Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Presents Works in Wood

Two striking portraits in wood by female artists – one a rising star, the other an icon of the 1960s art scene – are the most recent works announced by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Room (2007-08) by Alison Elizabeth Taylor is a life-size architectural portrait created using the craft of marquetry, or inlaying sections of wood on a flat surface to form an image. Portrait of Martha Graham (1977) by Marisol, one of the few female artists to be associated with the Pop art movement, is a wood, plaster, oil and graphite rendering of the woman who pioneered modern dance in America. Both works are examples of female artists taking on art forms traditionally created by males.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Room, 2007‑2008. Wood veneer, pyrography, shellac, 96 x 120 x 96 in.(243.8 x 304.8 x 243.8 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella.

“These two artists are a couple of generations apart, but they both work on a large scale, with strenuous techniques and materials: Marisol with her heavy, chopped woodworks and Alison Elizabeth Taylor with marquetry, an exquisite craft perfected by male artisans during the Renaissance,” said Don Bacigalupi, executive director of the Museum.


Although not a portrait in the traditional sense – no figure is present – Room hints at the identification of its unknown occupant. From the outside, the work appears to be a room-size white box with an open top. Upon entering, it illusorily becomes an 8-by-10-foot furnished cabin with hints of Southwestern décor and a separate sleeping space. The work is a trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”) masterpiece assembled from thousands of painstakingly cut pieces of more than 200 varieties of exotic wood in their natural hues. Windows offer “views” of untouched desert vistas on one side and tract housing on the other. Trappings of a man’s life – a workbench, tools, tufted armchair, microwave, photographs, animal skulls, a Victorian gun safe, a Vietnam-era U.S. Army helmet with the ace of spades tucked into the helmet cord – provide clues to his identity.

“One of the delights of experiencing this work is to be dazzled by the technique and then put the clues together to construct an identity for its unknown occupant,” Bacigalupi said. “Room is a tour de force by a promising young art star.”

Taylor was born in 1974 in Selma, Alabama and grew up in Las Vegas. She earned a BFA in 2001 from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and an MFA in 2005 from Columbia University. While in graduate school, she taught herself wood inlay techniques by reading hobby books and researching online. She was inspired by a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she encountered the conserved and reconstructed 15th century studiolo, or study, from the ducal palace in Gubbio, Italy. Commissioned by the Duke of Urbino for his residence, the study features marquetry paneled walls that appear to be lined with cupboards whose open doors reveal items such as armor, insignia, musical instruments and books. These objects are intended to suggest the duke’s erudition, power, position and ability to afford such an elaborate and labor-intensive method of decorating his private space. Taylor creates a tension in her work by using the same methods associated with luxury and power to portray ordinary and often unsettling scenes of modern American life. For example, earlier this year she exhibited a series of panels depicting conditions she witnessed in vandalized Las Vegas homes left vacant during the recent foreclosure crisis.

Taylor has had two solo exhibitions at the James Cohan Gallery in New York and a solo show at the College of Wooster Art Museum in Ohio. Her work has also been featured in numerous group exhibitions in London, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Shanghai. Crystal Bridges is the first public museum to hold Taylor’s work in its permanent collection.

Portrait of Martha Graham

Impeccable posture and a focused gaze are among the signature traits of a dancer that Marisol captured in her Portrait of Martha Graham. A hallmark of the sculptor’s work is the juxtaposition of abstract and figurative elements, embodied here by an extraordinarily detailed face and a rather blockish body. Graham was in her 80s when the work was created, and every wrinkle and fold of her skin is preserved in wood.

“This is a fabulous piece, with its equal connections to the worlds of art and dance,” said Chris Crosman, Crystal Bridges’ chief curator. “Its variety of influences, from folk art and Latin American traditions to Abstract Expressionism and Pop, pull together many threads of art history.”

Born Marisol Escobar in 1930 in Paris to well-to-do Venezuelan parents, Marisol studied art in Los Angeles and Europe before working with her most influential mentor, painter Hans Hofmann, in New York. In the 1950s, she began experimenting with Cubist assemblage techniques, making use of discarded wood and objects found in the streets of Tribeca and SoHo. Around that time, she also began studying Pre-Columbian artifacts. She had her first solo exhibition in 1958 at the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery, where she presented Pre-Columbian-inspired carvings of animals and totemic figures.

In the 1960s, Marisol was associated with the Pop art scene as a member of Andy Warhol’s circle. However, unlike most Pop artists, Marisol’s purpose was to observe the conventions of her world and comment upon what she saw. As a result, street urchins, minority groups, the disadvantaged and the downtrodden appeared in her work as frequently as the dignitaries and famous artists she knew socially.

Despite becoming an American citizen in 1963, Marisol was selected to represent Venezuela in the 1968 Venice Biennale, the first female artist to be accorded that high honor. Her work was chosen for the vice presidential mansion by Joan Mondale, wife of Vice President Walter Mondale, and she was commissioned to create the American Merchant Mariner’s Memorial in Battery Park in 1988. The artist also designed sets for Martha Graham’s production of “The Eyes of the Goddess,” performed in 1992 at City Center Theater in New York. She continues to live and work in New York City.

Several major American public collections feature Marisol’s works, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The public collections of the Galería de Arte Nacional and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Caracas, Venezuela; the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany; and the Tokushima Modern Art Museum in Japan also feature works by Marisol.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published.