With “The Party” in Town, the Toledo Museum of Art Celebrates Marisol Escobar

Two decades after acquiring one of her largest pieces in 2005, the Toledo Museum of Art is a collaborator on the most extensive exhibit profiling the art of Marisol Escobar, spearheaded by the Buffalo AKG Museum. TMA staff and visitors are delighted to see a familiar staple of their hometown museum on the national stage and are optimistic about what this means for museum partnerships and success in the future. Cover graphic by Marin Warshay. Original images courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

If you’ve visited the Toledo Museum of Art in the past two decades, you may be familiar with an installation called “The Party.” 

The whimsical and dynamic collection of life-size wooden figures, carved and decorated to represent women at a formal ball, is the creation of Marisol Escobar, a Venezuelan-American artist born in Paris in 1930. The patterns, colors and emotions each woman wears evoke movement throughout the installation, which is arguably the most important work of Marisol Escobar, according to Adam Levine, director and CEO of the Toledo Museum of Art, which bought the piece in 2005. 

“It’s not definitive, but it’s also not rebuttable,” he said.

Nineteen years later, the most extensive exhibit of Marisol’s work, including not only “The Party” but also ephemeral sketches and reference materials, premiered at the TMA. It opened in March of 2024 and runs until June 2.

Marisol: A Retrospective was organized by the Buffalo AKG Museum, the inheritor of Marisol’s estate as requested by the artist before her passing in 2016. After it leaves the TMA, which considers themselves a partner in this retrospective, the exhibit will open in Buffalo on July 12.

“The Party,” Marisol Escobar. Image courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art. 

After decades of little public recognition and her own withdrawal from the public eye, Marisol returned to the limelight in 2014 with a retrospective at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. According to Levine, the TMA’s 2005 purchase of “The Party” effectively sowed the seeds for their recognition as one of Marisol’s earliest patrons. It was the trustees saying, “This is really important,” Levine said. 

Moreover, the museum’s decision to premiere Marisol’s collection during the esteemed Caravaggio exhibit was intentional. 

“There’s a rhetorical point to that, we’re saying … ‘She is as good as that,’” Levine said. 

By Marin Warshay for Midstory.

Jessica Hong, senior curator of modern and contemporary art at the TMA, has done in-depth research on Marisol’s life, her artistic expression and the ebb and flow of her reputation — from the public’s approval to critique of the artist, both as a creator and as a perplexing character. 

Hong highlights the ways in which Marisol used mixed media art to discuss geopolitical and social issues relevant when she first started creating in the 1950s — and also what that says about our current moment. 

Relying on methods of assemblage and using a wide set of techniques — from carved woodwork and sculpted collages to painted drawings and plaster casts — Marisol’s body of work explores figural interventions that gesture at the tension of the collective and the individual. 

The exhibit features “Baby Boy” and “Baby Girl,” sculptures of “bumbling babies,” 7 and 6 feet tall respectively, both completed in 1963. Baby Boy is dressed in blue and red pin-stripes to symbolize the position of the United States during the Cold War, and in Marisol’s words, the nation’s “irresponsible” character. 

A later set of work completed in the ‘70s reflects technological, ecological and nuclear anxieties of the time; fish sculptures reference U.S. Navy vessels, like “Barracuda,” a weapon of warfare that in its powerful streamlined profile ominously takes on a human face (her own), indicating that humankind can in fact be capable of much violence.

“Barracuda,” Marisol Escobar. Images by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

According to Hong, Marisol was highly pensive, and it shows in her work. Contemporary scholars and critics praise Marisol’s use of autobiographical tactics.

Speaking about Marisol’s earlier days, Hong said that Marisol was often accused of narcissism. If Marisol responded to these jabs at all, Hong said, she argued that she works alone and that she’s her only reference.

The thread coursing through Marisol’s work is the presentation of herself in a broader social context. In the case of the two babies, the pair both hold a smaller doll with Marisol’s face printed on them, which is believed to symbolize the fact that Marisol never married in a time when nuclear families were the norm and expectation, according to Hong. But it also gestures at the visceral experience of the individual in the nuclear-armed Cold War world of the ‘60s and the sense of helplessness in the issues playing out on a global scale.

 “The Party,” Marisol Escobar. Images by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

“Even in the mid-20th century, [Marisol was] really exploring pertinent themes that today are incredibly important,” Hong said, “whether it’s the use of migration, immigrant experiences, gender and social identities, possibly ecological concerns, bodies … how we move through the world.” 

Marisol’s representation of people who have been historically disenfranchised and excluded from the contemporary art scene was seen as courageous by some critics. She was even critiqued by some fellow feminists for her willingness to lean into her femininity in her art, according to Hong. Many of Marisol’s pieces depicted women dressed in traditional feminine outfits, such as “Women and Dog”. This went against the ideals of some feminists, particularly of the Third Wave, which reached its peak in the 1990s and whose members wished and worked for the expectations of vanity in women to be dismantled. 

It’s not a coincidence or luck that Marisol’s legacy has lasted; through technique and emotion, Marisol continues to resonate with the public.

According to Levine, it’s the museum’s job to “steward artist’s legacies.” It is often the artists that are overlooked today who are given the most attention tomorrow. While the exhibit’s tour will soon take it to New York, “The Party” will be back in town in July 2025, a permanent fixture of the TMA’s commitment to uncovering and nurturing the elemental human experience art like Marisol Escobar’s exposes. 

“Great art causes a viewer to look at the work and feel the same feeling the artist intended,” Levine said. ”They’re capturing something which is fundamentally human. This is work which is deeply self-reflexive. And it doesn’t matter your background, it doesn’t matter your gender, you immediately understand the anxieties that she felt, and it’s resonant. And you’re captured by the craft, and it keeps you looking. And as you look, the meaning becomes apparent. And that’s great art.”

By Marin Warshay for Midstory.

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