Two men on a horse, George Washington and Simon Bolivar, a toy horse with a mouthful of gold teeth and, if you could see the side of the heads, an imprint of the artist's hand. The Generals (1961), at the Albright-Knox Gallery, were my introduction to Marisol (Escobar).
It was while studying at the New School in New York that Marisol became interested in making wooden sculptures. A distinctive feature of her work is the mixture of two and three dimensional elements in these pieces. Facial features are drawn or painted on, sometimes carved, serious or comic, but always individually rendered. The photograph that appeared in Life magazine in 1957 shows the artists seated among The Hungarians, her commemoration of the disastrous uprising of 1956.
Many of Marisol's best known works are assemblages and The Cocktail Party (1965-1966) includes the figure of a spectator (in black, back to the viewer) who wears the artist's face, a signature gesture.
For a young woman from a wealthy Venezuelan family, raised in Paris, to make her way in the male American art world of Abstract Expressionists, Pop and Op artists, while maintaining her own focus suggests a strong artistic personality She divested herself of her patrimonial name but Marisol Escobar (b. 1930) chose reticence in the face of questions about the intent of her works, at first denying the specific identities of The Generals.
Kinship groupings from Migrant Workers (at right) to typical middle class families are often her subject. One famous piece shows a giant President Lyndon Johnson holding his tiny wife and daughters in his cupped palm, a blunt expression of power. And although the Pop Art movement made it easier to appreciate what Marisol was doing, she brought from her study of pre-Colombian art a vocabulary of geometric and decorative tropes to bear on the creation of new works. Sometimes when the members of an assemblage are rearrange, the individual reveal a new demeanor.
Beginning in 1967, Marisol's commissioned set pieces appeared on the cover of Time magazine, taking the measure of men like Hugh Hefner, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon and broad social changes such as The U.S. Family and Women Face the '90s.
Marisol's ideas come out in serpentine curves, as when art critic Cindy Nemser asked her about her teacher, Hans Hofmann, known for his sarcastic put-downs of female students. No, she replied, "He would take off his hearing aid, and there was never any communication. I would go into class and I was very intimidated." Marisol, herself, has been noted for her reticence, perhaps to counterbalance the frequent (and possibly diminshing) references to her beauty. As for the comparisons with Helen Frankenthaler, one of the few other successful women artists when Marisol began her career, also financially independent and successful at a young age, Marisol remarks, "That's why she doesn't like to be with other women artists and doesn't think they have problems." Then Marisol adds that Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan pushed back against the barriers, paved the way for her. I have chosen to focus on the aspect of Marisol's art as I first became acquainted with it. Her American Merchant Mariners' Memorial (1991) at Battery Park in lower Manhattan is a work of tragic impressiveness that deserves a separate consideration.
These subversive sculptures, bright and bold, larger than life, bring to bear a satirical vision that yet allows for the possibility of good cheer. In recent years, the Belgian surrealist, Rene Magritte, has been a frequent subject. In Magritte VI, we find him under his umbrella. This totemic shape was already part of the artist's repertoire in 1961 when she created On Madison Avenue. Is that a hat, a hairdo, or a ponytail palm that has alighted atop the woman's head? Marisol's work is not precisely surrealistic, but surrealism made intelligible such leaps of the imagination.