PITTSBURGH, Pa. – She was classy, bright, hugely popular with the press and hugely successful on the New York City Pop Art scene in the early 1960s.
Yet today, the standard art historical line about sculptor Marisol Escobar, known simply as Marisol, is that she has been largely forgotten in favor of white male contemporaries, including Andy Warhol.
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has a few things to say about it. In a fascinating and delightful exhibit to view through February 14, the museum has recreated the warm and artistically inspiring friendship Marisol shared with Warhol in the 1960s.
Titled “Marisol and Warhol Take New York,” the show raises awareness of Marisol while revealing her influence on Warhol’s development as one of the most important artists of her time and ours.
Dozens of works of art are on display, as well as contemporary photographs, magazine articles, exhibition catalogs, films, photo boards and other items tracing the Warhol/Marisol relationship. Among them is the postcard Marisol sent to Warhol from Venice in 1968 while he was recovering in a New York hospital after being shot in an attempted murder by radical feminist Valerie Solanas.
It simply says “The love of Marisol”.
Reframing the story
Curated by Jessica Beck, Art Curator of the Warhol Museum, the exhibition reframes the works of Marisol and Warhol based on a storyline documented by material from the museum’s extensive archive.
It turns out that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marisol was far more visible than Warhol in the museum world and the New York gallery scene. Who knew?
Born in 1930 into a wealthy Venezuelan family, Marisol grew up in Caracas, New York and Los Angeles before studying art in these two cities and in Paris.
She quickly became a hit in the mid-1950s based on witty, humorous, and conceptually sophisticated sculptures combining elements of pop culture, folk art, abstraction, and sharp snippets of realism. Her most famous works included mildly satirical images of families with human figures constructed from stacked wooden blocks on which she drew and painted two-dimensional portraits and attached plaster casts of her own hands, feet and face.
Marisol became a creative force despite suffering as a child from the death of her mother in 1941. She was mute for a year, and as an adult spoke only sparingly, often in a low voice. . Her interest in depicting families may stem from her childhood trauma, according to essays in the exhibition catalog.
Gorgeous but reticent in interviews, Marisol fascinated journalists, who dubbed her the “Latin Garbo.” Still, she welcomed the media attention and made it work for her. As Beck puts it in the catalog, Marisol “used her femininity strategically,” posing alongside her sculpts in contemporary outfits for photo ops in Glamor, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.
Featured twice in Life magazine (once topping its “Red-Hot Hundred” list), her work has been featured by galleries and museums alongside contemporary stars such as David Smith, Alexander Calder and Jasper Johns.
She had her first solo exhibition at the highly influential Leo Castelli Gallery in 1957, when Warhol, who had moved to New York from his native Pittsburgh in 1949, was still trying to attract attention by showing his paintings in the windows of the Bonwit Teller. department store on Fifth Avenue.
Friends and allies
Yet after they met in 1962 through the gallery that represented Marisol, she and Warhol became friends, mutual muses, and allies in an art world dominated primarily by straight white male artists. As Warhol developed her gay artist persona with cool, deadpan affect, he took note of Marisol’s deft navigation of the worlds of publicity and celebrity, calling her “the first glamorous girl artist.”
As the exhibit points out, Marisol and Warhol portrayed similar subject matter, including Hollywood stars, Coca Cola bottles, and the Kennedy family, as well as tastemakers from the art world, including dealer Sidney Janis and curator Henry Geldzahler.
The exhibit’s installations include a row of Warhol’s iconic 1964 screen-printed portraits of Jackie Kennedy juxtaposed with Marisol’s 1961 “The Kennedy Family,” a construction of square shapes depicting the president, first lady, and their children.
In another powerful combination, the museum features Warhol’s 1963 “Double Elvis” next to John Wayne’s 1963 Marisol portrait on a galloping red steed.
The two portraits, which depict iconic stars as gun-toting cowboys, are displayed against a wall-to-wall backdrop of blue and yellow Warhol “Cow Wallpaper”, produced in 1971. It’s a true Pop Art cattle drive, putting emphasizing both the artist’s fascination with mythical Hollywood imagery and the national obsession with guns.
It is worth pointing out here that Marisol seems to have designed her work to be displayed against clean white walls in art galleries where such installations would highlight the clean, elegant silhouettes of her sculptures.
It’s a testament to the power of his art that it holds up well in one-on-one exhibitions with Warhol’s powerfully assertive graphic imagery, though it’s hard to imagine another museum combining the two. so closely. In the context of the Warhol museum, however, the dual installations work because they emphasize the affinities and distinctions between Warhol and Marisol, not to mention their friendship.
Represent each other
Underlining the closeness of the two artists, they made portraits of each other. Compelled by Marisol’s beauty and sphinxlike attitude, Warhol filmed her at a garden party in Connecticut in 1962, capturing rare moments of her smile.
Warhol also made Marisol the subject of one of his famous “screen tests”, in which he framed her face tightly with a camera under bright lighting, as if daring her to blink. (She barely did, earning a reputation for staring at Warhol’s lens as if she were a statue herself.)
For her part, Marisol portrayed Warhol in an iconic life-size sculpture in 1962-63 as a seated pharaoh, with his likeness drawn and painted full-frontal and in half-profile on large wooden blocks adorned with a plaster cast of the clasped hands by Warhol. resting on his knees, and a pair of his shoes protruding from the base of the work.
Warhol and Marisol also posed together in 1965 during a rooftop photo shoot by photographer David McCabe, who positioned the artists side-by-side in black-and-white photos with the Empire State Building towering above. above them as if it were property they owned.
Despite such displays of quiet confidence, Marisol was soon aloof from criticism.
The exhibition’s opening text panel features a quote from highly respected art critic Lucy Lippard, who wrote in 1968 that Pop Art was created by the “New York Five”, which included Warhol , Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenbourg. This was the start of Marisol’s writing process out of the story.
Uncomfortable with fame
The exhibit hints that Marisol herself may have participated in her own darkness by leaving New York for an extended stay to seek inspiration in exotic places like Tahiti. Her self-imposed exile was a revival of a first flight in 1957 when she left New York for an extended stay in Rome. In both cases, Marisol went offline in part because of discomfort with the media attention.
Marisol’s unease emerges powerfully in “The Party”, a large-scale installation from 1965-66 consisting of 15 painted and carved wooden figures representing elegant men, women and servants, all bearing Marisol’s facial features. Instead of conversing with each other, the sculptures are meant to face in the direction of the viewer, as if gazing at her audience the same way she passed Warhol’s movie camera in his “screen test “.
A masterpiece of its early years, the work was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art in 2005, surely one of the greatest acquisitions in the history of a highly distinguished American art museum.
With the installation “The Party”, the Warhol Museum exhibition leaves you on a positive note: what happened to Marisol after she left New York in 1968?
For a more definitive view of Marisol’s later development, one will have to wait for a major exhibition planned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, to which the artist bequeathed her personal archive and more than 100 sculptures, as well as the loft where she lived after returning to New York. The show, which has yet to be scheduled, could air in 2023 or 2024, a spokesperson said.
If the Warhol Museum exhibit is any guide, Marisol’s major exhibit in Buffalo could be an opportunity to give her entire career the renewed attention it so amply deserves.
What’s up: “Marisol and Warhol take New York.”
Place: Andy Warhol Museum.
Or: 117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh.
When: Until Monday February 14.
Admission: $20 for adult non-members. Call 412-237-8300 or visit warhol.org.