WALTHAM - Marisol Escobar, known as Marisol, is the most interesting postwar artist you’ve probably never heard of. Within a few years, trust me, that will change: She will be the subject of retrospectives at major museums (one is already being planned for 2014 by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee; bigger shows will follow); her works, most of them still privately owned, will come to auction and fetch millions; her name will become as familiar as those of male counterparts such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenburg, and Jasper Johns.
Marisol was born in 1930 in France to Venezuelan parents, and came to the United States in 1950, studying for three years with the legendary teacher Hans Hofmann before discovering Pre-Columbian and American folk art and switching from painting to sculpture.
She made this sculpture, called “Ruth,’’ in the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, when she was at the height of her early renown, in 1962. It’s a gem - one of the sneakiest, funniest, most sprightly portraits to have emerged from the whole Pop era.
With her five crudely carved but swishily painted heads (plus one pink hat), 10 small breasts made from sections of wooden fruit, come-hither hand gestures, and nine shapely legs supporting a crude wooden barrel painted yellow, gray, pink, and blue - she’s a seductress of the first order, the artistic love child of Picasso, Brancusi, and Andy Warhol, with a good dose of farmhouse folk art thrown in.
“Ruth,’’ suggest the museum’s records, is Ruth Kligman, the artist and model who was the only survivor of the car crash that killed Jackson Pollock and Kligman’s young friend Edith Metzger in 1956.
Kligman had a reputation as a femme fatale (the poet Frank O’Hara indelibly referred to her as “death car girl’’) romantically infatuated with creative genius. She later became Willem de Kooning’s girlfriend (he named a painting, “Ruth’s Zowie,’’ after her) and later still a muse and friend to Irving Penn, Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Johns, and Franz Kline.
She is described by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in their biography of de Kooning as “made for the gossips.’’ Resembling movie stars of the era such as Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, she wore, they write, “clingy dresses, and a sultry, ‘Kiss me, you fool’ expression, and her voice was throaty and seductive, as if it were made for sharing secrets.’’
Women would allegedly go out to buy new dresses if she were coming to a party. Elaine de Kooning called her “pink mink.’’ And de Kooning himself liked to say, “She really puts lead in my pencil.’’
Zowie indeed. Marisol, who described Ruth as a “friend of mine,’’ is surely playing off her reputation here more than her reality. But perhaps she is having a bit of fun with both? Reputation, seduction, desire - all these things we try to embody and love to encounter - are in the end jerry-built, like a gussied-up barrel, a block of raw wood with some lipstick and eyeliner attached.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.