When a Latin-American artist sculpted the Man on Horseback, one might reasonably expect either a political paean or a stinging satire. Yet neither is the case with the barrel-chested, four-wheeled steed somberly mounted by both George Washington and Simon Bolivar, and capable of blaring forth martial music from a transistorized phonograph concealed inside. It is the work of the Venezuelan Marisol Escobar, who was unawed by history or convention and approached the subject with amused affection and gentle mockery. Like the rest of her wood and paint portraits of the early 1960′s it managed to be both childlike and sophisticated at once.
Marisol was born in Paris of wealthy and nomadic Venezuelan parents, and arrived in the U.S. in 1950 at age twenty. She studied painting with the abstractionist Hans Hofmann for three years and then decided to try sculpture. Her early efforts were small animated totems of bronze and terra cotta. Then in 1957, in one dramatic move, came the switch from the miniature to the monumental effected when she saw an old coffee grinder, a wooden one with wheels. The tactile, humorous appeal of the grinder, the connotation of this familiar object seen out of context, took her by surprise. Soon she was hauling home great lengths of timber and old moldings from demolition sites, castoff baby carriages, and furniture from thrift shops.
Marisol assembled these “found” objects as the underpinnings of her work , sculpting, turning, refining them into the robust figures that were her specialty. From her kitchen sink came assorted toes, breasts,noses, fingers, and buttocks cast in plaster; from her closet, hats and sneakers or whatever the fashion may demand. To this melange, in airy defiance of purists who would segregate the arts, she adds the two dimensional artist’s media of pigment and pencil: her own painting covers surfaces of her sculpture.
The juggling of medium and materials, this deceptively casual composition of “junk” put Marisol in the tradition of assemblage, a movement with distinguished literary and artistic antecedents. Early in the twentieth-century a generation of artists including Picasso and Braque began experimenting with constructions of actual objects- scraps of newspaper, cloth, metal, string, – carrying to its logical extreme the nineteenth-century’s romance with realistically painted “trompe-l’oeil- still lifes. Dadaists enlarged upon this new freedom for their anti-culture art in the 1920′s. Marisol continued to dismantle the day-to-day world, reordering it in such different forms as the crumped up automobiles of the French sculptor Cesar and the exquisite cubby-hole constructions of the American Louise Nevelson.
Unlike most adherents of the mix and match tradition, however, Marisol denied any desire to polemicize against affluent society of Kleenex Kulture. She did not seem disturbed by the comfortable amusement of visitors to the gallery where her exhibitions were held. If her admirers chose to find in her work some spoof on the more solemn memebers of her fraternity, that may have been among her intentions as well. But she never told…