In 1961 the Venezuelan-American sculptor Marisol Escobar made a startling appearance at the New York artists’ group known as the Club that would set the tone for her unconventional career. The Club was where the alphas of contemporary American art met. Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and their ilk gathered there to take part in discussions, listen to talks, and escape their families. Abstract Expressionism was the house style and in its early days women, homosexuals and communists were all barred from membership.
The Club was male, cliquey, exclusive and drenched in its own importance so when Marisol, as she was always known, arrived to participate in a discussion wearing a white mask over her face she caused consternation and even anger. As the discussion began, there was a clamour demanding that she remove the mask. A legion of offended men shouted and stamped their feet. ‘Take off that goddam mask!’ they insisted and, eventually, Marisol obliged. Underneath, her own face was painted white, just like the mask.
At this point, Marisol was shifting away from the expressionist painting that had initially brought her attention, instead developing an individual approach to sculpture. Within a few years she was producing exhibitions that had people queuing in their thousands to get in, and had been anointed as the First Lady of Pop Art. Andy Warhol, to whom she was close, called her ‘the first girl artist with glamour’, which was patronising nonsense. Marisol certainly had glamour — she was beautiful, composed and intelligent — but, more importantly, she had artistic chops.
She made sculptural assemblages from wood and found materials that can be compared to Robert Rauschenberg in their structural language. But, unlike Rauschenberg’s, Marisol’s work was rooted in the identity of the individual.
Skilled in drawing and woodcarving, her nuanced pieces had wit and, at times, offered a withering critique. While she is renowned for her work with family groupings and mother and child motifs, she also made pointed commentaries on political figures in her sculptural portraits. Her version of LBJ, made in 1967, is just the right side of caricature, but conveys a disdain for the man, rendered here as a literal blockhead with his exaggerated features drawn on to a lump of wood poised above a coffin-like body.
‘LBJ’ was one of many political portraits, but she also tackled classic pop art iconography in her most popular work. John Wayne aboard a stretched-out child’s rocking horse was one of her most popular images. Entertaining, decorative and accessible, this was art that caught the ebullient flavour of the times. But a closer look might have hinted at a darker future. In 1962, for example, she made a cast of her face with a full Coca-Cola bottle rammed down the mouth and called it ‘Love’. Nevertheless, the American public and critics lapped up the work and by the end of the decade Marisol was firmly established as an art star.
But then, all of a sudden, she left. In 1968 she began a five-year hiatus, travelling the world. This seemed an outrageous thing for an artist at the peak of her career to do, but those who knew Marisol’s background may have been less surprised. Born in 1930 to Venezuelan parents in Paris, she spent her childhood on a peripatetic tour of Europe before eventually settling in South America. Her mother died when she was 11 and she vowed never to speak again, a decision she persisted with until her twenties by which time, she later said, ‘silence had become such a habit that I really had nothing to say to anybody’.
The attention she was receiving by the end of the Sixties evidently proved overwhelming. She took refuge in drugs and sex: ‘I was stoned on marijuana all day and all night. That’s what I did. I was promiscuous.’ Perhaps walking away was less strange than it appeared. But the break did not seem to bring happiness for on her return she concentrated on strange, violent drawings with titles such as ‘I Hate You Creep and Your Fetus’, and inscriptions such as ‘I want to be treated badly forever. It excites me sexually’.
These trenchant works were difficult to understand and the contrast with her sculptures of the previous decade was too much for fans and critics. Despite having declared that she had ‘lost interest’ in the opinion of the general public, she began again to create sculpture. A productive time followed during which she produced a series of portraits of other artists that were both revealing and witty. But the art world, by then in thrall to the vacuous conceptualism of the 1980s, soon found her style too nuanced, too handmade, and she faded from prominence. Last month, Marisol died in obscurity, forgotten and overlooked. Perhaps she preferred it that way.