Neuberger Museum of Art
Purchase, New York
Marisol at Neuberger Museum of Art
Through September 2, 2001, the Neuberger Museum of Art will present Marisol, the first comprehensive overview of the artist's work from the late 1950s to the present. The exhibition features over twenty sculptures drawn from museums, galleries, and private collections around the country. The exhibition reveals the wit, subtle humor and social satire inherent in Marisol's work.
In the 1950s, Marisol developed a technique for combining painting, drawing, stenciling, casting and carving with ready-made objects. Her enigmatic assemblages combine an appealing mixture of illusion and reality, crudeness and sophistication. Although Marisol is associated with the 1960s Pop movement, her style reveals strong elements of assemblage techniques that originated in Cubist fragmentation and collage.
Marisol's wide range of themes and subjects frequently elude categorization. However, the vantage of time permits a view of her oeuvre that defines more clearly the varying elements that bond it together.
A fully illustrated color catalogue accompanies the exhibition with an essay written by noted art critic Eleanor Heartney. "What endures in Marisol's work is the universality of the impulses she captures. Truly a sculptor of modern life, she evokes the venality of social climbers, the integrity of great artists, the contradictions of the powerful and the quiet dignity of the dispossessed. She feels both their absurdity and their pain and encourages us to do the same," Heartney observes. (left: The Bathers, 1961-62, mixed media, Marlborough Gallery, Inc.)
Marisol was born in Paris in 1930 to Venezuelan parents. Her early years were caught up in European travel with her family then commuting between Caracas and the United States. When she was eleven, Marisol was sent to boarding.school following the death of her mother. In the early fifties, she declared her interest in art and announced her wish to study in Paris. Her father supported her art interests but felt that she would be safer in New York. Ironically, New York was then the center of a radical bohemian culture that Marisol embraced eagerly. She studied at the Art Students League, the New School of Social Research and Hans Hofmann's painting school.
In 1961, Marisol was included in the Museum of Modern Art's groundbreaking exhibition The Art of Assemblage. Her amusing sculpture portrayal of tourists, From France, was included alongside works of twentieth century pioneers such as Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. (right: John, Washington and Emily Roebling Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for the First Time, 1989)
Marisol evolved into a major figure in contemporary art. In 1963, Life Magazine commissioned a work for an upcoming movie issue. The result, John Wayne, is a satirical take on the super-macho image that the actor embodied. The artist's lifelong inclination has been to poke fun at the prosperous while conveying sympathy for the less fortunate. "She is an artist capable of creating both a wonderful parody of the macho ideal represented by John Wayne and a reverent homage to South African Bishop Desmond Tutu," notes Eleanor Heartney. "She has made deeply personal works like Mi Mama Y Yo, a poignant portrait of herself as a little girl with her mother. She has also produced witty, caustic representations of world leaders like Franco, De Gaulle, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and sensitive depictions (represented in the exhibition) of artists Picasso, de Kooning and Georgia O'Keeffe in the later years of their lives."
Marisol is the Neuberger Museum of Art 2001 Biennial Exhibition of Public Art honoree, on view throughout the Purchase College campus through October 27, 2001. She is represented in the by her 1997 bronze sculpture The General.
Following is an essay from the Marisol exhibition catalogue published in 2001. The essay is reprinted with permission of the Neuberger Museum of Art and was authored by Eleanor Heartney, art historian and critic.
Marisol: A Sculptor of Modern Life
by Eleanor Heartney
In 1863, the critic and poet Charles Baudelaire challenged the artists of his day to turn from tired academic subjects and allegorical motifs and take on the exciting subject of modernity. They should aim, he suggested, to become a "painter of modern life." Such an artist, he noted, would be one who "enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all elements of life."[l]
For over a century, Baudelaire's exhortation has continued to resonate among artists. His advice seems particularly pertinent to the period of the early 1960s, at the moment when the inward turning Abstract Expressionist movement began to give way to the extroverted ebullience of Pop. Pop art took a variety of forms, and a number of very different artists were linked to the movement at one time or another: But in its "classic" phase, Pop was an art that celebrated the modernity of postwar-America and found inspiration in the symbols and symptoms of its new prosperity. (left: Magritte VI, 1998, mixed media, Marlborough Gallery, Inc.)
Today when we think of Pop art, the names that most immediately come to mind are those of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Jim Dine and Tom Wesselman. These artists explored the seductions of advertising and blandishments of commercial culture, using a style borrowed from the mass media. They focused on the way that images create desire, and they created art which expressed, not so much how people lived, as how they felt they should live.
This is in contrast to more traditional forms of social commentary. For this sort of exploration, we must turn to a different group of artists who were affiliated with Pop, but in retrospect, involved in something quite different. These artists focused on people and their relationships rather than on the things and media images that surrounded them. They revealed what was going on behind the American dream -- the fate of those untouched by postwar prosperity, the loneliness engendered by an atomized society, the emptiness of material success. Of course in the 1960s, media was also part of the story they told. So they also touch on the cult of celebrity, the striving for status, and the dream of wealth and sex appeal. But these weren't the whole story.
The artists I have in mind invited audiences to consider a much broader tapestry of American life than that provided by the media machine. They include Red Grooms, who exhibited a rollicking good humor that gave a carnival quality to his depiction of the diversity of urban life; Edward Kienholz, who presented a dark vision of the hidden horrors of a paternalistic, conformist society; George Segal, who focused on the dignity of anonymous citizens; finally, it included Marisol, who recreated both the mask and the human story that lay behind it.
Of these artists, Marisol is perhaps the least understood, in part because the wide range of her themes and subjects does not allow for easy categorization. Additionally, her association with Pop encouraged a surface reading that ran counter to the layered subtleties embedded in her work. With the passage of time, it is now possible to see her work more clearly, to disentangle it from a superficial reading of Pop, and to trace out the various threads which tie it all together.
On one hand there are wickedly satirical works like The Family, 1962, which takes on the social games of the status seekers of 60s America, But there are also deeply empathetic works, i.e. Cuban Children with Goat, which bring us an uncondescending view of the world shaped by privation and poverty. She is an artist capable of creating both a wonderful parody of the macho ideal represented by John Wayne and a reverent homage to South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. She has made deeply personal works like Mi Mama Y Yo, a poignant portrait of herself as a little girl with her mother, who died when she was eleven; witty, caustic representations of world leaders like Franco, De Gaulle, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and sensitive depictions of artists like Picasso, de Kooning and Georgia O'Keeffe in the later years of their lives.
Commentators are often more comfortable with artists whom they can easily box, but Marisol defies such expectations. Nevertheless, there is a thread that ties her work together: It is, as Baudelaire suggested, an ability to engage sympathetically with the world around her:
This was stimulated, no doubt, by the peripatetic nature of her early life, Born in Paris in 1930 to Venezuelan parents, Marisol spent her first years traveling in Europe with her family, and then commuting between Caracas and the United States and Europe. After her mother's death in 1941, she went to boarding school. Her father continued to travel between Caracas, New York, Europe and also Los Angeles, where Marisol attended high school. When it came time for higher education, she declared her interest in art and announced that she wished to study in Paris. Though her father supported her interest in art, he felt that she would be safer in New York. Marisol tells this story with a wry amusement, because of course, as it turns out in the early fifties New York was the center of a bohemian art culture whose excesses have since become legendary.
For an aspiring young artist, it was an exciting moment to enter the New York art world, She took classes at the Art Students League, the New School of Social Research and Hans Hofmann's painting school. At this time she still considered herself as a painter. This began to change as she came into contact with sculptors like William King, a creator of witty, pseudo primitive figures, and with the tradition of American folk art and pre-Colombian art on which she drew. Her earliest exhibited work consisted of tiny clay figurines set like relies or specimens in the compartments of an old printer's type box. She began to expand her repertoire, creating figures from wood and bronze as well. Queen, 1957, is an excellent example of this early work. A terra cotta crown of tiny figure-like fingers rests atop the head of a carved wood bust of a woman, suggesting Marisol's interest in folk art and "primitive" sculpture. By the end of the decade, she was receiving favorable press in major art magazines.
An important turning point occurred in 1960, when she came upon a potato sack full of hat forms while visiting friends in Easthampton, New York. These became the basis for the first works that are recognizably Marisol. The hat forms became full-scale human heads and were set in compartments or atop simple painted blocks. This exhibition contains one of these early works. Tea for Three, 1960, consists of three hat-form heads on top of a block painted with vertical red, yellow and blue stripes. The heads are clown-like with white plaster casts of parts of the artist's own face, giving them fragmentary references to realism. One is topped with a hat in the shape of a building. It is possible to see references here to some of the other artists who were also coming to the forefront of the avant garde art world. The casts suggest Jasper Johns' 1955 Target with Plaster Casts, in which a large encaustic painting of a target is topped by a row of small compartments containing cast fragments of his own body although Marisol had not seen his work at this point. The building/hat, meanwhile, brings to mind a 1959 performance by Red Grooms entitled The Burning Building, whose set consisted of a careening cardboard cityscape that presaged his later environmental works.
But whether such similar elements were direct influences or simply part of the period's general air of experimentation, it is clear that Marisol has already begun staking out her own unique territory. The stiff bodies with expressive faces, the ingenious use of found and created elements, the interest in character and the deadpan wit all are already evident in this early work.
Marisol's career received an important boost when she was included in the groundbreaking 1961 The Art of Assemblage exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition picked up on an aesthetic that was becoming widespread both in Europe and the United States. The term "assemblage" itself, which refers to art that incorporates real objects, was first used in 1955 by Jean Dubuffet to distinguish his own work from the more three dimensional collages of Picasso and Braque. The sprawling exhibition included such early Twentieth-century pioneers as Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwhitters, Max Ernst and Andre Breton, as well as more recent artists like Louise Nevelson, Joseph Cornell, Jean Tinguely, and Arman. Among the youngest artists were Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Edward Kienholz, H. C. Westerman, Robert Indiana, Lucas Samaras, and, of course, Marisol.
Marisol's contribution was a sculpture entitled From France, an amusing portrayal of a couple of tourists. In this work, two cylindrical hat-form heads with berets top a rough block of wood. One of the man's legs ends in a real baby shoe and their joint fronts contain plaster casts over a packing sign with the stenciled words "FROM FRANCE." Like Tea for Three, this work celebrated Marisol's enjoyment of scavenging. As she told interviewer Avis Berman in 1984, All my early work came from the street. It was magical for me to find things. There was a thrown-out baby carriage, so I made a mother with her baby in the carriage. 1 looked down at an old beam in the gutter and saw the Mona Lisa. When I drew in the face and sanded it, the grain of the wood made a smile by itself... So many things like that happened to me."
The Art of Assemblage made the case for the diversity and the importance of assemblage to twentieth-century artists It also set the stage for the emergence, a few years later, of a movement that came to be known as Pop. While Pop later crystallized in the public mind as a movement that centered around artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and parodied advertising and pop culture, in its more amorphous beginning Pop was also known as Neo-Dada. This title, with its reference to the sometimes-bitter social commentary of artists like Max Ernst. Francis Picabia and Man Ray, carries darker connotations and connects to the thread of social critique which runs through much of Marisol's work.
As an erstwhile Pop artist, Marisol was also associated in the public mind with Andy Warhol, and indeed, he memorably dubbed her "The first girl artist with glamour." But, as an artist who arrived in New York at the moment when the last golden glow of Abstract Expressionism overlapped with the birth of Pop, she also remained drawn to the psychological intensity of artists like de Kooning and Franz Kline, whom she met during forays to the Cedar Bar. (right: Portrait of de Kooning, 1980, mixed media, Marlborough Gallery, Inc.)
Certainly, some of the sculptures Marisol created during this time conformed to the upbeat ethos of Pop. For instance, The Bathers, 1961-62, is a lighthearted work which depicts three women in bathing suits lolling casually in the sun. The work reveals Marisol's increasingly sophisticated use of three dimensions. One woman's head and torso are painted on a backdrop, while her carved legs extend out into the air. The other two figures are fully dimensional, but their bodies shift between smoothly shaped wood that evokes their womanly curves and sections that retain the blocky quality of the wood from which they have been created. As an ensemble, the group is suffused with an easygoing eroticism -- and in fact the woman in the foreground lies on her stomach exposing a pair of satiny white buttocks cast from plaster:
But if The Bathers shares the hedonism and cheeky sensuality of work by Pop masters like Warhol, Rosenquist and Wesselman, Marisol was also capable of work that was sobering and serious. The Family is based on a vintage photograph of a rural Southern family in the 1920s and 30s that she rescued from the trash bin of her studio mate, a photographer who reproduced family photographs for a living. The work is completely frontal, depicting a fatherless family posing stiffly in their modest Sunday best for a professional photographer. As in The Bathers, parts of the figures and faces are painted on a flat backdrop, while others protrude into space. Particularly striking is the fully carved face of the baby who sits quietly in his mother's lap. Behind the group an elaborate ironwork pattern from the original photograph is painted over a pair of doors Marisol found on the street outside her studio, In contrast to her more satirical depictions of members of the middle and leisure class, Marisol endows this group with a sense of strength and dignity that is utterly without irony.
In the giddy atmosphere of the early sixties, Marisol's intentions were sometimes misconstrued. For instance, in 1963 she was commissioned by Life Magazine to create a work that would appear in an issue on the movies. Marisol decided to depict the cinematic icon John Wayne. Using a toy horse from Mexico as the model for his steed, she presented Wayne as a cross between a merry-go-round figure and a weathervane. The red horse's legs fly out in front and back while the cowboy figure sits stiffly in the saddle. Suggesting his quick draw, he has an extra hand, so that we see the same hand resting the gun by his side and raised in front of his chest.The work, which appeared the same year as Warhol's Marilyns, was seen in a similar light, as a work of adulation to a glamorous movie star But in fact, Marisol confesses that she always disliked John Wayne, and believed that he couldn't act. Viewed in this light, it becomes clear that this work actually serves as a satirical riff on the super-macho image that Wayne embodied. (left: John Wayne, 1963, mixed media, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center)
By the time this work appeared in Life Magazine, Marisol had become a major figure in contemporary American art. She was known inside and outside the art world, was prominently included in such important surveys of the scene as the Museum of Modern Art's 1963 exhibition The Americans as well as Annuals, museum exhibitions presenting the year's highlights, in New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. She was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine profiles, many of which focuses more on her exotic good looks and reputedly glamorous lifestyle than on a serious evaluation of her work.
But even in the glare of the public eye, Marisol managed, as the sixties progressed, to continue her formal and thematic explorations. Much of her work focused on explicit social commentary in which she tended to satirize the prosperous, while conveying sympathy for the less fortunate. The range is surprisingly wide. There is the playful insouciance of Women Sitting on a Mirror, 1965-66, in which the women's figures, elongated by the reflection of the mirror on which they rest, are topped by saucy hats, which are actually forms that Marisol found in a.plastic store near her neighborhood. One, in particular; has a broad brim reminiscent of the hat worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, a popular film at the time.
This satirical dig at women of fashion could not be further from the spirit of Mi Mama y Yo, 1968, a rare autobiographical work in steel and aluminum which the artist created for an outdoor setting, This poignant work presents Marisol as a young girl standing on a bench and holding a perforated parasol over her mother, who died when she was eleven The two bodies are created from similar pink minimalist forms, conveying a sense of their psychic connection. Heads, hands and feet are cast in a realistic manner; reflecting the details evident in the family photograph on which this work is based. Again, there is no irony here, just a sense of the comfortable bond between mother and child.
A completely different take on childhood appears in a pair of works from 1962 and 63. Baby Boy and Baby Girl are horrific visions of giant children who grasp miniature Marisol dolls. Baby Girl measures six feet and Baby Boy measures seven. They sit or stand stiffly in their best clothes, exuding an almost monstrous complacency that seems to suggest the unreflective self-absorption of postwar-American culture.(left: Baby Girl, 1963, mixed media, Collection Albright-Knox Gallery)
By the end of the decade, Marisol felt a need to take a break from the frenzied pace of the New York art world. She spent a year traveling in Asia, becoming acquainted with Asian art and learning scuba diving and underwater photography. When she returned to New York in 1970, she found herself in an entirely new frame of mind. She began a series of fish sculptures. Carved in smoothly polished wood with plaster masks cast from her own face, they have, as she concedes, a weapon-like quality, suggesting missiles or rockets. Yet there is also something both elegant and alien about these works that suggested a change of direction. Fishman, 1973, for instance, is an enigmatic, dreamlike sculpture. It consists of a polished male body stepping slightly forward in a pose reminiscent of Greek Kouros figures. He has a fish head and holds a whole fish in one arm. At his feet, like an animal fetish, is a toucan with Marisol's face.
Reflecting on this period, Marisol told an interviewer in 1975, "When I came back (from the far east) I felt like doing something very pure, just for the sake of it... I wanted to do something beautiful:" Marisol's critics were baffled, wondering where the witty satirist of the sixties has gone. But while this period of introspection did not last long, she emerged from it with a more mature set of concerns.
Recent decades have brought Marisol a number of new themes. She created a set of portraits of older artists, and began to work from specific historical events. She created a monumental sculptural reconstruction of daVinci's Last Supper, as well as his Virgin, Child, St. Anne and St. John. But she also returned to earlier themes, continuing to examine the nature of family and social class.
The artist portraits, in particular, are the work of a mature artist reflecting on the meaning and demands of her vocation, In this series she celebrates artists whom she particularly admires. She has chosen to represent them later in life, emphasizing the lined faces and careworn expressions that have developed during decades of creative struggle. "After fifty" George Orwell remarked, "everyone has the face he deserves." In these works, Marisol gives a remarkable representation of the real meaning of "character."
Her Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe With Dogs, 1977 is based on photographs she took during a visit to O'Keeffe in New Mexico. The 90-year old artist sits bolt upright on a stump, her walking cane in hand. She is flanked by her two pet show dogs, which stand by her like guardians. The most remarkable aspects of this sculpture are the deeply wrinkled hands, familiar to us from Alfred Stieglitz's photographs of O'Keeffe, and the magnificent furrowed face. She has a regal bearing that commands immediate respect.
Marisol's Portrait of de Kooning meanwhile, is more casual,. An old friend from her days at the Cedar Bar, he sits in a sturdy copy of his favorite rocking chair, with three hands, in what may be a comment on his painting skill. Again, the head is what draws us, as its roughly carved surfaces evoke an artist deeply immersed in his own thoughts. "de Kooning was my hero -- actually he still is my hero," Marisol told interviewer Avis Berman, "and I learned a lot from him."
Marisol also did portraits of artists including Louise Nevelson, Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, William Burroughs and Virgil Thompson. The only artist in this series whom she never met was Picasso, yet he clearly looms large as an artistic father figure. For his portrait she combined two famous photographs of him. In one he was sitting on the beach, and she has faithfully reproduced his bare legs and gnarled feet coming out of a rough block of wood. The other photograph showed him seated on a chair in his studio. Marisol has copied this chair and given Picasso two sets of hands, one resting on the chair arms, the other on his knees. His enormous aquiline nose protrudes from a grooved face with deep-set troubled eyes. All the artists in this series are seated, because, as Marisol has remarked, she felt she needed to give them a place to rest at their advanced age.
These artist portraits are not the only ones that convey admirations. Marisol also began to turn to history and to politics for heroic figures. While earlier portraits of political leaders like de Gaulle, Queen Elizabeth and Lyndon Johnson were often saturated with playful satire, there is nothing but admiration in her sculpture of Bishop Desmond Tutu, 1988. A world-renowned spokesperson for the disenfranchised of apartheid era South Africa, Tutu is present in Marisol's work as a massive, implacable force for righteousness. She has set a realistically carved head on a massive purple box with a lighted cutaway in the form of a cross. Protruding from the box is a single hand that holds his bishop's staff. The whole work resonates with a sense of moral resolve.
Blackfoot Delegation to Washington 1916 created in 1993, deals with a similarly appalling historical moment. This work which came about when a group of Native Americans invited artists to participate in the American Pavilion at the World's Fair in Seville by submitting an artwork in exchange for a shaman blessing. Marisol was the only artist who responded to their invitation. This exchange inspired the sculpture, which is based on an old photograph of a famous meeting in which the Blackfoot Indians attempted to negotiate a land settlement with the US Government. The five delegates face the viewer with somber resolution. The three figures in the foreground wear native garb and carry accoutrements of their vanishing lifestyle. Standing stiffly behind them are two darker figures who have conceded to the conventions of their conquerors by donning suits and ties. There is nothing patronizing in Marisol's depiction, no reference to the stereotypical cigar store Indian or the comic Redskin of the WiId West Show. Instead, she presents her delegates as grave and tragic figures locked in an unsuccessful battle with the forces of history,
A happier moment in American history is chronicled in John, Washington and Emily Roebling Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for the First Time 1989. This work, which was commissioned for a public memorial that was never built, evokes the first carriage ride over the Brooklyn Bridge by the triumvirate of family members responsible for its construction. In the center is the patriarch, John Roebling, who designed the bridge. He thrusts out his arm in a gesture that speaks both of resolution and leadership. Next to him stands his son, Washington, who continued to work on the bridge after his father's death. But the real hero of the piece seems to be Emily, Washington's wife, who dominates the tableau in her sweeping red dress, She completed the bridge after her husband became disabled, and she holds the rooster; which she is said to have carried as a symbol of victory on this first auspicious crossing. Clearly feeling a sense of identification with the vision and the grit required to see such an undertaking through, Marisol told interviewer Paul Gardner in 1989 that, "The Roeblings symbolized courage and strength, which produced a work of art."
These new themes have appeared alongside older ones in Marisol's more recent work. The family unit, which she has both satirized and celebrated over the years, receives a more overtly political twist in the 1987 tableau Poor Family I. This work, and several related ones, followed Marisol's participation in an exhibition organized to bring attention to the problems of world hunger and over population. In a statement for that show, Marisol wrote, "in some parts of the world people are on diets, obese from overeating, while in other parts, people are starving to death. I would like to see a more balanced way of sharing food and life."
Poor Family I dramatizes that problem. It represents a large Latin American family with mother; father; ten children and two dogs. They crowd together; older children holding younger ones, almost obscuring the corner of a small table covered with a red and white checked tablecloth. The likelihood of its ever holding enough food to satisfy all of them seems slim. Meanwhile, they are separated from us by a low pile of stone rubble, which only seems to reinforce a sense of their privation.
Marisol revisits similar territory in her 1995 Cuban Children with Goat. Here we see a raggedy dressed group of children sitting on a weathered beam pulling at a reluctant goat which, one presumes, they are taking to market to sell. They regard us with grimacing expressions, which, Marisol reports, is exactly how the group of children on whom this work is based posed for the camera when she took their picture during a trip to Cuba in the mid-nineties.
Not all Marisol's more recent works are so serious. The Airplane, 1983, is based on a real life acquaintance -- the grandfather of a friend who owned a ranch in Venezuela. Though already a very old man when she met him, this patriarch used a small plane to get to and from his ranch. Marisol loved the idea of making a sculpture that put together a man from an earlier era with a means of transport associated with our own. She depicts him as he appeared in a photograph she saw, gingerly holding out his cane in front of an airplane that is a scaled-down replica of the one he actually used.
The collapse of time frames is also one aspect of The Last Supper, a monumental sculptural recreation of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece. Christ is carved from a salvaged brownstone, while the rest of the figures are created from pieces of wood. Though the subject is ostensibly religious, Marisol insists that was not her intention in creating this piece. In a 1989 interview, she explained, "Leonardo's masterpiece is really about the Renaissance, not religion. His setting is an aristocratic dinner in Italy. I think he used models from the street and arranged their robes after the fashion of the day ...I suppose if someone were to do the Last Supper today, it would take place in a restaurant like the Odeon."
She has placed a sculpture of herself in front of the tableau, noting, "Because I studied it so much, I put my portrait there." This work marks a return to the self-portrait motif, which had largely disappeared from her work after the Fish series. It seems here to represent an identification with the audience, which is looking at her work.
The most recent works in this exhibition are from her series of Magritte. In these works, Marisol's old playfulness is in full evidence. The surrealist artist is represented in a set of stiff comic figures in bowler hats and real umbrellas. The work could be seen as a mediation on the practice of illusion, which makes art possible. It doesn't seem farfetched to imagine that Marisol feels a certain kinship with Magritte, another master of absurdist displacement and sly critic of the pomposities of the middle class. The multiple Magrittes here seem ready to take flight on the wings of their outstretched umbrellas, unlikely avatars of the artistic imagination.
For over four decades, Marisol has been engaged in weaving a marvelous tapestry of human foibles, tragedies and ambitions. From this end of her career, her distance from the conventional notion of Pop Art is increasingly clear. Yet there is no other movement which seems capable of encompassing the range of her achievements. As I suggested at the outset, she seems best placed with other social commentators like Ed Kienholz, Red Grooms, and George Segal. On a formal level, she is perhaps closest to Kienholz, who also created figures and human environments out of the detritus of modern urban life. But her tone is very different than his. Kienholz tends toward horrific portraits of the family and the American scene. His figures are composed of found objects -- sewing tables, tricycles and baby strollers, fish bowls, animal bones -- arranged to bring out a sense of dehumanization and degradation.
Compare this with Marisol's family portraits. She was capable of highly satirical depictions -- for instance, a 1963 The Family, which depicts an upscale middle class family with a distant, stalwart dad, a mindless fashionable mom and four children, two insufferable toddlers and two babies in a carriage. But she also can deal with the subject with great empathy, as we have seen in works like the 1962 The Family and Poor Family I. For Kienholz, the family is a nightmare, while for Marisol, it is the building block of society and subject to the same tensions and difficulties as the rest of the culture. She gives form to Baudelaire's remark, "The lover of life makes the whole world his family."
Another social commentator; Red Grooms, shares her cheekiness and astute observation of telling details, but he is also more completely a parodist. Like Marisol, Grooms has created numerous portraits of other artists, but these tend to focus on the absurdity of the avant gardist impulse as it appears to the non-art public. And when he deals with Native Americans, he tends to draw his references from immediately recognizable media images rather than direct experience.
Oddly, considering how different their work is formally, the artist whose vision comes closest to Marisol's is George Segal. His white plaster casts of anonymous urban types in generic urban settings share the sense of humanism and sympathy that has been increasingly apparent in Marisol's more recent work. Like her; he is drawn to the vulnerabilities and the poignant struggles of his characters. He reminds us that we are all part of the same crazy world.
In the end, labels like Pop or Abstract Expressionism are less important than the enduring qualities of the art they describe. In Marisol's case what endures is the universality of the impulses she captures. Truly a sculptor of modern life, she evokes the venality of social climbers, the integrity of great artists, the contradictions of the powerful and the quiet dignity of dispossessed. She feels both their absurdity and their pain and encourages us to do the same.
1. Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life," reprinted in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. by Jonathan Mayne. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964):12
2. Avis Berman, "A Bold and Incisive Way of Portraying Movers and Shakers," Smithsonian 14 (Feb 1984): 56
3. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol 60s (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1980): 35
4. Quoted in Cindy Nemser; ArtTalk, (New York: Charles Scribner; 1975): 190
5. George Orwell, "Extracts from a Manuscript Note-book" reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968): 515
6. Berman, "A Bold and Incisive way of Portraying Movers and Shakers," p. 57
7. Interview with the artist, September 2000
8. Paul Gardner; "Who is Marisol?" ARTnews 88 (May 1989): 148
9. Artist statement for "international Art show for the End of World Hunger;" traveling exhibition, 1987
10. Gardner; "Who is Marisol?" p. 149
12. Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life," p. 13
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