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'I want to put her back in the center': PAMM exhibit highlights influence of Marisol Escobar

A close-up of Marisol's sculptures, on display at the Perez Art Museum in Downtown Miami.
Gerard Albert III
A close-up of Marisol's sculptures, on display at the Perez Art Museum in Downtown Miami.

Marisol Escobar grew up in Venezuela and inspired some of the most successful artists of the 20th century. An exhibit at the Perez Art Museum hopes to give the artist her spotlight back.

The artist Marisol Escobar grew up in Venezuela and inspired some of the most successful artists of the 20th century. In the 1960s, people lined up to see her fusion of pop, dada and folk art in New York City galleries.

One of the biggest artists she influenced was Andy Warhol. Since then, she’s mostly been written out of art history. An exhibit at the Perez Art Museum in downtown Miami hopes to give the artist her spotlight back.

“Marisol and Warhol Take New York” shows their work side by side and explores their friendship, early careers, and rise to success.

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Marisol was famous before Andy Warhol and was known by her mononym.

“I was stunned to see how much press that she got in the early 60s," said Jessica Beck, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh who also curated the PAMM exhibit. "And how each time in her reviews of her solo exhibitions, the reporters commented on the thousands of people that lined up to see the exhibitions.”

Beck's favorite piece in the exhibit is “the bathers.”

Three life-sized figures made from wooden boxes are lounging in front of a blue panel.

“Personally, I love it here in Miami so much because we're in a beach town, in a beach city … what Marisol does so well is she captured this really beautiful, whimsical movement. In the cast feet, they sort of tip back and forth on one of the figures. In the single toe of one of the reclining figures — sort of pointing upwards as you would do when you're dangling your foot, relaxing and lounging on the beach.

Beck has been a curator at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh for eight years.

“I really do think that Warhol was influenced and inspired by her and the point of the exhibition is to have Marisol two steps in front of Warhol because she actually was. And I just wanted to reveal how Marisol was written out of this history. I want to put her back in the center, give her that influence and spotlight again,” she said.

The two artists were friends. They appear in each other's work, including a piece in this exhibit. A sculpture, a combination of wooden boxes and chair legs, shows Warhol sitting from different angles. His shoes — a pair he actually wore — rest on the floor beneath.

Marisol’s work is hard to categorize. Beck said the press didn’t know how to talk about it.

“It's not abstract. It's not fully pop, it's playing with pop. It's not fully figurative. I mean, it's figurative, but it's not fully assemblage, or sometimes it's assemblage, but so it has all these problems with being cast into specific boxes,” Beck said.

And there was more focus on her looks than her art.

“I think the difficulty with the press with Marisol over and over again was … highlighting either what she was wearing, how she looked, and always this trouble with actually digging in and talking about the work," Beck said. "One being a woman and also being Venezuelan. I do think that's part of it because the way we have historicized pop, it's still dominated by white male artists.”

Still, Marisol’s fame continued to rise. In 1958, she was featured in LIFE magazine.

And then, she took a break. She stopped making art in New York and traveled to Latin America and Europe.

“And when she comes back again, the art world has moved on in a different direction. And the work that she was making didn't fit into those nice little cubby holes of what was understood to be the most avant-garde art of that particular point in time,” said Marina Pacini, the former chief curator at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee. She curated a collection of Marisol’s work in 2014.

The work Marisol made when she returned to New York was influenced by those travels.

“She started doing all of those amazing fish sculptures that were inspired by her scuba diving. And then she started making a bunch of masks that had different kinds of objects suspended from them that are clearly looking at Milagros,” Pacini said.

Marisol was influenced by the small religious charms and used light bulbs and bottle openers to hang from sculptures.

“She was less interested in getting the kind of attention that she had gotten and was more interested in just making the work and being in her studio,” said Pacini.

As part of this exhibit’s opening, Helado Negro, another lesser-known Latino artist, helped introduce Marisol to Miami.

Helado Negro is Roberto Lange’s stage name. He created a soundtrack for eight silent films shot by Andy Warhol. Most of them feature Marisol.

One of them starts with a blue screen, then Marisol appears. Beck describes that silent film, Bob Indiana Etc.

“So you get this really beautiful glow on Marisol’s face and on everyone and everyone looks happy and young and it has this beautiful nostalgia to it," Beck said. "And Marisol, at one point, finally breaks this really beautiful smile. So it's almost like Warhol finally gets to her with this camera.

“There's a croquet set in the lawn still, maybe they just finished a game. They're having cocktails, smoking cigarettes. It's just very much very playful.”

Lange hadn’t heard of Marisol before starting this project.

“I think that was definitely like an attraction to working on this because, for me, her work was new. And I went to art school, and I studied a lot of art history, and she wasn't in the books,” he said.

Now, he said it’s clear to see Marisol’s influence on the art world.

“When we are amongst other people or peers, there's a lot of influence and crosstalk. And when we're in this kind of creative zone, you can maybe project the sense that there was this influence for both of them," Lange said. "And maybe in a different world, she would have been the person that everyone knew.”

"Marisol and Warhol Take New York" is on display at the Perez Art Museum in downtown Miami until September 5.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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