Jack Mitchell, American (1925 – 2013), Portrait of Sculptor Marisol Escobar at Work on “The Family” Sculpture, 1969.
Brooks Museum History

Marisol: Queer Families

In recent years, a peculiar thing has begun in Memphis, Tennessee: Marisol (1930 – 2016), the bright star of sixties Pop Art who all but disappeared after the seventies, has become a queer icon. Ask a Gen Z or Millennial queer Brooks patron what their favorite art work on view is and odds are you’ll hear at least one mention The Family, Marisol’s neon depiction of the Holy Family from 1969. It’s a shocking, perhaps sarcastic, sculpture complete with Astroturf, a wooden Baby Jesus and His parents, Mary and Joseph, with halos of neon light. It’s as gay as it is bold. (And really, aren’t those two words that often belong together? It is a bold thing to be gay in the South.)

When the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art first staged Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper, a seminal 2014 exhibition organized by former Chief Curator Marina Pacini, there was skepticism. Sebastian Smee of the Washington Post noted in a review, “The show was good” but “Overall, it felt like an appetizer rather than a full meal. It wasn’t backed by the resources, the big institution heft, it required.” Fair shot. The Brooks is small, after all. And yet, what a win this exhibition was for the city’s queer youth. We seized on carrying her legacy, and were happy to do so.  What New York didn’t capitalize on was our gain.

Marisol’s own glamorous personality was the perfect object for gay mythologizing. The image of a quiet, beautiful artist who rarely spoke and who was once best friends with Andy Warhol is like catnip to young gay men. She was to the 20th century sixties what Lana Del Rey is to the 21st century teens and twenties: A larger than life feminine creature that is both misunderstood and thrives on your misunderstanding of her. She exists in grays, instead of easy to define contours, and relies on you to draw your own (oftentimes wrong) conclusions about her. She both offends you and delights you, especially when she lays down bitingly harsh indictments on men. I think Marisol would have appreciated Lana throwing shade at self-aggrandizing white men when she wrote the lyrics, “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news,” she wields the knife and continues. “Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon, know-it-all/ You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you.” Shade.  

Yes, Marisol’s chic image, those big brown eyes, her long black hair and model-thin body, plays a deft part in her fame, even today. But her artwork is what firmly cements Marisol as a queer icon. Dare I say she was better than Warhol? Sure. But honey, Marisol Escobar was not here to play your games. We might praise difficult women today, but in the sixties Marisol was punished for being one. When the Brooks found in her 1967, she had started what would become a pattern: Escaping the United States. When she finally returned to New York for good years later, she found the art world had changed dramatically, and, like many women, she had been written out of it.

Marisol's Families

It might surprise you to know that Marisol’s first connection to queerness isn’t from her neon sculptures, quite similar to the neon signs at gay clubs, or from angering conservatives: it’s from her critiques of the patriarchal family.  Family was an important subject matter for Marisol. In between 1954 and 1961, Marisol created thirty-five art works related to the family.  Her connection to this subject matter might best be represented in Family Portrait, a lithograph from 1961 based on an image of the Escobar family in a park in 1934. For this work, Marisol eliminated the park bench and park setting seen in the photograph and instead chose to focus on her own family. Her father has a much darker circle around his face than in the source photograph, while her mother is without the scratches found on the original photograph. “The artist also includes her elegant parents by themselves in a circle directly above the grouping,” Pacini writes in the essay “Marisol’s Families” for the Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper catalog. This circle creates “a progression from couple to family,” Pacini commented.

Marisol’s fascination with family began with the suicide of her mother when the artist was twelve. The traumatic event might best explained Marisol’s refusal to speak only unless she was spoken to or was required to. Her father eventually remarried, but as Pacini notes in the same essay, “Marisol disliked her stepmother, and there are no artworks of this second family in any media.”

Instead, Marisol looked outward at other families. She would play with ideas of power and privilege within families, like in her depiction of the most famous family in America in 1961 with The Kennedy Family. Its “antithesis,” as Pacini calls it, is The Family, a work from 1962 which features no patriarchal head of the household. Marisol worked from a photograph, her preferred medium to create work from, to form a sculpture of a mother with four children. The family was obviously low in social standing, even more so without a father. The woman is seated, looking tired and forlorn. When read next to The Kennedy Family, whose subjects are standing on raised platforms, the disparity is even more noticeable. From the beginning of her professional career, Marisol was unflinchingly depicting chasms between classes and social order through the constraints or benefit of a nuclear family.

Marisol, American (b. France, 1930), The Family, 1969, Mixed media: Wood, plastic, neon, glass, Object: 88 x 56 x 65 in. (223.5 x 142.2 x 165.1 cm),
Commissioned for Brooks Memorial Art Gallery through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from the Memphis Arts Council,
Brooks Fine Arts Foundation and Brooks Art Gallery League, 69.5a-d

"I don't want to compromise myself"

A day after Christmas in 1967, Robert J. McKnight, Director of the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, wrote to Marisol and said, “In reference to our phone conversation of the 22nd of December, thank you for considering a sculpture commission. . .” The sculpture’s subject matter would be “in the nature of Christian crèche, a group of figures to represent Christ, the Madonna and Child; or whatever you might wish to do.”

Marisol’s initial idea for The Family was ambitious. The artist’s original conception included not just the Holy family, but a shed and animals. But in March of 1968, a handwritten letter folded inside a stylish red, white, and blue trimmed envelope arrived at the Brooks from Marisol that detailed her changes to the sculpture. Marisol was in hiding in Rome, escaping New York after several successful gallery shows, and would leave for extensive travel in the next year. “I don’t want to compromise myself,” she told McKnight. She abandoned her idea to create a shed and animals to accompany the family, instead choosing to only focus on Joseph, Mary, and “baby” as she referred to Jesus.

Plans were abandoned further for a firmly religious sculpture as noted in a letter from McKnight to a writer for the Commercial Appeal, whose mention of the forthcoming artist’s commission noted the sculpture’s original name The Holy Family.  Marisol’s sculpture was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and as a result, “the separation of church and state in the first amendment to the constitution may or may not apply to religious sculpture in part paid for by the Federal Government,” McKnight explained. “In any case, Marisol Escobar and Brooks Gallery have abandoned the idea of a religious sculpture. The piece will be entitled ‘The Family’.”

The Family was met with both shock and awe. An undated review of the exhibition in museum files states, “The Family . . . is a fascinating and awesome work of art which many people are finding difficult to accept as a reverent, religious expression.” The piece was certainly provocative, especially in the context of the South. But perhaps what is most daring about the piece is Marisol’s decision to plant the artistic focus squarely on Mary. She’s the star of the piece. The artist’s hands replace Mary’s own hands, and Mary’s stomach is a door that opens to reveal a mirror in which viewers can see a reflection of themselves. While the previously mentioned critic believes Marisol’s mirror implies we are all children of God, I would argue that we all come from women and it is Woman who gives us life. It’s a sly, pro-feminist statement.

Gay Icons and Chosen Families

1969, the year of The Family and arguably the last year Marisol was a noted art celebrity, was a revolutionary year for human rights, and it was especially crucial for the LGBTQ community, even the community’s gay idols. In June of 1969 two critical events took place that are often linked in a haze of exaggeration, myth and truth, much like that story you heard at the gay club a few weekends ago that is only partially true.

On June 22, Judy Garland, superstar of film and music, overdosed on sleeping pills. One week later the Stonewall Riots began when Sylvia Rivera, an activist who was tired of being abused for being a “drag queen,” threw a brick (perhaps the first, if you believe Rivera’s retelling) during a police raid of the Stonewall Inn. It’s unfair to assume Judy Garland sparked the Riots. However Garland was one of the first true gay icons. In images from her legendary Carnegie Hall performance in 1962, which rebounded her career for a brief period, the stage is flooded with men looking at Garland with the same adoration that Little Monsters, the fervent fan base of Lady Gaga, would stare back at Gaga nearly fifty years later at the Monster Ball (and yes, I was one of those Monsters).

I can’t say with absolute certainty that every man at Garland’s Carnegie show was gay, but scores of the gay men who attended the show have come out in recent years to express how much Garland meant to them.  In a 1967 review of Garland’s Palace Theatre engagement in London (which is the backdrop for when Renee Zellweger served her best Garland drag in the film Judy), Time magazine commented, quite disparagingly, that “a disproportionate amount of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual.” The writer dismissed the men in “tight trousers” who “practically levitate from their seats” during Garland’s performance.      

Writer William Goldman for Esquire was one of the first writers to connect the gay community with its adoration of women, oftentimes women in pain. He noted, “Homosexuals tend to identify with suffering. They are a persecuted group and they understand suffering. And so does Garland. She's been through the fire and lived – all the drinking and divorcing, all the pills and all the men, all the poundage come and gone – brothers and sisters, she knows.”

But back to Stonewall: Rivera once stated that, yes, there were some Garland fans in attendance at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the riots. “I guess Judy Garland’s death really helped us hit the fan,” she commented years later. In reality, though, Stonewall had very little to do with Garland. Stonewall was a riot begun by people of color and largely by transgender patrons. The riot was not a glamorous fight with police, but anarchy.

Yet Stonewall was born out of something more than anger; the riots rose from a chosen family of queer youths who needed each other in order to survive. After decades of abuse, virtually no human rights, and even facing arrest for loving someone of the same gender or having the audacity to dress in drag, the community rose together to fight back. Scholar Nina Jackson Levin defines chosen family as, “a term employed within queer and transgender communities to describe family groups constructed by choice rather than by biological or legal (bio-legal) ties. Chosen family implies an alternative formulation that subverts, rejects, or overrides bio-legal classifications assumed to be definitive within an American paradigm of kinship.”

Chosen families are the ones who are there for you when your own family will not accept you. In “Just Taking Care of Each Other,” a survey of queer youth who rely on a chosen family, a boy named Andres commented: “As somebody in the queer community a lot of us end up having to rely on these interconnected, interdependent support systems of close friends.”

Marisol certainly understood the need for blended families. She was a woman who never married and also wasn’t interested in children, but she was invested in the different kinds of dynamics within families as exemplified in her work. What would she think of queer families?

Queen Mothers

In drag, “families” are brought together by experienced drag queens who mother young queens. Mother Queens are the gatekeepers to the stage where young queens are eager to debut. For some, they teach the girls (in drag, gender is fluid and queens often refer to themselves as “girls”, even out of makeup) how to apply makeup or sashay down a runway. For every legendary queen performing in your hometown club, there is at least one queen she’s mentored who’s slipping on her stilettos and sequined gown for the first time.

Look no further than RuPaul’s Drag Race, the seminal and groundbreaking reality show in the vein of America’s Next Top Model, if you want to see what a modern day queer family looks like. Where there is bickering and backstabbing as the queens compete to become America’s next drag superstar, there is also compassion, vulnerability and love. Frequently, queens drop the “act” to become real with each other and viewers about their struggles. Across eleven seasons, contestants have shared stories that are all too common in queer communities, such as how they have no family waiting for them at home or what it felt like when they discovered they contracted HIV. Queer families in drag are a lifeline. A queen survives because of her “Haus” (a play on the word “house”) and because another, older queen wanted to pay it forward.

I will always remember the first year I came out. I didn’t have drag mothers, as I’m not a drag queen, but I did have a chosen family who loved me and made sure I stayed mentally healthy. Those girls, who I call my sisters, took me to the gay clubs, introduced me to modern day gay icons such as Madonna and Janet Jackson, and welcomed me into their homes for home cooked meals as if I were their own. They reassured me that, yes, I am “okay.” It was the compassion I needed to feel accepted. When we would go to Spectrum, the gay club at 616 Marshall which is now closed, every drag show would begin with the Sister Sledge song “We Are Family.” I still remember those moments, as the spotlight fixed in the center stage, and a tall, fierce Black queen would stride out to glide down the runway. “We are family,” the girls sang. “I got all my sisters with me.” Looking at my friends, who truly are my family, I couldn’t have found a better song to represent how I felt.

An Enduring Relevance

Marisol’s multiple takes on the family, in all of its forms, is an excellent representation in our museum’s collection for how families can be blended, Holy, complicated, and against the grain of heteronormativity. As Pacini writes in the closing of her essay, “In her art Marisol worked through the trauma to her damaged family, and at least in her sculptures created repeatedly intact, if sometimes threatened or threatening, families.”

For the queer patrons of the Brooks who gaze in awe at Marisol’s sculpture, that still feels fresh in 2020. It is her humor and edge that captivates them. Her story and her mystery draw them in further, and finally, it’s her interest in families which binds her to us. It would be easy to say Warhol made Marisol a queer superstar, but he did not. The modern day queer community, who now reveres and collects Marisol’s work, are partly who carries Marisol’s legacy. It is thanks to brilliant curators like Pacini, and the scholars who run with her work, that Marisol’s legacy is not lost to the sixties. Queer people understand what it is like to be erased from history. As our brothers and sisters died from AIDS with no government action, we feared our families would be no more. Marisol, the Paris-born, Venezuelan artist whose star once shone so brightly, is experiencing a career resurgence. But like everything in the underground world of gay culture, it might take a few years before the rest of the world catches on to Marisol’s timeless, ongoing relevance.

- Braden Hixson, Donor Relations Manager