03 May 2016

Remembering Marisol Escobar: 1930-2016

“In the 60s, the men did not feel threatened by me,” Marisol said later in life. “They thought I was cute and spooky, but they didn’t take my art so seriously.” - Marisol Escobar
“Marisol was an important figure, subtly affecting change by her silence and the particularity of her position … She was the female artist star of pop art, [but] she dramatized it in a very subdued way, through her intensely quiet manner.” – Carolee Schneeman
“Marisol was among the most highly respected artists of the 1960s. As the decades passed, she was inappropriately written out of that history. My aim was to return her to the prominence she so rightly deserves.” – Marina Pacini, curator, Memphis Brooks Museum
Last year El  Museoin del Barrio  New York presented a small but welcome retrospective of Marisol’s sculptures and works on paper, on tour from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee.

Marisol Escobar was twenty-seven when she created a series of wooden sculptures she named The Hungarians.  The artist sits, in this photograph taken by Walter Sanders for Life magazine, surrounded by several of them.  At her left is the most familiar of these, a family on a wheeled platform, representing a train or perhaps a bus.  The image of attempted escape is implied; the mother cradles an infant while the father stands behind a toddler.  The Soviet Army had recently invaded Hungary, crushing an uprising of Hungarians demanding independence; the world had watched and failed to respond to tanks rolling through the capital city Budapest, crushing bodies and spirits alike.  Surely it is no accident that in Marisol's work, the people who are trapped are looking at us.

Marisol, as she is known professionally, is one of the great sculptors of the post-war period but, like so many women, she is hidden in plain sight, penalized perhaps for having had an early success.  Born in Paris to Venezuelan parents, Marisol was well-traveled from an early age, living on three continents.  She studied in New York City with Hans Hofmann, sizing up the male art world that was Abstract Expressionism, and cleverly navigated around it, aided  by her beauty, to create powerful artworks of social comment and critique.  I first encountered Marisol's work in person when I saw The Generals (1962) at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo.   I had to crane my neck (The Generals  is seven feet three inches tall) to get a good look at Simon Bolivar and George Washington.   Although she has often mixed her media, wood has been Marisol's favorite material.

When we think of walls, we usually mean barriers of dirt, stone, or bricks.  In the modern world, walls are often visually insubstantial but actively wounding, with sharp metal prongs or electrification.   Consider barbed wire.  Barbed wire was developed by the French during the 19th century, an invention they had reason to regret in the course of two world wars.   Its original purpose was to keep farm animals from escaping their owners.  Now barbed wire fences are in the news again;  keeping people out and keeping people in.


"We are pinned under the point of compasses,
But how far can we see from the centre of our life?
Who draws the circle? And what  range does
That hand allow? And beyond the unbearable
Why does agoraphobia drive back
Our eyes to the designated disk,
Where we - like  maniac stallkeepers –display
Tea cup, book, wedding ring,
Handy souvenirs one after another, and we
Pretend to wait, as if could come
Anybody feasting eyes on our belongings
Just standing there,  delirious with joy, forever?
   - "Pretend To Wait" by Agnes Rapai, translation here.

Agnes Rapai (b. 1952) is a Hungarian poet and translator

"... For we are guilty too, as other peoples are,
knowing full-well when and how and why we've sinned so far,
but workers live here too, and poets, without sin
and tiny babies in whom intellect will flourish;
it shines in them and they guard it, hiding in dark cellars
until the finger of peace once again marks our nation,
and with fresh voices they will answer our muffled words.

Cover us with your big wings, vigil-keeping evening cloud."
  — excerpt from "I Cannot Know" (Nem tudhatom) by Miklos Radnoti, translated by Gina Gönczi

Mikos Radnoti (1909-1944) was a Hungarian poet who was murdered during the Holocaust.  His last poems, written in a small notebook and on scraps of paper, were only discovered when his body was exhumed from a mass grave some years after his death.
I first read about Miklos Radnoti here.

Read more about Marisol.

1. Marisol Escobar - The Generals (Simon Bolivar & George Washington), c.1962, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo.
2. Walter Sanders - Marisol & The Hungarians, 1957, Getty Archives, Los Angeles.
3. unidentified photographer - Marisol retouching The Generals - 1963, courtesy Robert G. Strauss Memorial Gallery Archives, Buffalo.

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