On June 14th, a much-anticipated exhibition will open at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper offers a complete look at Marisol’s career, reestablishing her as a major figure in post-war American art (you can search #meetMarisol for exhibition updates, photos, information about related events, and more). Recently, we were able to ask a few questions of Marina Pacini, chief curator of American modern and contemporary art at the Memphis Brooks Museum, this exhibition’s curator, and author of the marvelous accompanying catalogue. Here are her insightful, illuminating answers.
Y@RTbooks: Marisol was a very private individual, more than once decamping to other parts of the world in an effort to escape New York art world fame and scrutiny, and yet her work demonstrates an active dialogue with art that her peers in the US were producing. Do you think that her need for physical and psychological remove resulted in a stronger desire to connect artistically with trends and ideas happening in New York?
Marina Pacini: I think the decamping was very personal and mostly an outgrowth of the model established by her parents. She was born in Paris, after all, to Venezuelan parents, who travelled all the time. That said, I think she was a magpie who knew her art history, was aware of what other artists were doing, and was part of the conversations taking place. The New York art scene was smaller at that time, and artists had a really good sense of what was going on even outside their own circles. I didn’t delve deeply into it in the catalogue, but she was friends with a wide range of artists, from the Abstract Expressionists to Pop artists (Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and Andy Warhol to name a few). She also developed important working relationships with artists who helped her learn how to make her work. I think a lot of what she did was absorb what was happening around her and then transformed those ideas into something deeply personal. Even when you see a shadow of another artist in her work, you cannot mistake her sculpture for anyone else’s. And in this, she was not unique. A lot of artists were influenced by de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns.
Y: Much of Marisol’s work is enigmatic in a way that on many occasions produced diametrically opposed assessments from reviewers and critics – her art is described as peculiarly original, or entirely derivative; it’s humorous, or it’s humorless and angry. In interviews, Marisol seemed invested in maintaining, or at least uninterested in dispelling, this puzzlement. Do you think she had, in fact, a clearer sense of her art, but was pleased with the multiple ways, even the negative ones, in which critics were receiving her work?
MP: I think Marisol had very clear ideas of how she felt about her subjects and assumed that people could read them. During the sixties, she seemed to be less inclined to comment, which I attribute to a variety of factors. It was partially that she thought the work spoke for itself, and partially that she was shy and had developed an antipathy to talking as a child that she never totally outgrew.
Things changed in the seventies when it was clear that her intentions were not being understood and that she was not as much a part of the larger art historical conversation as she had been. I can say from personal experience that she is not an easy person to interview. I don’t think she tries to be difficult, I just don’t think that she is as comfortable expressing herself verbally as she is through her art.
Although for some of her critics her ambiguity is a flaw, I think it is one of the great strengths of her work. I myself go and back and forth on how I read some of her sculptures. “LBJ” is a great example: what is she saying about his relationship to the women in his life? Leaving room for the viewer to bring their ideas and history to bear allows for a richer engagement. It also makes you stop and look more closely.
Y: In her later, post-60s work, messages and meanings become clearer. What do you think is responsible for this shift?
MP: There are probably several reasons for this, not the least of which is the changing zeitgeist. But she also was clearly rethinking what her art should be about and what it should look like. For an artist who was already accustomed to looking inward, in the 1970s she seems to have gone deeper into very personal areas that were highly charged. The obvious anger in the works on paper, the suggestions of danger in some of the fish sculptures, and the brutality of the masks are very telling. But she ends the decade with “Artists and Artistes,” a study of creativity in old age. There is a generosity of spirit for others that appears in the late works of the 1980s and 1990s relating to people on the fringes, the poor, hungry, and Native Americans, that attest to her empathy and sympathy. She produced a remarkable body of work that celebrates humanity while also acknowledging its shortcomings.
Marina Pacini is chief curator of American, modern, and contemporary art at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN.