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Book ExcerptJessica Beck in Conversation with Franklin Sirmans

Curators Jessica Beck and Franklin Sirmans in a side-by-side portrait.

Jessica Beck (photo by Abby Warhola) and Franklin Sirmans (photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA)

Marisol and Warhol Take New York is the culmination of four years of collaborative planning and research. Conversations with the catalogue contributors and program partners enriched every aspect of the exhibition’s development and helped frame Marisol’s narrative of erasure and how this resonates with the experiences of women and con-temporary artists of color today. As part of a long-standing effort between The Warhol and the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) to bring our collections into dialogue, our two institutions worked together to travel this exhibition to Miami. In the following conversation, PAMM director Franklin Sirmans and I speak about the value of this exhibition for both of our institutions and for art history more generally. —Jessica Beck


JB: Franklin, you have been an integral part of this exhibition, and I was so gratified when you expressed interest in the show. I could immediately see these historical artworks looking fresh and new hanging in your sunlit galleries in Miami—a space that feels contemporary and bright. What first drew you to this exhibition and why did you feel it would be a good fit for the Pérez?

FS: I love Andy Warhol, but to consider Warhol in the context of Miami the same way one might in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago would be wrong. The beautiful thing about well-curated exhibitions is that the most successful ones always lead to new ways of thinking about the artist and provide the catalyst or impetus to look at the work in new and potentially exciting ways. That’s what you’ve done with this show. More important, your proposal looks at Warhol and Marisol together as friends, colleagues, and working artists who hit the scene at the same time. This original vision was the linchpin. While our holdings of Marisol are limited, there is a wonderfully rare and important sculptural work constructed of paper—a portrait of the dealer Sidney Janis—that Marisol made in 1969. Of course, your show is about the 1960s and these two incredible artists coming into their own, and where do they come out together but through the relationship with Janis! Another exciting aspect of this relationship is the fact that our Marisol piece was given to the museum by Manuel Gonzalez, who is now a Miami resident, but in the early 1960s he worked at Sidney Janis Gallery, which is how he got the work in the first place.

JB: That connection was a nice discovery during this process. Along with Janis, prominent gallery directors such as Leo Castelli and Eleanor Ward had immediate and direct influences on the success of Marisol’s and Warhol’s early careers. At that moment, these galleries were just opening, but there was also a rise in art criticism taking shape in New York. In 1966, for instance, Lucy Lippard defined New York Pop as “art determinedly of the present,” claiming it was created by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg, whom she called “The New York Five.”1 We have still not expanded this definition, and artists outside of this group of white men, including Marisol, are often relegated to the international scene, separate from the New York origin story. Do you see this exhibition as furthering a more progressive history of Pop, which is my ultimate goal with this show?1 

FS: We are blessed by the dynamism of art history, which has produced so many broad and more inclusive histories. I am reminded of relatively recent exhibitions such as Pop América, 1965–1975, The World Goes Pop, and International Pop.2  Marisol’s work was in each of them. The expanded field created by these shows and others is part of our mission. Recently at PAMM, in 2019, we presented a retrospective of the work of Beatriz González, another woman who should be better known, especially in the orbit of Pop Art and the canon. An accompanying program of that exhibition was called “Defining Pop Art: Beatriz González and Andy Warhol.”

JB: These exhibitions have solidified Marisol’s name in the movement, but they are focused on International Pop. I’m committed, however, to reclaiming her place within the New York origin story of Pop. For Marisol, this notion of nationality and home was always in flux. She proclaimed that she was a citizen of the world—born in Paris, growing up in Los Angeles and Caracas, and then making her own way to New York. At Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, she was included in four Carnegie Internationals (1958, 1964, 1967, 1970) and even though her work was often grouped with that of US artists, she was invariably listed as a Venezuelan artist. All the while, her work was being made and sold in New York, and she was in fact redefining the New York Pop scene. Do you see these slippages as part of the story of her erasure? It seems that her resistance to claiming a single nationality also reveals a larger issue within the framework of art history.

FS: It’s weird, and we all have our hands in it. In some exhibitions her nationality is given as French, and in others it’s Venezuelan. I think traditional structures have often had a hard time with hybridity and pluridimensionality. Hyphenated existences distort the narrative. Our labels stick to the fact of where one was born and where one lives, which can be limiting and unproductive.

JB: Fame and notoriety are interesting points of connection for Marisol and Warhol. Marisol ran from her early success at the Leo Castelli Gallery, but by 1961 she was at the center of the burgeoning New York art scene and certainly ahead of Warhol. In 1962 Life magazine included her in its list of the “one hundred most important young men and women in the United States.”3  Two years later, thousands crowded her second solo show at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery, which attracted the media’s attention and, I’m sure, Warhol’s. Yet, even with this press and notoriety, her name was dropped from history, whereas Warhol’s became synonymous with Pop. There is also this myth that Warhol achieved fame and success early and almost immediately in New York, which is not the case. It took ten years for him to get his paintings shown in galleries. How do you understand this tension between Marisol’s success and her eventual disappearance in the record?

FS: She had already made so many great signature works, so the recognition was certainly well deserved: The Kennedy Family (1961), Love (1962), and The Family (1963), among them. Perhaps ironically, while Marisol was included in a mass market, truly popular magazine such as Life, Lippard, writing in 1966, thought that her work was actually “a sophisticated and theatrical folk art.”4 

JB: Yes, exactly, but the great thing about this quote is that Lippard contradicts herself just two lines later. Of Marisol she writes: “Hers is a sophisticated and theatrical folk art justifiably reflecting her own beautiful face. But it has little to do with Pop Art, aside from its deadpan approach and touches of humour. Marisol rarely, if ever, uses commercial motifs, although her John Wayne and The Kennedy Family would fall within Pop iconography, and her wit is chic and topical.”5 

FS: If we think about art criticism and its often misguided disdain for a large swath of the potential viewing public, this can be telling. Marisol’s success in the mainstream was greater at that time and she may have been written off because of that. The 1960s art world was small and insular, and Marisol in 1962 was anything but. Did that affect her reception in the latter part of the 1960s and 1970s? I’d think so! On top of being a star, being a woman and being a woman with a hyphenated past certainly may not have enhanced her standing among those in the New York–centric art world.

JB: That’s such a good point—this idea that if something is “popular,” it is somehow less serious. It’s as if Marisol’s early success was used against her. I’m also interested in the role of gender in her early reception. For instance, her second show at the Stable Gallery, in February and March of 1964, featured the debut of her dry, witty assemblages John Wayne, The Family, and The Dinner Date (all 1963). When one sees these works alongside Warhol’s Silver Elvis, Campbell’s Soup, and Jackie paintings, her connection to Pop is clear. The pictorial irony in her art, revered in the work of other Pop artists, was dismissed as flippant by critics. There was this sense that she was just a girl who liked parties, and over time her work became marginalized, existing merely as a footnote to the movement she inspired and shaped. For me, Marisol is undeniably a Pop artist. The problem is that Pop, as a concept and definition, written about by Lippard and others, was and, I would argue, still is a term reserved for a small circle of white men.

FS: Efforts to address these issues have gone some way to changing perceptions, and this exhibition will further the conversation for the better. I am so curious to see Warhol in her context, and to see Marisol in Miami, a place with such a deep relationship to her Venezuelan heritage, but also a place where her particular handmade brand of Pop will be deeply engaging. And I am excited to see the multivalent nature of her work and its relationship to pre-Columbian and folk art, in addition to Cubism and Dadaism.

JB: I think another revelation in the exhibition will be the films. The summer of 1963 was when Warhol first attempted filmmaking. He made four films that summer focused on Marisol, John Giorno, and Wynn Chamberlain. But Warhol continues to film Marisol throughout 1963 and 1964: in her studio, at her second Stable Gallery show, and sitting for a screen test in his Silver Factory. These films will be shown alongside new juxtapositions of both artists’ work for the first time. It was, in fact, the 1963 film Robert Indiana, etc., with Marisol, Giorno, and Chamberlain, among others, that sparked the first idea for this exhibition. It’s a film that, for me, shows a more intimate, personal side of Warhol. What works are you most excited to see together, in person, for the first time?

FS: In Miami, I don’t think Warhol can overshadow in the way he might in New York City. The show presents a snapshot of two very cool, creative kids—one born in Paris and one born in Pittsburgh—trying to figure out how to make it in the big city, the world, and that story is universal and never gets old. The films also give a dynamic reference point to that earlier moment, which will further impress the historical nature and importance of this exhibition. That history will also play out in the narratives drawn in the subject matter of the two artists: political figures like the Kennedys; art historical figures like Henry Geldzahler, the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the gallerist and connector Sidney Janis; art collectors like Ethel Scull; John Wayne and celebrities of popular culture like Jackie, Liz, and Elvis. There has not been a substantial viewing of either Marisol or Warhol here, so we are introducing many people to both of them for the first time. I personally might be most excited to see The Party, Marisol’s tour de force from 1965–66.

JB: The Party was such a hard loan to secure and will certainly be the most gratifying to see installed. There are also two Marisol works in the permanent collection at the Pérez that will be included in this exhibition: From France (1960) and Study for a Portrait of Sydney Janis (1969), which were great discoveries. Jorge Pérez’s loan, From France, is one of Marisol’s earliest assemblages and also points to her roots in Paris and is, as I read the work, a portrait of her parents. It’s a very significant work to include.

FS: For Jorge, the chance to acquire an important work by Marisol was paramount as part of the expansion of collection and its focal point on artists of Latin America. The acquisition at auction just a few years ago came after deep research with his curatorial team. Previously, From France had been in the same collection from 1964 until 2018. This early Marisol work has such a rich history, having been selected for the Museum of Modern Art’s The Art of Assemblage exhibition in 1961.

JB: My hope is that this exhibition will contribute to the revision of the history of Pop and recover Marisol’s artistic vision and singular voice. From my perspective, Warhol followed Marisol’s lead and even took notes on her reticent style with the media. It’s important to me that her name appears first in the title of the show and throughout the entire narrative—she is the real trailblazer!

FS: I am right there with you on that!