Integrated into the exhibit Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper at El Museo del Barrio, are numerous wall-text quotes. Resonating deeply are the artist's words from 1989:
"I've always wanted to be free in my life and art. It's as important to me as truth."
While others in the art world were intent on categorizing Marisol's work within one particular school or another, Marisol continued to explore the subjects and mediums that spoke to the immediacy of her creative impulses.
Born in Paris in 1930 to Venezuelan parents, Maria Sol Escobar has lived in Caracas, Los Angeles, Paris, Italy, and New York City--where she currently resides. Leo Castelli showcased Marisol's talents in 1957 when he put her in a group show. Six months later, she secured a solo show at his gallery.
Ignoring the vagaries of the art scene, Marisol explored her own vision and imagery undeterred by the knowledge that her direction was not always in tune with the prevailing sensibilities. At times, an ongoing background chatter threatened to overshadow her accomplishments. These included her friendship with Andy Warhol, her physical beauty, and the critics who originally lauded her but became detractors later in her career.
Marisol racked up abundant early accolades. She was included in the 1961 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, The Art of Assemblage, and represented Venezuela in the 1968 Venice Biennale. She found a nurturing home at the Sidney Janis Gallery from 1964-1993. During the decade of the 1960s, she made almost one hundred sculptures.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art originated this exhibition of Marisol's work in June 2014. At El Museo del Barrio, it stands as the first solo show for the artist in a New York museum. I was able to speak with Executive Director, Jorge Daniel Veneciano, and curator Rocio Arando-Alvarado, at the time of my visit.
Veneciano, who took over the museum's helm nine months ago, shared his future goals. On the agenda is a five-year plan committed to showcasing women artists--with scholarship as a key element of the presentation. Securing the Marisol exhibit was integral to setting the tone for his strategy. As Veneciano escorted me on a walk-through, he spoke animatedly about the "conceptual installation" and how the differently colored walls established specific relationships with the work. He named a dark salmon backdrop panel as "Marisol pink." "Every room has a portal pulling you in," he said. "We want to do things differently. We want to bring new ideas to exhibition practice."
Reflecting on Marisol's career, Veneciano said, "This is an important woman artist who merits the attention. She was a woman in a man's genre--which was Pop art. She was working with cultural iconic images, but they didn't look like Warhol or the male version of Pop art." Veneciano stated, "As a result, Marisol was displaced and dismissed."
The show is not structured chronologically. Rather, Veneciano wants to highlight an examination of Marisol's oeuvre with a nod to her "broader experimentation." Pointing to a drawing from 1974, he remarks upon the "tension in her work" and the integration of "color with dark subject matter." Veneciano emphasized the "ironies" that Marisol pinpointed, while "mixing metaphors and reversing perceptions."
Standing with Arando-Alvarado in front of the double lithograph Diptych, she noted, "Women artists of this generation didn't necessarily think of themselves as feminist, but this work is a really powerful feminist statement because it underscores her presence."
Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor is introduced to Marisol's universe via a large black and white photograph of the artist in her studio, where she is surrounded by wood cutting tools. The infant Jesus, from The Family, is on the table in front of her. In the background, an out of focus Mary can be seen behind her.
Photography by Jack Mitchell
The Hungarians, from the 1950s, introduces a theme that will be reiterated and reexamined throughout the years. A family unit is assembled and placed on a surface--wood planks with four carriage wheels attached. There are touches of color on the mother's lips. The whites of all the eyes have been subtly demarcated.
Completed two years later, Queen melds a carved bust out of wood with a terracotta crown-like structure. The markings in the hair recall Picasso's riff on Vela'zquez's Las Meninas. The format of the terracotta portion, with separate and interlocking components, points to the bronze pieces Marisol would cast in 1959. It also recalls the Mexican "Tree of Life" ceramic candelabras.
Marisol delves into the psychological impact of the family on the individual. In Family Portrait, a photograph from the early 1930s serves as a departure point for her print. An initially straightforward representation, with a medallion-shaped depiction of her parents placed above a rectangular family grouping, morphs into greater complexities. Hands, fingers, profiles, and unidentified protuberances then envelope that imagery. They are the beginnings of a visual vocabulary that will be employed by Marisol recurrently.