New York

Marisol, Mi mamá y yo (My Mother and I), 1968, steel, aluminum, 73 × 56 × 56".

Marisol, Mi mamá y yo (My Mother and I), 1968, steel, aluminum, 73 × 56 × 56".


Marisol, Mi mamá y yo (My Mother and I), 1968, steel, aluminum, 73 × 56 × 56".

Marisol Escobar’s long-overdue retrospective, which remains on view until January 10, does not disappoint. With figurative sculpture once again popular in the art world, the seventeen sculptures and fourteen works on paper on view at El Museo del Barrio look fresher than ever. The spare, elegant installation further enhances the Marina Pacini–curated survey devoted to the artist’s fifty-plus-year career. Practically from the get-go (see Tea for Three, 1960), Marisol, as she is known, has melded representational sculpture with elements of abstract painting and exquisite draftsmanship, not to mention with found objects, photographs, mirrors, and neon as well as fluorescent light. She defied critics who, during the 1960s, compared her work to novelty art.

Back in the day, when Marisol depicted well-known personalities such as John Wayne, Andy Warhol, and LBJ—all on display at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the exhibition’s organizing institution, but AWOL in NYC—and other figures, she often drew lifelike faces on several sides of head-size blocks of wood. By the time she executed portraits of Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, she’d become a master carver, her characterizations as spot-on as, say, Arnold Newman’s photographs. Over time, she became even more accomplished.

Early on, Marisol, a Venezuelan who has spent most of her life in New York, was associated with Pop art. Whether or not you think her subject matter, including family groups, people at play, and an assortment of dogs and fish, sets her apart from Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Roy Lichtenstein—some do, but I don’t—her art shares a range of formal properties with that of her contemporaries, including bold, bright colors and robust scale. To be sure, her inspirations were uniquely her own, and you can glimpse affinities beyond the Pop roster. Occasionally, you’ll find geometric designs reminiscent of Matisse’s cutouts. And then there are scattered references to assemblage, light art, Color Field painting, and Minimalism. The heads formed from hat blocks as well as the encrusted blue gown worn by the Virgin Mary in The Family, 1969, call to mind Alfonso Ossorio’s constructions; neon lights encased in a Plexiglas box do Chryssa proud; and shades of Bob Thompson and Jan Müller, among others, appear in some works on paper.

Unfortunately, the limitations of the galleries’ physical space means the retrospective doesn’t tell Marisol’s whole story. She had a remarkable gift for depicting large groups of figures, from well-heeled partygoers and legendary art dealers to poor Cuban families and Native Americans (whose fates were similar to those of Venezuela’s Yanomami Indians). From a wealthy background herself, the artist depicted her own kind early in her career; the more unfortunate families came much later. With the latter such works absent from this show, viewers have little sense of Marisol’s acute social consciousness, the way she has addressed the wrongs of history, and her expressions of wrenching pathos.

A wall label sends gallerygoers to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Marisol’s recently restored Self-Portrait Looking at The Last Supper, 1982–84, a room-size homage to Leonardo da Vinci and a tour de force of biblical characters and tabletop still lifes. I wish visitors were also advised to go to Battery Park to find her American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial, dedicated in 1991. Though it’s neither colored nor carved, it’s her masterpiece. A bronze consisting of a sinking boat and four merchant seamen, including one in the water who is submerged during high tide, the work survived 9/11 as well as Hurricane Sandy. It’s a perfect metaphor for Marisol’s career, too. Defying art-world trends, she convincingly crafted a heroic subject that plucks at your heartstrings.

Phyllis Tuchman