From the Archives: Chers Maîtres

"Chers Maîtres," originally published in Art in America, October 1981.


Witty homages to important 20th-century artists, Marisol’s recently exhibited sculpture-tableaux fuse private emotion with public stance, realistic likeness with expressive symbolism.


Even when Pop Art seemed a consistent movement, Marisol was the odd man out. Not only was she the only woman, but her approach to subject matter, materials and technique was fundamentally different from the others who were also drawing their imagery from popular culture.

In the early ’60s when personal touch, as well as self-revelation, was for the most part anathema, Marisol’s blocky wooden figurative sculptures never had anonymous-looking surfaces. Whether portraits of herself, various animals or American icons like the Presidential Family, their broad configurations and equally broad areas of pastel-to-primary color were always countered by idiosyncratic linear or sculptural detail inspired by the personality or physiognomy of her subjects, usually allied with corresponding eccentricities in a piece of wood.

As a carver and draftsman, she has always made works that were implicitly expressionist. And if she has shared Pop Art’s cool detachment and its acceptance of what we already know, her observations have nonetheless been closer in emotional tenor to watching TV in your own living room than seeing a billboard from a moving car. Nowhere was this more evident than in her last show. It was her first full-scale sculpture exhibition since 1973, and it included 11 tableaux/portraits, all but two (one of them, her father) depicting some of the most important artists of the 20th century. All of the sculptures, which Marisol herself refers to as homages, were made during the past five years, and all are figures in chairs, casually posed as if they were being profiled “at home.” Many of these artists are Marisol’s friends, though none sat for her in the studio while the sculptures were being made. She worked from memory and photographs—some from magazines, others that she took herself.

Only the heads, carved in high relief with delicately etched detail, are realistic, in fact, startlingly so. But the blocky torsos and the stylistically dissimilar, discrete parts used for hands, feet and various props, are no less important in conveying likeness. Each assemblage has a signatory posture as telling as the lines of a face; which is why these wooden figures, whose poses are as fixed as those at Madame Tussaud’s (even if the poses are informal rather than “official”), filled the galleries with a sense of liveliness and animation. 

There sat Virgil Thomson straddling one end of his piano bench, his right hand on his knee (no arm connecting it to his body), his left (also detached) resting on the baby grand beside him as if, after explaining his point, he were about to swivel around and start playing. And there sat Georgia O’Keeffe on a tree stump, flanked by her two chows, looking off into the distance (it’s hard to imagine O’Keeffe at home indoors); de Kooning regally enthroned; and Picasso—a surprisingly small Picasso—on a humble-looking rustic chair.

Each tableau is a complex solution to the potentially (and historically) contradictory problems of fusing abstract form and verist portraiture. Torsos determine mass, attitude and the barest beginnings of anatomy/personality (see Thomson’s gently rounded belly growing out of the ringed grain of wood). Some of the torsos are made from pilings from abandoned piers and are “sculpted” only to the degree that they’ve been cut down to the necessary size.

But while posture and gesture are abstracted, Marisol still realizes in very specific terms a selection of physical facts. Hands, sometimes carved, sometimes cast, are realistically rendered, but much less so than faces, which might even be called Photo Realist, if it’s possible to apply that term to works that in no way share that style’s finish. And a minimal amount of painting and drawing in black and white amplifies structure and the tonality of the wood. (Her funny-paper palette is now gone.) De Kooning’s emphatically white shock of hair is painted on; the keys, strings and “Steinway & Sons” logo are drawn in charcoal on the plywood structure that is Thomson’s piano. Compared to her early work where drawing was used to imply three-dimensionality, here it is used as surface decoration. 

Realist elements as well as real objects also function expressively, even metaphorically. The bare lightbulb suspended over William Burroughs’s head suggests his deliberately cultivated isolation while focusing attention on his eerie presence. And hands, a recurrent subtheme in Marisol’s work (she’s portrayed her own in sculptures, drawings and many prints) are particularly important. They obviously connote “work,” not only the ability to work but probably also quantity and quality: Marisol’s de Kooning has three hands, her Picasso four—one pair in his lap, the other on the arms of his chair.

Chairs, too, imply a range of utilitarian to metaphoric concerns. While obviously bodily surrogates, for some of these figures they function as bases; for others they are direct equivalents of personality. Louise Nevelson sits on a wooden skid in front of one of her black expanses. Duchamp, by comparison, is intertwined with his fussy, Deco-ish chair. The least corporeal of the group, he seems old-fashioned, priggish, a specter of the past, which, in a way, seems right too, for an idea of Duchamp (and the ideas embodied in his few objects) is about as “real” as he ever is for some of us.

Marisol always seemed to know intuitively (as a folk artist would) and consciously (as a news bureau chief does, or as ambitious younger artists are now trying to demonstrate) that for a popular figurative image to be iconic it must approach a generalized sort of familiarity—not anonymity—while still maintaining its humanity. But unlike much recent expressionist work, where the idea of expression seems divorced from emotional content on the part of the artist, Marisol’s homages successfully join a public iconography with an extremely personal statement, making her personal vision simultaneously, and quite subtly, a collective one.