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The Artist Is Still Speaking: Reading and Listening to Marisol’s Inscribed Drawings

Andrea Alvarez, PhD

Harry Shunk (German, 1924–2006) and János Kender (Hungarian, 1937–2009), Marisol in Paris, July 1, 1964. Gelatin silver print. 11 x 14 inches (27.94 x 35.56). Collection Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1976 (K1976:4.47). © Harry Shunk and János Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2014.R.20) / Likeness © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Marisol’s visionary art practice is most appreciated through a cross-disciplinary lens that mirrors the way she worked.

A woman with short dark hair kneeling down and painting a sculpture
Marisol retouching The Generals, 1961-62, November 1963. Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Buffalo AKG Art Museum Digital Assets Collection and Archives.

For example, the 2023–25 traveling exhibition organized by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Marisol: A Retrospective, explores the productive intersections between Marisol’s sculptural, photographic, performance, and graphic impulses. As this first posthumous retrospective on the artist—and the first since her 2016 bequest of her estate to the Buffalo AKG—makes clear, Marisol’s multivalent work offers multiple pathways for scholarly and artistic investigations. Yet, with the exception of focused essays in retrospective catalogues and a very limited number of other scholarly texts, research that tries to take in all of these overlapping aspects of the artist’s career has too often yielded only general assessments. Efforts to describe the breadth of her multivalent career often lose the specificity of her voice.

Instead, this essay aims to take up one of these avenues and look more closely at her extraordinary, and still vastly understudied works on paper. Her 2016 bequest to the Buffalo AKG included no less than five hundred drawings and prints, the majority of which had never been exhibited nor published. In studying these works over the last five years, it has become clear that her works on paper constitute a robust and independent—as well as interdependent—practice, on par with her revolutionary sculptures for their timeliness and originality. Opportunities for further investigation into her works on paper include, for example, a focused study of her printmaking practice as a whole [1]; her almost completely unknown work as a photographer; the role of her studies for sculptures and public works; and the status of her studies for unrealized works.  

Here, I endeavor to discover what might emerge from a rather narrow scope of inquiry into this drawing practice as I work to quite literally “read” a group of Marisol’s works on paper by focusing on drawings—mostly from the 1970s—that bear written inscriptions. Douglas Dreishpoon has argued that these often sexually explicit, possibly confessional drawings belie the myth of Marisol as a taciturn mystery, declaring that the verbose sheets act as “the emphatic voice behind the silence.” [2]

In March 1975, Marisol exhibited a group of twenty-seven drawings and wall-based sculptures at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City. Shown just seven years after she temporarily exiled herself from the New York art world that had feverishly embraced her in the 1960s [3], the drawings in this presentation were personal, monumental, and bodily. The works on view, mostly on black paper, were rainbow-colored pencil drawings containing a fantastical, sexually charged and luminous energy. Although many contemporary reviews of the exhibition were negative, in Arts critic John Loring insightfully discussed described the images as “a parade of baroque permutations,” while exploring their atmosphere and written inscriptions for clues as to what Marisol may have been communicating. [4] Because much of the written text on these drawings is obscured and illegible and because these drawings were shown alongside sculptures that suggested interpersonal violence, they can paradoxically suggest silencing. That is, what remains on the surface can present as remnants of trauma. Bodies, often in fragments, are coupled with scissors, guns, and other implements throughout these works, as seen in The English Are Coming (2023:5, 1974), among others. 

In his assessment, Loring gives great importance to the negative space in these works as well as the unworked wood elements of her sculptures. Interpreting these as pregnant silences—notable considering her famed public silences [5]—he contrasts them with the many instances in the drawings where figures intersect, double, and meld into one. To Loring, such moments were examples of the “blatant eroticism” of this body of work, intensified by the “almost religious respect and ritualistic hesitation” he observes in images where figures and forms do not cross. [6] For Loring, Marisol’s ability to capture this duality speaks to her mastery. He interprets the symbols throughout her drawings, and the drawings themselves, as synecdochical representations of society at large—a conclusion supported by this essay’s investigation of other works bearing written inscriptions.

In her introduction to Marisol: A Retrospective, the exhibition’s curator Cathleen Chaffee observes that verbose drawings such as these could include Marisol’s own thoughts as well as snippets of overheard, sometimes confessional language from the streets of New York, or elsewhere. She argues convincingly that "the slippage between her own thoughts and those of others in such drawings is one of many ways that Marisol dismantled bounded subjectivity in her work, as she commingled inside and outside, self and other.” [7] Additionally, Marisol explored iteration and doubling through the repetition of body parts, especially phalluses, fingers, and hands, throughout such works, illustrating bodies and selves that are neither cohesive nor contiguous. [8] While this important fact cautions those reading Marisol’s drawings to avoid overdetermined assessments of authorship, it is possible to ascribe Marisol agency in her choice of inscriptions. A survey of these inscriptions from the early 1970s reveals repeated themes and vocabulary that may help suggest which phrase, in fact, represented the artist’s own thoughts and which are more likely to have been collaged from “found” dialogue spoken by others, whether friends or strangers. It is also possible that throwaway words and thoughts gathered on the bus, subway, and sidewalk came to carry meaning for Marisol much like the found wood, clothing, and other physical objects she collected throughout New York City and incorporated into her sculptures, those objects which she said interested her “because they have fallen out of the circuit of use. People throw them away. To me it seems that the objects themselves carry an historical weight.” [9]

The drawings in this investigation feature either a striking amount of written inscription or sparse inscriptions pointedly deployed. The text in Marisol’s works on paper are famously difficult to read, as noted by Loring and various researchers since—a fact compounded by Marisol slipping between English and her native language of Spanish. This essay will present the transcribed and translated inscriptions of the selected drawings in as much detail as possible, focusing in particular on the themes that arise among other seemingly arbitrary words and phrases. Notably, these include Marisol’s ambivalence about Americans, pointed commentaries on the sexualized female body, and remarks on human reproduction (including child loss).

"Your Gift Is Dying"

In five early untitled drawings from a larger sketchbook, ca. 1958–60, Marisol drew figures with markers typically associated with the female gender, such as manicured and painted nails, breasts, and painted full lips. Each drawing features a mandala-like form made with a stencil, usually at the figure’s core. In one (2023:25.1), she writes your gift is dying, to the right of the sparse mandala, which is only partially filled in with her signature rainbow colors. Two figures are also rendered sketchily, with a large, yellow bell-shaped outline suggesting a dress or body with two arms emerging illogically from its left side and the bare suggestion of legs below. A pair of drawn manicured hands at a completely different scale seem to overlay or even emerge from an even less legible figure at right. Conversely, in another (2023:25.3), Marisol writes your gift bloomed beside a full color mandala that forms the torso of a figure with an abstracted but discernible body: her left foot placed in a woman’s heel and her right coming to a sharp point as if it were a wooden prosthesis. Below your gift bloomed, Marisol wrote blue peaches in blue pencil above a drawing of a potted plant with a blue flower that looks unusually like a butterfly. 

Two colorful sketches by Marisol done on beige paper with colored pencils, both featuring abstract/human like figures in shades of red, yellow, blue, pink, and orange
(Left) Marisol's [Untitled page from a sketchbook], ca. 1958-1960 (2023:25.1). (Right) Marisol's [Untitled page from a sketchbook], ca. 1958-1960 (2023:25.3). 

Marisol’s inscribed reference to a “gift,” presumably made visible in these drawings as the mandala or the flower, does not recur, although Marisol also used some portion of the mandala stencil in the three other drawings from this group. The figure or figures in another drawing (2023:25.4) are much more difficult to discern. Heads, body parts, lips, and a heeled foot are arranged in a disorderly manner so that the forms do not cohere. Similarly, the mandala is detailed and colored in fully in some sections but sparse in others. The inscription, I don’t understand why she has found nothing conveys a lost, disconnected energy that resonates with the image. In another drawing in this series (2023:25.5) the central core of the mandala appears as a kind of adornment on a close-up view of a woman’s face. Symbols typically associated with femininity are scattered throughout the image: jewelry, manicured nails, long eyelashes, and a bottle of perfume. This drawing bears no inscriptions. 

A colorful drawing by Marisol where heads, body parts, lips, and a heeled foot are arranged in a disorderly manner so that the forms do not cohere next to another sketch by Marisol of a closeup of a woman's face
(Left) Marisol's [Untitled page from a sketchbook], ca. 1958-1960 (2023:25.4).  (Right) Marisol's [Untitled page from a sketchbook], ca. 1958-1960 (2023:25.5). 


two figures that, based on their relative size and relationship, can be interpreted as a parent and child, each bear a mandala at their center. The larger figure’s mandala has more color and detail, whereas the smaller figure’s, like the figure itself, seems almost embryonic. To the left, an inscription reads: “Dear, I hope you are not influenced by American propaganda + that you <sup>don’t</sup> marry that jap”.
Marisol's [Untitled page from a sketchbook], ca. 1958-1960 (2023:25.2).

In the final drawing in this series relevant to this essay (2023:25.2), two figures that, based on their relative size and relationship, can be interpreted as a parent and child, each bear a mandala at their center. The larger figure’s mandala has more color and detail, whereas the smaller figure’s, like the figure itself, seems almost embryonic. To the left, an inscription reads: Dear, I hope you are not influenced by American propaganda + that you don’t marry that jap. (There are many problematic terms and sexual references throughout Marisol’s inscriptions. It’s impossible to say whether they derive from overheard dialogue or from the artist herself. We’ve chosen to represent them accurately here.) The word “don’t,” crucial here for the complexity of the statement, is written as superscript and in another color, suggesting it may have been an afterthought or the artist’s edit to what she overheard and transcribed. While it is impossible to know its true meaning to the artist—each side of the statement seems to cancel the other out—this inscription situates the drawings in a post–World War II era blighted by American racism against Japanese and Japanese American people and characterized by growing awareness of the power of governmental propaganda. Marisol would continue to inscribe her drawings with references to Americans, most of these bearing negative connotations.

"I know who I am"

The majority of Marisol’s textual inscriptions appear on drawings from 1970 to 1975. A sheet from around 1970 to 1973 features compelling imagery and text on each side. The recto (2023:122R) was made with red felt-tip marker and features a bulbous head in profile with arms and legs sticking out of the front of the figure’s neck and musical notes flowing out and up the back. Littered with cursive, capitalized, and sometimes illegible text, this is a good example of Marisol’s practice of combining personal and overheard phrases in both English and Spanish in her drawings. A word bubble emerging from the subject’s mouth reads Cows are killers / like buldozers [10] / they devastate / an area in no / time at all / they think crime / has only to do / with meat + / blood because / that’s what they / are but what / if they were / grass.

Two sketches by Marisol side by side, one in all red ink with a bulbous head in profil with arms and legs sticking out and the other a sketch featuring a dairy cow
(Left) Marisol's [Untitled], ca. 1970-1973 (2023:122R). (Right) Marisol's [Untitled], ca. 1972 (2023:129).

Marisol, who made at least one sculpture and a print featuring a dairy cow, will call cows “murderers of grass” in a later work (2023:129, ca. 1972), suggesting that the sentiment in this passage may have been her own and not something she overheard. This poetic, anthropomorphizing call for empathy—for the very grass the cows eat—betrays Marisol’s sensitive nature, which comes through in many of the personal and vulnerable artworks discussed in this essay. To the right of this speech bubble, over the figure’s head, is a litany of fading feminine features and experiences shared by many women, especially those who are aging: 

    I lost my hair 
    “  “     “     nails 
    “  “     “     teth 
    “  “     “     breasts
    “  “     “     ass
    “  “     “     child
    “  “     “     skin
   + what did I gain / nothing. am I supposed to be kind intelligent talented no. only getting closer to death

Relatedly, just beside the mouth on the figure’s cheek, we see the words mas viejo que matusalen, meaning “older than [gendered masculine] Methuselah,” the oldest person in the Bible. This phrase, biblical in origin, became a common way to refer teasingly to someone who is “as old as the hills.” 

Much of the text on the head seems disjointed and even aggressive: it had to be done. WORRYOU / I DON’T KNOW / + you who are you I know / who you are you / shit, a shit is followed by a field of text illegible except for the name BILL in capitalized letters. In the neck, a stream of consciousness passage can be attributed to Marisol because of references to a boyfriend, Ty, and her dog, Peco: Get away from / me you lousy shit with / your memories of what / I never liked I want / to remember making / love to ty being by the / [illegible] inside + under / Peco my dog.

The verso of this personal, verbose image features a playful pencil drawing which references—or shares references with—two sculptures she made in this same period, Triggerfish I (1970) and Triggerfish II (1972).

Two separate images of wooden fish sculptures with human faces
(Left) Marisol's Triggerfish I, 1970. (Right) Marisol's Triggerfish II, 1972. 

In the drawing, a triggerfish swims diagonally downward toward some sea flora, saying to itself: “I defend myself with my trigger/ I know who I am / I swear / I am a trigger / fish”. This fish, in apparent existential crisis, reassures itself that it knows who it is. Its presence threatens a school of much smaller fish beneath the sea flora, who say, “We are little fish / that trigger fish / is coming down / here to eat us up / we have to hide in / the sea weed – hurry”. This comparatively jaunty drawing is a stark contrast to its reverse and reveals Marisol’s playful and even irreverent attitude towards art, a contrast that serves as a reminder of the contradictions that run through her corpus.

“Stop praising me!”

A drawing of a face sitting at the bottom third of the paper with one ye a dark black circle and the other in white
Marisol's [Untitled], 1971 (2021:93).

In 1971 Marisol completed a group of portraits of grimacing faces, largely in graphite with rainbow colored pencil highlights that lend an unsettlingly fantastical quality to the already haunting images. In one (2021:93), the face sits in the bottom third of the paper, one eye a dark black circle and the other its slightly smaller opposite in white. The rictus mouth reveals all its teeth, one of which is gold, the others crooked or missing. Emerging up and out of the head like hair standing on its end are organic, bodily, but abstract cords. To their right, faint sexually charged and shame-ridden penciled inscriptions fill the negative space: sucio [dirty, gendered masculine], masturbated all night until my clitoris became smaller, I want him to love me and when he will I won’t, you are dirty, should I take you to the country club to take a bath, I have [illegible] syphilis hemorroids and a moustache. These words seem to burst out of the figure’s head as it grimaces and stares blankly. 

To the right of the face, in a space that could plausibly represent a speech bubble, are two additional paragraphs: No longer angry / desperate / sad I / have a gold teeth and Nosotros estabamos / asustados creimos que / eras un muerto / a quien estas buscando / a nadie / (al amor a dios) [We were / scared we believed that / you were a dead man / who are you searching for / for no one / (for the love for god)]. The heaviness of the portrait’s apparent internal struggle is here diffused with a joke suggesting that the speaker/subject’s anger, desperation, and sadness has been solved by acquiring a gold tooth. Many of Marisol’s inscriptions in other works reveal a discomfort with the avaricious nature of the art world, and this conveys a similar attitude. The Spanish text, which bears no apparent relation to the image or the other inscriptions, remains more mysterious.

Another drawing (2021:106) inscribed and dated “Caracas/1971,” features similarly sexually charged phrases, self-effacing declarations, and disjointed enigmatic words. Similar to 2021:93, the face sits in the bottom third of the work and the text emerges out of the top as if representing thoughts exploding from the subject’s mind. The partially flayed face, rendered in graphite and rainbow colored pencil, stares desperately at the viewer, baring its teeth and drooling a combination of saliva and blood. Hearts, stars, circles, rhomboids, and cylinders punctuate the image, as does a cartoon drawing of a penis. Unlike 2021:93, the inscriptions are more chaotically spread across the width of the page. They read, from left to right: 


A sketch of a face toward the bottom of the paper by Marisol in pencil with sexually charged quotes written around it
Marisol's [Untitled], 1971 (2021:106).

stop praising me! I think I am no good 
I want to be treated badly forever it excites me sexually
what has the
[blocked] done
one hundred fifty one hundred I
[illegible]  I get it it will have to be 50 there / shuv it up the opening of your penis + let / it come out of your ass hole
[illegible] city en el Rio 
I want to have my picture on the cover cover everything in my flesh
when you first came I thought you where such a nice young lady
I never knew a man who gave me so many orgasms except for myself
[enclosed in a heart] Ty
my dog is lost + my brother is not here that’s why I wanted to be with you because you
a dirty woman with sperm coming out of her mouth / + black tears 
I became you + you became me
a masturbator
+ Was he a phony no he believes / in those things


Again, the language is self-effacing and sexually charged, with nonsensical words that lend the drawing a fraught energy similar to that seen in 2021:93

As in her printmaking practice, Marisol’s interest in iteration is clear. In 2021:105, 1972, Marisol added blocks of inscription to a fully abstract drawing of organic, rainbow-colored shapes, creating a beautiful image that retains the sensation that thoughts or expressions are bursting up and out of the form toward the upper edges of the page. Many of these inscriptions are very faint and even crossed out in sections, leaving many words illegible. The left-most block of text reads: People all over the world laugh at americans / they ask you whats your name how / much money do you make how / old you are + they think they know you. Marisol also reveals her awareness of America’s ongoing war with Vietnam, as seen in the next block: 

[illegible] told one I had angst + cried + still I think about the / [illegible] who called me a phony The one that used me to make / [illegible] The one who doesn’t want to kill Vietnamese / [illegible] kill spiders. Why the face of desperation [illegible] care more [illegible] I’ve seen so many people crying all my / [illegible] she [illegible] my child with that [illegible] /[illegible] His face bleeding all over his face from / the eyes who did it [illegible] to be [illegible] / face who worked his hands + has no

Another text block reads: they can’t tell any longer that everyone has / a shit face because they all look like that. Nearby, a thought that could either suggest her indifference to peoples’ offspring or to imitations of her artwork: so mad about other peoples reproductions / as if I’m interested I’m not interested in cousins aunts half brothers. Finally, Marisol offers a comical answer to a question: how old are you? gonorhea. This drawing, perhaps most of all those discussed thus far, leaves very few clues to her meaning, but a closer look at the broader body of work from the same period also featuring abstract imagery with textual inscriptions, may reveal more about her intentions or how these drawings relate to her life and broader art practice. 

“Yo me sentia abstracto”

In 2023:124, 1972, aquatic plantlike forms emerge from the paper’s left edge. A collaged element on the surface, a piece of Spanish cedar likely cut from a larger sheet found within a cigar box, recalls the Cubist technique of bringing the image to the picture plane, as seen in Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912 (Musée National Picasso-Paris). A circle drawn so that it straddles the Spanish cedar and the paper is inscribed with the words bills tobacco paper along its interior edge. If these are also Cubist allusions, the circle might represent a tabletop bearing the names of items one would often find on its surface. A faint list of names is nestled between two forms: Cynthyia / susy / Rachel / susanne / Dan / geoffrey / +. Along the stem-like plant forms are the phrases where are my leaves, sugar canes, and water canes, which bear an uncharacteristically strong relationship to the images they surround. 

Marisol's drawing of aquatic plantlike forms emerge from the paper’s left edge. A collaged element on the surface, a piece of Spanish cedar likely cut from a larger sheet found within a cigar box, recalls the Cubist technique of bringing the image to the picture plane, as seen in Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912 (Musée National Picasso-Paris).
Marisol's [Untitled], 1972 (2023:124).

Finally, in the bottom half of the drawing is another block of very faint text in blue colored pencil: I don’t want to give / anything to Americans because / I don’t like their attitude – as if they conned [12] me / lousy blood-sucking Americans. They always catch me at my / best + they get all the life out of me + discard me with an / insult lousy opportunists It happens over + over again / because I’m stupid lonely + I believe everything. Here, another disdainful reference to Americans finds a speaker—perhaps Marisol—resentful of what she sees as the avaricious attitude of Americans, their eagerness to take advantage, and annoyance with oneself for allowing this pattern to repeat. As previously mentioned, these drawings from the 1970s were created after she withdrew from the artworld for years. Her ambivalence about its embrace was lifelong; even when she writes of a desire to be “on the cover, to cover everything with [her] flesh” (in drawing 2021:106), it is unclear if the sentiment is sincere or sarcastic. 

Faint drawing with cursive words sporadically throughout and blue wavey/orbs in the bottom corner and three red/orange entities above
Marisol's [Unitled], 1972 (2023:171). 

In 2023:171, 1972, Marisol includes a reference to the pop artist Rosalyn Drexler, adding her misspelled name in the midst of a mostly textual work: Rosalin Drexel. Regardless of Marisol’s ambivalent relationship with the fame the art world brought her, she was actively engaged with her fellow artists and with art history throughout her practice.


Other inscriptions on the drawing read: 

Ill wear something old that’s new because I never wore it
mashene gun womens insides + laugh about it with your monsther
How do you expect me to look you lousy cunt after one of yor fellowmen killed my baby in my belly and another
/ one took my teeth out
you lousy cunt what makes you think I don’t need the money I earn and that I should
/ give it to you so that you can go carroling around the world which is what I’m going to do / and dont talk to me about other womens reproductions because I am not interested / lousy slut because your father is a war butcher and your mother a legal hore + everyone else / the same in you lousy country if it is your it doesn’t mean that I have to be punished / for it unless you are another continuation of the same must be otherwise / it makes no sense / at least here I can hear the music I want + not the one they are playing
after so much hate a little love 
“doubt is sin,” no wonder these lousy American
/ shits do not have their doubts  
they learned at in the Bible
nobody is my age – I am my age 
wasp killers

Here, again, Marisol combines references to sex and reproduction—specifically, miscarriage or abortion—war, and money. The preference for the adjective “lousy,” which is found in this work and in many others, supports the conjecture that at least these phrases could be ascribed to the artist. 

In 2023:130, ca. 1972, we see another reference to either miscarriage or abortion, with the phrase fetus killers emerging out of the abstract form. Other inscriptions include: 

I hate 
[illegible] it for these
I hate anglo saxons in rebellious … they put down …
[illegible] in all their / arrogance + ignorance I have no doubts + they can become horrible distorted monsters / of violence + / destruction 
not all 
I hate the unrebellious ones in their frustrated silence buldozing themselves into money
not all 
/ 4 / 352

Two colorful sketches by Marisol that depict stylized fallopian tube and phallic imagery
(Left) Marisol's [Untitled], ca. 1972 (2023:130). (Right) Marisol's [Untitled], 1972 (ME703).

One might speculate that ME703, 1972, with its stylized fallopian tube drawing at bottom right and row of phallic imagery framing the top of the image field, is also related to themes of human reproduction. The work is inscribed with an expression of longing, partially crossed out and then rephrased: 

I waited so long for you to come / to the best home I could do / that’s home / but isn’t / to the best home / I could do for you / + its not for you / Fido likes it / Fido youre nothing but a hound dog / Fido was waiting for it / It is for Fido

Marisol always shared her home with dogs. Fido and Peco were just two of her longtime companions whose names have occurred in these inscriptions. In this case, one interpretation of the above inscription is that it is a message to a lost lover or an unborn child representing Marisol’s decision to be satisfied in the home she has made for her dog. 

The other inscriptions on the page, seemingly unrelated, read: Good paper / good god / paper you are bad / + evel, its been a month, and 112 Greene st / New York / fork you York

Additional drawings from around 1972 bear similarly enigmatic inscriptions alongside rainbow-colored, organic forms. In 2023:74, Marisol writes various disparate thoughts, including the recurrent theme of ambivalence toward the United States in the last inscription: 

Columbia continues county sometimes university / sometimes island 
where do I remember that color from, not pastel but thread 
they have no … life
I hate gray
I hate americans but I like New York, York


Two colorful sketches by Marisol next to one another with geometric and abstract shapes at the bottom 1/3 of the paper
(Left) Marisol's [Untitled], 1972 (2023:74). (Right) Marisol's [Untitled], ca. 1972 (2023:129).

On 2023:129, ca. 1972, below a field of abstract forms, we find Marisol’s second reference to cows as murderers. If we consider the longer inscription previously discussed, we might similarly interpret this as a call for empathy. Marisol’s poetic metaphor for cows and the food they eat, even if only plants, calls attention to the impact they have on land and, by extension, the toll all consumption can take:

on second thought / don’t come here you shit
cows are murderers / of grass / a cows delight

Another reference to Americans, in 2023:4, reads: the only salvation for an American is to become queer. This richly saturated drawing also features two lists of names and a set of numbers. While names and numbers often appear on her drawings, it is not clear at this stage what the accumulation of names might mean (we see in the first line the names of an Italian writer, a Japanese painter, a Japanese actor, and Ty, a boyfriend): 

/ JIM 7228/ SAM

Two colorful sketches by Marisol, the left resembling fire and the right has cursive green text and a small rectangle featuring two profiles/mouths and noses
(Left) Marisol's [Untitled (The only salvation for an American is to become queer)], ca. 1972-74 (2023:4). (Right) Marisol's [Untitled], ca. 1972 (2023:121). 

Drawing 2023:121, also ca. 1972, reads: a scratch on plastic is not a cut in rubber / if you feel depressed a pimple might come out, somewhere / yo me sentia abstracto [I felt abstract, gendered masculine] / whoeveryoumightbe     bemightyoueverwho. Compositionally, this work is unique because the drawing is contained within a small rectangular field and the text sits neatly across the page, written from left to right. The drawing itself recalls Marisol’s sculptures, especially her casts of faces and hands, as we see three pointing fingers, two of which are situated between two faces, one zoomed in on the nose and the other on the lips.

A colorful drawing by Marisol that includes a face that has either makeup or a mask on, a bird with a humanoid face and two large words "FIDO" and the other illegible
Marisol's [Untitled], 1973 (2023:164). 

Featuring some notably different elements, 2023:164 includes a drawing of a face that looks either adorned with makeup or a mask to look like a harlequin, a drawing of a bird with a humanoid face, and two large words—“FIDO” and one illegible word—in bold colors, filled in as though these are part of the image and not like her typical handwritten inscriptions. Beside the harlequin face we see inocentes [innocents] / [illegible] / [illegible] madres and nestled in the interior of the composition is the strange recounting: where did / that scratch / come from straight / down my leg / I had a tooth pick in my pocket / the tooth pick scratched my leg / as I took my pants off / to pee, a fractured narrative which could be overheard or personal. In either case, the story ascribes an improbable result from a typically innocuous object. As John Loring wrote in his assessment of Marisol’s drawings in the Sidney Janis exhibition, her drawings and their inscriptions contain “gestures of trauma and tragedy.” [13]


There are a great many more works on paper throughout Marisol’s corpus that bear inscriptions, all of which merit close attention. As we have seen in this limited selection, the artist’s gestures, inscriptions, and symbols are replete with meaning, often at cross purposes, and these may confound and unsettle the viewer. Because these works can say so much while saying very little, we are reminded that they are the product of an artist whose life was also marked by silences and silencing. [14] It is hoped that this effort to read that which is legible serves as an invitation to scholars to pursue further research into, and further readings of Marisol’s unique works on paper.


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Marisol: Works on Paper is made possible with support from Getty through its Paper Project Initiative.


  1. Her prints from the 1970s, for example, reveal Marisol’s interest in the technique and medium specificity of printmaking itself. More than one series of lithographs feature iterative prints that were intended to be shown side by side, wherein each print in the suite accumulated an additional color layer, an additional lithographic stone (P1979:27.2a-f, 1978). These works were as much about their subject–often her own body–as they were about the way lithographic prints are built up back to front.
  2. Douglas Dreishpoon, “The Voice Behind the Silence,” in Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper, 1955-1998. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and Yale University Press: Memphis and New Haven, 2014, p. 127
  3. Julia Vásquez, “Marisol Underwater, 1970-1973,” in Marisol: A Retrospective. Buffalo AKG and DelMonico Books: Buffalo and New York, 2023, p. 106.
  4. John Loring, “Marisol Draws,” Arts 49 (March 1975), 66. 
  5. Anna Katherine Brodbeck, “Sexually Frustrated: The Radical Potential of Eroticism, Violence, and Hybridity in Marisol’s Drawings,” in Marisol: A Retrospective. Buffalo AKG and DelMonico Books: Buffalo and New York, 2023, p. 130.
  6. Loring, 67.
  7. Cathleen Chaffee, “Hereafter: Marisol,” in Marisol: A Retrospective. Buffalo AKG and DelMonico Books: Buffalo and New York, 2023, p. 47.
  8. Chaffee, 43-51.
  9. Transcript of an interview by Ana María Escallón, Marisol Papers, Buffalo AKG Art Museum. A revised version of this interview was published in Ana María Escallón, Marisol (Gainesville, Ga., and Washington, D.C.: Brenau University Galleries and Art Museum of the Americas, 1999). Quoted from “Hereafter, Marisol,” by Cathleen Chaffee, Marisol: A Retrospective, 31.
  10. Orthographical errors will not be corrected nor highlighted in this essay, except in instances when a misspelling makes the inscription unintelligible.
  11. Note: this is a correction to Marisol’s muddled spelling. The word may alternately be read as a variant of “masturbator” such as “maturbatore.”
  12. Note: this is a correction to the inscription “coned.”
  13. Loring, 67.
  14. Dreishpoon, 127.