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Theater & art

Revisiting Marisol, years after her heyday

Marisol poses in 1958 in New York with her tools and some of her wooden sculptures.

Walter Sanders/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Marisol poses in 1958 in New York with her tools and some of her wooden sculptures.

MEMPHIS — It’s 1968. In Vietnam, the Tet offensive has begun. In Europe, a million students marching through the streets of Paris have brought France to the brink of revolution. Meanwhile, half a million Warsaw Pact troops, determined to snuff out the Prague Spring, have invaded Czechoslovakia.

In Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel, an assassin’s bullet has ripped through the cheek of Martin Luther King Jr. And in New York, Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist with a chip on her shoulder, has fired three bullets at the Pop artist Andy Warhol.

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The world’s in turmoil. But Warhol’s friend Maria Sol Escobar, known to everyone as Marisol, is meanwhile approaching a kind of Pop apotheosis.

For the best part of a dizzying decade, Marisol has been the talk of New York. When her breakthrough solo show opened at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1962, “word spread like wildfire,” remembered gallery owner Eleanor Ward. The show was described by Irving Sandler in the New York Post as “one of the most remarkable shows to be seen this season,” and by fellow critic Max Kozloff as “the cause célèbre of the Spring.”

Marisol’s sculptures — droll, surprising, at once sun-loving and silently morbid — had everyone beguiled. “The wit and imagination were fantastic,” wrote another critic, Tom Hess.

Boxy and frontal, like upright sarcophagi, they were carved, assembled, accessorized, overlaid with deft figurative drawing and bright, patterned paint. Wry but open-hearted, full of invention, toylike but monumental, they portrayed artists, movie stars, presidents, and glamorous women.

One of those women was Marisol herself. A sort of Cindy Sherman before the fact, she repeatedly used her own image to try out various readymade personas.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired one sculpture from the show, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery another. Along with John Updike, Andre Previn, and Jim Dine, Marisol was included in Life magazine’s 1962 “A Red-Hot Hundred” list.

Her sculptures were given a room to themselves in a group survey, called “Americans 1963,” at MoMA. And her follow-up solo show in 1964 was overrun. Viewers “came at the rate of two thousand a day,” noted Lawrence Campbell in Cosmopolitan. Among them were “not only everyone who counts in the art world, but the kind of people one does not expect to find in an art gallery — mothers with five children, for example.”

The following year, Marisol was the subject of a profile by Gloria Steinem in Glamour magazine, and another by Grace Glueck, in The New York Times. Glueck’s article opened with a quote from an anonymous admirer calling Marisol “a Latin Garbo.” Warhol, who put her in two of his films, “Kiss” and “Thirteen Most Beautiful Women,” called her “the first girl artist with glamour.”

Three thousand people stood in line to get into Marisol’s 1966 show at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery. And two years later, her work was included in both the Venice Biennale and the influential Documenta exhibition in Kassel, West Germany.

Mephis Brooks Museum of Arts Marisol, American (born France, 1930) John Wayne, 1963 Wood, pencil, oil, paint, plaster, and steel Object: 104 � 96 � 15 inches (264.2 � 243.9 � 38.1 cm); Installed: 113 � 96 � 15 inches (287 � 243.9 � 38.1 cm) Courtesy of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Julianne Kemper Gilliam Purchase Fund, Debutante Ball Purchase Fund, FA 1978.5 © Marisol Escobar / Licensed by VAGA, New York 06marisol

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

Marisol’s “John Wayne” (1963).

Today, few people have even heard of Marisol. Glueck had insisted in her 1965 profile that her works had “high survival value.” But within a decade, that assertion was already looking dubious. Marisol, by 2000, had been essentially erased from the history of postwar art.

And yet . . . why? How could a career that was so successful, so widely acclaimed, virtually disappear from view? Did she simply turn her back on it all? Was it self-sabotage? Sexism? Or something stranger?

Almost certainly, all of the above. And of course more nuanced, equally credible explanations also exist. But what seems indubitable is that Marisol, 84 now and in failing health in New York, produced a body of work more interesting, more accomplished, and more original than all but a handful of the storied artists of her generation.

Proudly independent, she did not fit into any of the era’s retrospectively sanctified movements. And yet she played a key role in shaping a cultural shift away from mid-century, atomic-age existentialism (epitomized in art by Abstract Expressionism) toward the visual pizzazz, double-edged irony, and deadpan distillations of Pop. A fascinating, complex figure, she has waited a long time for the resurgence of interest in her work that is now underway.

Marisol at the Rose Art Museum Rose Art Museum's exhibition "Art at the Origin: The Early 1960s." Marisol, "Ruth," 1962. Gevirtz-Mnuchin Purchase Fund, 1962 Photo credit: Art (c) Marisol/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY 14frame

Art (c) Marisol Escobar/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

“Ruth” (1962), now at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

This summer, Marisol is the subject of a much anticipated retrospective, a decade in the planning, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis. Small but serious, it is the first show to offer a credible overview of Marisol’s entire career.

Just as important as the show is the first-rate catalog that accompanies it. Published by Yale University Press in association with the Memphis Brooks, it has a revelatory biographical essay by the show’s indefatigable curator, Marina Pacini, and several accompanying essays, by Dore Ashton, Deborah Cullen, and Douglas Dreishpoon among others, that do much to deepen our understanding of Marisol, her times, and her preoccupations.

In some ways the show feels like the culmination of a gradual process of rediscovery. Over the past decade, key Marisol works have been appearing in important shows and collections, including “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968,” which came to the Tufts University Art Gallery in 2011, and the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection of Latin American Art, selections from which are now on show at the Museum of Fine Arts.

One by one, Marisol’s sculptures have been pulled out of storage and put on display in major museums, many of them in New England. The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University has had its key, early Marisol, “Ruth” — a portrait of Marisol’s friend, the artist Ruth Kligman — on display for much of the past five years.

Both the Yale University Art Gallery and MoMA have more than one important Marisol on display. And Marisol’s 1965 sculpture “The Family” was acquired in 2005 by the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., where it has quickly become one of the most popular works in the permanent collection.

Marisol at Yale University Art Gallery. Artist: Marisol, French/American, b. Paris 1930, Dinner Date, 1963, Painted wood, plaster, textiles, oil on canvas, metal fork, leather boots, paint, graphite. 139.7 x 135.9 x 111.8 cm (55 x 53 1/2 x 44 in. ) Gift of Susan Morse Hilles, 1973.86.

Art (c) Marisol Escobar/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Dinner Date” (1963), at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Even at the height of her fame, Marisol was never giddy about her situation. She understood the dynamics of fame and was refreshingly frank about how she acquired it. “It has happened because I made it happen,” she said at the time.

She was industrious. “Her discipline is iron,” said Kligman. “Sometimes I’ve passed her studio at 2 a.m. and seen her plugging away.” And she continued to enroll in art classes even after she began exhibiting.

She knew, too, how to generate interest in her work, and was willing to accept (though, initially, it went against the ethos of the time) that she could help this process along by generating interest in herself.

Captivatingly beautiful, she possessed the secret theatricality of the intensely shy. As early as 1961, she became notorious after participating in a panel discussion with four male artists at The Club, a collective of (mostly male) artists that had formed in 1949. Marisol turned up on that occasion wearing a white mask tied on with strings.

The discussion was only just underway when a chorus of voices, getting louder, began calling for her to take off the mask. They stamped their feet, shouting, “Take off that goddamn mask! Let’s see your face!”As one witness recalled, “when the noise got deafening,” Marisol finally obliged. She pulled the strings and the mask slipped off, only to reveal her own face made up exactly like the mask.

“What a stunt!” recalled the witness. “It’s something only she would think of, and it brought down the house.”

Marisol’s sculptures — not unlike Warhol’s paintings and screen prints — were made with the public very much in mind. They were portraits of popes, prime ministers, playboys, and presidents, of generals and jazz musicians, artists and astronauts, Andy Warhol and John Wayne, along with families, weddings, and babies.

And yet, as Pacini and others have noted, there were private dimensions even to this most public phase of her production. She gave some portraits multiple faces, for instance — suggesting a sense of self disengaged from the gears of identity. She also gave them morbidly neutral, frozen, or strangely squashed features, suggesting dark psychological pressures behind the fictive erotics of fame.

She focused on telling hand gestures and played up the dissonance between, on the one hand, her sculptures’ crude blockishness, and on the other, drawing and carving of great finesse. She also created a lively tension between brilliantly specific details and a delirious profusion of vivid color and patterning.

Apart from her interest in public figures, what came through, above all, was an obsession with childhood and with family dynamics.

Mephis Brooks Museum of Arts Marisol, American (born France, 1930) Lick the Tire of My Bicycle, 1974 Colored pencil and crayon 72? � 105? inches (183.1 � 267 cm) Collection of the artist © Marisol Escobar / Licensed by VAGA, New York 06marisol

Art (c) Marisol Escobar/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Marisol’s “Lick the Tire of My Bicycle” (1974) .

Marisol’s ostensible glamour glossed over a troubled youth, one that clearly carried over into adulthood. Born in Paris in 1930 to wealthy Venezuelan parents, she spent her early life traveling the world. Her mother and father were in flight, she believed, from boredom.

According to Pacini, whose biographical essay in the catalog contributes enormously to our understanding of Marisol, the family moved to Venezuela in 1935 and spent the following years shuttling between Caracas and New York.

In 1941, Marisol’s mother committed suicide. Marisol, who was 11, said she “decided never to talk again. . . . I really didn’t talk for years except for what was absolutely necessary in school and on the street. . . . I was into my late twenties before I started talking again — and silence had become such a habit that I really had nothing to say to anybody.”

In 1946, her father moved the family to Los Angeles, and three years later, Marisol, now 19 and determined to pursue a life in art, went to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Academie Julian. In 1950, after a year back in LA, she moved to New York, where she continued her education at a series of art schools. She attended the influential German émigré Hans Hofmann’s classes in New York and, over the summer, in Provincetown.

Around 1954, she turned to sculpting. “I was very sad myself, and the people I met were so depressing,” she later explained in her characteristically flat yet forthright tone. “I started doing something funny so I would be happier — and it worked.”

She spent time at the Cedar Street Tavern, by then a famous downtown artists’ hangout, where she met the likes of Alex Katz, William King (an important influence), and Willem de Kooning, with whom she had a brief affair.

“I was a bohemian,” she later admitted. “I was stoned on marijuana all day and all night. That’s what I did. I was promiscuous.”

She began making carved wooden sculptures — naive, frontal, and cheerfully painted — and soon she attracted the attention of the dealer Leo Castelli.

Castelli had just opened what would become the most influential gallery of the postwar period. He included her in a 1957 group show, along with the young Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Her work was singled out for praise, and later that year — before either Rauschenberg or Johns — he gave her a solo show.

The show was reviewed admiringly in the art press, and Marisol was even written up in a Life magazine piece about woodcarvers. But she seemed unready for the attention, and — anticipating her actions 10 years hence — she fled. In this case, to Italy.

Castelli was angry, she later recalled. “How can you leave when things are just beginning?” he asked.

But Rome was fruitful for Marisol. She met up with de Kooning, who was then at the height of his fame. (He had come to Rome with his new girlfriend, Kligman, the sole survivor of the crash that had killed his rival, Jackson Pollock.) De Kooning was trying to lose himself in drink. Marisol, meanwhile, was changing her whole approach to life and to art. She was opening herself up, letting not only personal life but current events, the social sphere, and humor all play a part in her developing aesthetic. She was beginning to doubt the idea that making great art was inevitably a process of distillation and purification — of cutting things out — and realizing that it was false to think, as she later put it, that “I had to reject something in order to be a strong person.”

The contrary, she realized, was true: “It opened everything for me. I felt free and generous. I started doing my best work in 1960, after I came back to New York.”

Three years later, although she had parted ways, amicably, with Castelli, Marisol was at the top of her game, and her career was taking off. So was her social life.

She met Andy Warhol, who seems to have fallen under her spell. They were seen at all the parties together. She took him and a friend to a party filled with Abstract Expressionists, almost all of whom detested Warhol and everything he represented. Mark Rothko — whose personality was in every way the opposite of Warhol’s — took the hostess aside.

“How could you let them in?” he asked. “But what can I do?” she replied. “They came with Marisol.”

Mephis Brooks Museum of Arts Marisol, American (born France, 1930) Mi Mama y Yo, 1968 Steel and aluminum 73 � 56 � 56 inches (185.4 � 142.2 � 142.2 cm) Collection of the artist © Marisol Escobar / Licensed by VAGA, New York Photograph Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery 06marisol

Art (c) Marisol Escobar/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

“Mi Mama y Yo” (1968).

For a time, Marisol was willing to enjoy all the acclaim that came her way in the late ’50s and ’60s. But ultimately, it seems, fame didn’t interest her. “It doesn’t make any real difference whether I continue to be successful,” she said in 1965. “I could go on working even unrecognized.”

And so — as if wanting to test that proposition — in 1968, with the world convulsing violently, Marisol embarked on an extensive period of foreign travel. She went to Asia, Tahiti, the Caribbean, and South America. After five years, she returned to work, but with a very different attitude: “I am not working for the general public anymore,” she explained to Cindy Nemser in 1973. “I lost interest.”

The work that followed was intensely private. It included an extraordinary series of large-scale drawings in colored pencil and crayon. At once erotic and disturbingly violent, they combined guns with limbs and mouths, and suggested a psychedelic sliding about of fear and desire, an abject confusion of subject and object, and — not least — an imagination working at full throttle.

Some were on black backgrounds, others on white. Marisol gave them titles like “Lick the Tire of My Bicycle,” “I Hate You Creep and Your Fetus,” “Will I Always Be a Basket Case,” and “The American Nightmare.”

She inscribed handwritten text on many of them. One work, “Caracas,” shows a snarling face in bright colors with text and various shapes emerging like dreadlocks: “Stop promising me. I think I am no good.” “I want to be treated badly forever. It excites me sexually,” “When you first came I thought you were such a nice young lady,” and “A dirty woman with sperm coming out of her mouth.”

Marisol had dabbled in erotic imagery throughout her career. Some of the stacked bronze figurines she exhibited at Leo Castelli’s in the late ’50s, for instance, were slyly sexual. “Erotic art is a way out from war and bombing,” she said later. “It’s a good moral idea to distract people from destroying themselves.”

But these new works strongly hinted that churning beneath these public utterances were more private demons.

The torrid turn her work took in the early ’70s didn’t last long. It was superseded by a return to sculpted portraits, including a series depicting artists, from Picasso and Magritte to de Kooning and Georgia O’Keeffe. These were brilliant, full of character and wit.

Between 1982 and ’84, she worked on a full-blown, three-dimensional take on Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” now owned by the Metropolitan Museum. And toward the end of the ’80s, she returned to her interest in ordinary people caught up in adverse circumstances. She made a series of powerful sculptures and installations portraying anonymous outcast figures, hungry and impoverished, singly or in groups. She also completed an extended series of sculptures of Native Americans.

All these works have great merit. But none hit the cultural sweet spot quite as surely as those boxy portraits from the 1960s.

Shamelessly combining bright, decorative color, illustrative drawing, and cartoony impulses, those ’60s works inevitably fell out of favor as avant-garde art took a sharp turn in the ’70s toward Minimalism and Conceptualism. To many, Marisol’s wooden tableaux seemed neither one thing nor another. Inflected by various Latin influences, they also bore the stamp of old-style American folk art — weather vanes, carousels, and so on. But as Marisol herself once said, calling her a folk artist would be as ridiculous as calling Picasso an African artist.

Today, many of the prejudices that worked against her in the ’70s and ’80s have withered away. Qualities that were held against her have lately been rehabilitated, and seem almost to be merging, like the circles of a Venn diagram moving closer and closer together, into a new cultural sweet spot. Portraiture is no longer old hat. “Decorative,” “illustrative,” and “cartoony” are no longer the pejoratives they once were. The utterly original way in which Marisol combined these qualities, and more besides, seems freshly inspired.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

Correction: A previous version of this piece conflated the names of two contributors who wrote essays for the exhibition’s catalog.

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