Does an attempt to lift up the art of Marisol backfire?
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PITTSBURGH — Marisol and Warhol were near contemporaries. She was born in 1930, two years after him. They both were outsiders — she from Venezuela, he from Pittsburgh — who entered the New York art world in the 1950s, and gained fame there in the next decade. They were good friends and exhibited at some of the same sites (the Stable Gallery and then Leo Castelli). Marisol appeared in some of Warhol’s films. Both of them made artwork identified as Pop Art. And so the catalogue for Marisol and Warhol Take New York at the Andy Warhol Museum proclaims: “Marisol and Warhol stand together as the queen and king of Pop.” Is that really true? While Warhol became an artistic superstar, Marisol’s reputation soon faded. By the time she died in 2016, there wasn’t much interest in her art. So maybe the time’s ripe for her revival. And perhaps showing her work alongside his can offer a more complex picture of the development of 1960s Pop Art. Let’s see!
We might start by juxtaposing Marisol’s funky “John Wayne” (1963), a wooden sculpture of the actor holding his gun astride a red horse, with Warhol’s “Double Elvis (Ferus Type)” (1963), his silkscreen image of Elvis dressed as a Hollywood cowboy. (I am imagining rearranging the hanging of some of the works in this exhibition.) Or we might put her vast installation of 15 wooden figures, “The Party” (1965–66), alongside Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” a copy of Leonardo’s “The Last Supper.” Or, finally, we can put her “Dinner Date” (1963), two seated, painted wood self-portraits, who avert their eyes from one another, alongside of his early “Make Him Want You” (1961), in which a man seemingly awkwardly propositions the woman he is embracing. As we can see here, both Marisol and Warhol were damaged, socially withdrawn personalities. No doubt that was one source of their bond.
But how should we read such comparisons? Set her “Portrait of Sidney Janis Selling Portrait of Sidney Janis by Marisol, by Marisol” (1967-68) alongside his silkscreen “Sidney Janis” (1967). Or, place her mixed media sculpture, “The Kennedy Family” (1961), the three boxy figures set on a tricolor platform, next to his “Jackie” (1964) silkscreen: all of the comparisons proposed here only emphasize real, significant differences. Though they both show subjects from popular culture, Warhol’s breakthrough came when he silkscreened mass media images. Marisol’s sculptures do often portray similar “pop” subjects, but in a totally different format, for she makes three-dimensional carved wooden constructions. Even placing her silkscreen “Paris Review” (1967) alongside his “You’re In” (1967), a crate of spray painted Coca Cola bottles, points to one distinction: his ongoing fascination with the artistic use of mechanical techniques of reproduction, which weren’t her concern. So far as I can see, their interests were simply too different to make a juxtaposition of their works suggestive.
The basic plan of this show reveals an unfortunate curatorial lapse. To put Warhol’s famous works alongside Marisol’s now relatively unknown art does no favors for her. Rather than lift up her art, this strategy makes it look marginal and obscure, a minor version of what he did with such success. Jeffrey Deitch, whose judgments I take seriously, says in the catalogue, “Marisol, for me, was one of the geniuses who defined contemporary art. . . .” I would love to see a full Marisol show, so as to come to grips with her work on its own terms. These present comparisons don’t do that. The familiar feminist concerns addressed in the catalogue — the suggestion that as a woman she was marginalized — are important. But in dialogue with the work and preoccupations of Warhol they don’t legitimately guide our experience of this art.
What’s going on in Pittsburgh’s museums? I ask because exactly the same problems occur in another contemporary exhibition at the Carnegie Museum. (Pittsburgh’s Warhol is a branch of that institution.) The current show, Wild Life, brings together Elizabeth Murray and Jessi Reaves, a famous painter and a relatively obscure young sculptor, respectively; the latter’s art has little particular affinity with the former’s. As with Marisol and Warhol, the attempt is to elevate the lesser-known works by juxtaposing them with art by a famous figure. This curatorial decision seems to draw on Heinrich Wölfflin’s famous early modernist two-projector art history lectures, which contrasted a classical work, on the left, with a baroque, on the right. (Or, on the left was a German painting and on the right an Italian work, for instance.) The aim of the game was to articulate the contrast. Often that procedure is revelatory, but not in the case of this Marisol/Warhol show. No doubt, as the catalogue argues, there were some analogies between his life, as an insecure gay man who loved glamour, and hers, as a glamorous straight woman. But in the 1960s Warhol met many glamorous people. That he knew Marisol didn’t affect his art.
The best of Marisol’s works in this show by miles is “The Bathers” (1961–62), in which the bodies of three figures, constructed of wood and cast plaster, are set in front of a great blue wall. Here she uses the medium of wood to create radical body images, which interact with the sky-blue background in a visually fascinating way that plays the flat sky against the rough-carved figures of the bathers. The work is a highly original sculpted tableau vivant, as is not generally true of her other sculpture in the show. But to see it in the catalogue alongside Warhol’s paint-by-numbers “Do It Yourself (Sailboats)” (1962) is to compare two works that really come from their own worlds. She is creating an original combine; he is playfully making a paint-by-numbers piece. That both Marisol and Warhol created a beach scene isn’t enough to establish revealing correspondences.
Marisol and Warhol Take New York continues at the Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) through February 14, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Jessica Beck.
David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins… More by David Carrier