Marisol Escobar

Marisol Escobar


Marisol was born in Paris to Venezuelan parents Gustavo Escobar and Josefina Hernandez on May 22, 1930. Marisol has a brother, also Gustavo, who is now an economist living in Venezuela. Financially comfortable, the family lived something of a nomadic existence in Europe, Venezuela, and the United States. Their wealth derived from the Venezuelan oil business and real estate that afforded the family a very comfortable, social lifestyle. Marisol’s mother died in New York in 1941 when Marisol was eleven years old. Following the tragedy and for the duration of World War II, the family lived mainly in Caracas, with the children attending a series of local schools. Near the end of the war, Marisol’s father moved the family to Los Angeles, California where Marisol was enrolled in the Westlake School for Girls.

With aspirations to become a painter, Marisol first studied art in evening drawing classes at the Jepson School in Los Angeles when she was sixteen. By this time, she was already proficient in representational drawing. Catholicism imbued Marisol with beliefs in mystery, miracles, intercession, and awareness of a spiritual/supernatural aspect of life that permeated both her character and work as an artist. As she revealed to Avis Berman in a 1984 interview for Smithsonian, Marisol suffered self-inflicted acts of penance for a brief period in her early teens. She walked on her knees until they bled, kept silent for long periods, and tied ropes tightly around her waist in emulation of saints and martyrs.

Encouraged by her father to pursue her interest in art, Marisol moved to Paris to study for a year in 1949. At the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, she was instructed to mimic the painting style of Pierre Bonnard. In search of more creative approaches, Marisol moved to New York City in 1950. During that year, Marisol took art instruction from decorative painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi at New York’s Art Students League. From 1951 to 1954 she took courses at the New School for Social Research while studying under her most influential mentor, the so-called ‘dean of Abstract Expressionism,’ Hans Hofmann. At Hofmann’s schools in Greenwich Village and Provincetown, Massachusetts, Marisol became acquainted with notions of the “push and pull” dynamic: of forcing dichotomies between raw and finished states. During this period, Marisol was introduced to the Cedar Street Tavern, the chief watering hole for many of the leading Abstract Expressionists with whom Marisol became friends, particularly Willem de Kooning.

Marisol’s discovery and subsequent study of Pre-Columbian artifacts in 1951 led to her abandoning traditional painting by 1954. She turned to terracotta, wood, and fabricated sculpture. Although largely self-taught, Marisol took a clay course at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. She also learned plaster casting techniques from sculptor William King. Marisol shared King’s fascination with early American Primitive pieces like a coffee grinder in the shape of a man and wooden figures on wheels. Marisol took printers’ type cases and placed small terracotta figures in the openings. These votive works (first exhibited at the Tanager Gallery, an artists co-op effort, in a group show that included King and Alex Katz) caught the eye of Leo Castelli. Leo Castelli Gallery featured Marisol’s Pre-Columbian art-inspired carvings of animals and totemic figures in her first one-person exhibition in 1958.

Grave self-doubt followed Marisol’s initial success and exposure with the Castelli show and she left New York to live for a year in Italy in 1959. In Rome, she studied the works of the Renaissance masters while she re-evaluated her own work and artistic goals. Feeling creatively freed, Marisol returned to New York to produce an impressive body of work that led to many important exhibitions and the acquisition of her work for the collections of leading museums. With the honing of her woodcarving skills, Marisol began to establish her identity in an era dominated by Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Jackson Pollock and de Kooning. The heavy seriousness of this movement prompted Marisol to seek humor in her own work, which was essentially carved and drawn-on self-portraiture. She expanded her range of materials with the inclusion of found objects (often including her own clothing) – a practice found in the historic sculptures and collages of Picasso as well as the more contemporary ‘combines’ of Robert Rauschenberg.

In the following decade of the sixties, Marisol found herself in the sympathetic company of Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, despite the fact that she rarely used strictly commercial items in her works. Marisol participated in two of Warhol’s movies – The Kiss and 13 Most Beautiful Girls. Exploiting the banality of popular culture was not the sole focus of Marisol’s work: wry social observation and satire have always been integral to her sculptures. As the only female artist within the Pop enclave, she managed to infuse a great deal of individuality in her sculptures – usually through the means of inserting or adopting different identities. One of her most well-known works of this period was The Party, a life-size group installation of figures at the Sidney Janis Gallery. All the figures gathered together in various guises of the social elite, sported Marisol’s face. It is intriguing to note that Marisol dropped her family surname of Escobar in order to divest herself of a patrilineal identity and to “stand out from the crowd.”

Throughout the sixties and seventies, Marisol expanded her range of subject matter to include many sculptural portraits of friends, families, world leaders, and famous artists. The social and political upheavals of the late 1960s upset Marisol, who had participated in an anti-Vietnam War march. During 1968 Marisol left for what was to be a month’s break that turned into almost two years of world travel. While in Tahiti, Marisol learned to scuba dive. She became enamored with the floating non-human environment of the sea as an antidote to terrestrial turmoil. Marisol did scuba diving in every ocean around the world from 1968 to 1972. She was discouraged from continuing when a friend suffered a stroke while diving. Experiences with the underwater world inspired Marisol to create a series of stained, polished, mahogany fish forms to which the artist’s face was attached. She liked the dangerous and beautiful fish – especially shark and barracuda, which she likened to missiles.
The artist has also illuminated tragic human conditions by focusing on various disadvantaged or minority groups such as Dust Bowl migrants, Father Damien (depicted with the marks of leprosy), poor Cuban families, and Native Americans. These subjects set her work apart from the commercially derived imagery that formed the basis of Pop art. In recent years, Marisol received a letter from a Native American group requesting submissions for graphic work. Out of several artists asked, she was the only artist to respond. This initial contact led to her creation of a large body of work based on Native Americans and an exhibition of this work as the United States’ contribution to the Seville Fair in Spain.

Motivated by her admiration for da Vinci as an artist rather than any religious feeling, Marisol executed sculptural renditions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper as well as The Virgin with St. Anne in the 1980s. Marisol based her interpretation of the Last Supper on the original version by da Vinci in which a dagger appeared held by a disembodied hand (later painted out in da Vinci’s Last Supper).

Marisol has consistently participated in numerous one-person and group exhibitions since the first momentous exhibition at the Castelli Gallery. The Castelli Gallery, Sidney Janis Gallery, and currently the Marlborough Gallery have represented her at various points in her career. Marisol became an American citizen in 1963, yet was chosen to represent Venezuela in the 1968 Venice Biennale. Joan Mondale chose work by Marisol for the Vice Presidential mansion in Washington, DC during her husband’s tenure. Her public installations and commissions include the American Merchant Mariner’s Memorial in Promenade Battery Park of the Port of New York. To be close to the site of the project, she rented an apartment near the docks in the Battery Park area to work on the piece. (An inveterate world traveler, she has found that new environments can be discovered in a mere five-minute walk from her TriBeCa studio.) Marisol also designed stage sets for Martha Graham’s The Eyes of the Goddess, performed in 1992 at City Center Theater in New York.

The artist has received Honorary Doctorates in the Arts from Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, Rhode Island School of Design, and New York State University. Her works are featured in major American public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. Marisol is included in numerous public collections in other countries such as the Galeria de Arte Nacional and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Caracas, Venezuela, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany, and the Tokushima Modern Art Museum in Japan. She died in 2016.