them like building blocks and attached fragmented plaster casts of portions of her own body, is telling of the pressure that women, including women artists, experience to present to the world only the most perfect parts of themselves. Despite being mostly constructed of primitive materials, in true mid-century fashion, Marisol incorporated a more contemporary medium. Acrylic, sleek and transparent, and fitted as hats upon their heads, the feminine forms remind the observer of the importance to stay on trend. Although grouped together, each of the three seem to possess a sense of disengagement. However, they remain atop a mirrored ground, forever trapped together within the reflection of themselves that has been constructed by society.
On the taller figure in the center, taking the place of her face, Marisol has embedded an unadulterated, forward facing photographic image of herself instead, while the figures to either side of her, perhaps representing less evolved, previous versions of herself, are comprised of only sculpted bits and pieces of her facial features. Similarly, the body fragments belonging to her two lesser selves seem to be sinking deep into the reflective pool below them, while far above the surface the cool and confident center-most representation of herself features the sculpted form of one hand joined together with the stenciled silhouette of the other, making it seem as if she herself is the one that has saved her from drowning in it. By combining hieratic scale with symbolism, Marisol conveys to the viewer that the only way she knew to escape the preconceived and preconditioned roles of society was through the deconstruction and redefinition of what it was to be a woman, and what it was to be a woman artist.
Throughout her body of work, Marisol has produced a multitude of portraits of both the famous and the familiar. From glamorous movie stars, astronauts and artists — including herself, to random figures with their own imagined, yet distinctly assigned personifications; from the First Family, to anonymous family members in attendance at a wedding, Marisol’s monumental mixed-media sculpts take on sarcophagi-like forms, memorializing not only the persons themselves, but also the emotions contained within their seemingly mundane, yet highly significant as well as perplexing, individual experiences of simply existing as oneself. The evolution of her work over the course of her career gives the impression that, as Marisol created her artistic studies of others, constructing the symbolically complex pieces of humanity together and granting ordinary objects sentimentality, she was able to come to terms with who she was and where she stood as an artist. The artwork of Marisol could quite easily be labeled as avant garde, pop art, folk art, primitive, portraiture, sculpture, mixed-media, assemblage, surrealism, or cubism. Taking influence from the work of artists spanning time and history, while employing the use of a never-ending variety of mediums and materials, Marisol, as Pop Artists did, borrowed from whatever sources inspired her, blurring the line between “high” and “low” art with her creations and commentary.
Dreishpoon, Douglas. “Review: Marisol Portrait Sculpture.” Art Journal 50, no. 4 (1991): 94–96. doi:10.2307/777329.
Gardner, Belinda Grace. Power Up — Female Pop Art. Kunsthalle Wien. Vienna, 2010.
Grace Glueck: “It’s not Pop, It’s not Op — It’s Marisol,” in New York Times Magazine, March 7, 1965, p. 46, quoted in: Pacini, Marina. “Tracking Marisol in the Fifties and Sixties.” Archives of American Art Journal 46, no. 3/4 (2007): 60–65.
Grimes, William: “Marisol, an Artist Known for Blithely Shattering Boundaries, Dies at 85,” The New York Times, May 2, 2016
Smee, Sebastian. “Red-hot in the ’60s, now little known, the great artist Marisol is being rediscovered,” The Boston Globe, July 5, 2014.