In the late 1950s, a striking, dark-haired Venezuelan still in her 20s burst upon the New York art scene. Known only by her first name, Marisol, she was an overnight success with her surrealist assemblages of boxlike figures with painted and carved faces. An uninhibited narcissist, she often traced her own lithe nude figure on paper, and in one sculpture, The Wedding, both “his” and “her” faces were Marisol’s. One of the most popular—and mysterious—of the pop art figures, she rated a room of her own for her figures in the Museum of Modern Art, and she was the sole artist in the Venezuelan pavilion at the 1968 Venice Biennale. For the past five years, Marisol has lived abroad more than in the U.S.—in Tahiti, the Far East, India and Venezuela. In her native land she did her most heroic work: a 14-ft. statue of a doctor who has become a Caracas folk hero. Now she is back in Manhattan, exhibiting her life-sized drawings (at prices to $6,000) in the Sidney Janis Gallery. She spoke of her colorful life with Jeff Goldberg.
Why are you called Marisol?
That’s my name. I didn’t make it up. It means “sea and sun.” I left off my last name—Escobar—because I wanted to get completely rid of my background.
What was your background?
I was born in Paris, May 22, 1930, but my memories are zero until I was 5 and we returned to this huge house in Venezuela. There I used to talk with a black man—the gardener—who lived in a shack. We talked about his problems—mainly that he was freezing and hungry. I brought him some boiling water and tripped and burned my face. The next day the man was fired.
Did you have many playmates?
I remember putting the servant’s daughter on top of a record player so she would spin around. She cried, but I made her do it anyway. Mainly I played with my brother—he’s almost my age—and with insects. In South America there were so many insects.
Did your parents live an isolated life?
No, they had a party almost every night—sort of wild parties. I thought they were immoral. I was furious.
How long did that last?
My mother died when I was 11, and I was sent to boarding school on Long Island. That was the end of family life.
Were you very religious as a child?
At the age of 13, I thought I was a saint. I started walking on my knees until they bled, and I tied ropes around my waist until they really hurt. At the Catholic school they thought I would become a nun. Then when I was 15 my brother told me that this was a lot of nonsense. So I gave it up.
Were you rebellious?
When I was 11, I decided never to talk again. I didn’t want to sound the way other people did. I really didn’t talk for years except for what was absolutely necessary in school and on the street. They used to think I was crazy. I was into my late 20s before I started talking again—and silence had become such a habit that I really had nothing to say to anybody.
When did you get interested in art?
As a child I was fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt was a big hero. I used to copy his drawings.
When did you go to art school?
I went to high school in Los Angeles until they threw me out—they said I was a bad influence on the girls. Then I went to art school at night. I was really serious.
When did you move to New York?
First I went to the Beaux-Arts in Paris for a year. When I was 18, I came back to Los Angeles, but I got tired of living with my brother and took the bus to New York.
How did you live in Greenwich Village?
I was a bohemian. I was stoned on marijuana all day and all night. That’s all I did. I remember meeting some people who later became quite famous, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso—and Steve McQueen, but he wasn’t an actor yet. He was like a wildman.
What was your attitude toward sex?
I was promiscuous. My idea at that time was that sex should be normal, like eating. I think I went through that because my mother was very liberal. She would make love with everybody, and I had this feeling that sex was evil. So I started doing what she had done—and I got over it.
In the 1950s, the abstract expressionists were the big painters. How did you feel about them?
They were my heroes. Willem de Kooning was the most romantic man I ever met, a big idealist. I used to hang around bars and get drunk with that group. I really wanted to be part of them, but they used to snub me. They were right, because I hadn’t done anything. I was just hanging around.
When did you get recognized?
It was pretty fast. When I was 24, I had a piece of sculpture at the Stable Gallery. The owner of Art News bought it for maybe $50, but there were paintings by Jackson Pollock and De Kooning that weren’t sold. So there was a big commotion.
When did you have your first one-woman show?
In 1957 or 1958, when Leo Castelli opened his gallery. It was really very popular. I had a page in LIFE.
Did that change your relations with the other artists?
Oh, yeah. People were very happy if you had a show. That was the scene. Money wasn’t the point, because nobody was making any.
You felt you had arrived?
I was very proud of myself. But then I got so scared I went to Europe. Castelli was really angry. He said, “How can you leave when things are just beginning?” I lived in Rome—and all I did was get drunk.
When you returned in 1960, what was happening in New York?
Well, Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had become very important. Chamberlain was making those smashed cars. It wasn’t pop art yet, but the abstract expressionists had gone out of the scene. Jackson Pollock had died, Franz Kline died in 1962.
What were you doing?
I was really a mess. I was really lost. And then I found these wooden hat forms, and I decided to make sculptures out of them with faces and lots of color. I showed them in 1962. That was when people really liked my work. There was a line outside the gallery.
So 1962 was the beginning of pop art?
Yes. After my show Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana had shows there. We really got a lot of publicity. But I did a lot of things to promote my work, like doing covers for TIME. The abstract expressionists would have thought that was a horrible thing to do.
And you also appeared in Vogue?
Yes, I modeled with my sculptures, which for a fine artist was sort of disgusting. But I decided it was a way of getting the public to look at art.
How do you choose your clothes?
That’s an art in itself, to find out what looks good on you and what fits well. Once they had me on that best-dressed list—and I had only two dresses!
What were they?
A dark red velvet dress I had made in South America and a man’s suit—with stripes. I think I started dressing like a man in a suit before anybody.
What frightens you most?
Men. I think they’re the ones that are competitive. They resent it that I’m a good artist. I feel it. I’m an independent person who thinks, and they would like me to be some kind of servant.
Did you ever have an affair with a famous artist?
Several, but not for long and mostly when I was in my 20s. You end up sleeping with everybody, if it’s a small group like that.
There’s a saying that “Latins make lousy lovers.” Do artists make better lovers?
Worse, I think. Artists are generally hung up—maybe that’s why they become artists.
Has anyone proposed marriage?
No, nobody. I finally asked one man—I was so curious—and he said, “Uh, I need a woman who would take care of me, and you’re too interested in your art.” And then I asked another man, and he said, “My family would disown me.” So I never asked again.
Have you ever had an abortion?
Yes, several times.
Have you ever been raped?
Oh, yes, I was raped twice. I don’t know why, if it’s physical, it’s such a crime. If you’ve been around a lot, it’s not such a big crumb in your eye.
And you still find love magical?
Oh, yes! I finally discovered that about it. I think it’s very spiritual and most men don’t. They think it’s dirty. I’m disappointed.
Salvador Dali said love was spiritual, but only the leg was sexy.
I met Dali when I was younger. He took me to his hotel room and asked me to put on this silver dress. I did, except I kept my clothes on underneath. Dali started to fiddle with the zipper and said, “But you still have your clothes on!” He was very angry.
Do you ever think the sculptures you make are funny?
No, they’re not funny. I remember one night, years ago, I got so scared by my work, it looked so alive I had to leave the studio. They looked like real people. Good art is very peculiar. It’s a mystery.
What are you working on right now?
For the Bicentennial I wanted to do a woman, but I couldn’t think of any. That was a real male chauvinist revolution! I’m still going to do something with Paul Revere, with him naked riding a naked woman.