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Before ‘Shark Girl,’ there was Marisol’s ‘Baby Girl’

A week ago, when the art world learned of the death of Venezuelan-American artist Marisol, few cities felt the loss more deeply than Buffalo, where her work was immediately and fervently embraced by the community.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery bought her important sculpture “The Generals” from the Stable Gallery in 1962 shortly after the artist completed it and included it in the seminal exhibition “Mixed Media and Pop Art” the following year. And in 1964, it also bought “Baby Girl,” a sculpture that achieved instant and enduring adoration from Western New York art fans on a scale the region would not see again until the introduction of “Shark Girl” in 2014.

“Baby Girl,” a sculpture of a gigantic baby featuring a rectangular torso supporting a wooden head with painted features, two wooden legs and a tiny sculpture of a mother, that continues to confound viewers’ expectations about visual art, has rarely been away from view in the more than 50 years since the gallery acquired it.

“How rarely do you see a work come into the collection and instantly be a favorite? ‘Baby Girl’ became an instant favorite,” said Albright-Knox curator Holly E. Hughes. “I can’t think of many artists (whose work) instantly became a destination point. She’s just such an important part of our history of supporting emerging artists, but also supporting artists who are a little bit outside the box as well. I’m really proud that we first collected her and put her on the map.”

While “Baby Girl” is certainly the more popular work, “The Generals” is also an important early piece, as it includes a soundtrack originally played on a reel-to-reel tape and re-created by Hughes for the 2013 exhibition “Sweet Dreams, Baby!”

Throughout her career, Marisol was a frequent visitor to the Albright-Knox, returning to touch up her sculptures and get them ready for exhibitions.

And while the famously enigmatic artist was outwardly indifferent to how her work was received by critics and the public, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t be gratified by the impact her sculpture has had on generations of Western New Yorkers.

One of those early fans was Nancy Leeman, now deputy registrar at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who credits “Baby Girl” with opening her young eyes to the possibilities of art. She remembers visiting the gallery for the first time on a school trip when she was 9 or 10, shortly after the piece was acquired in the early 1960s. She doesn’t remember anything else about the trip but the way she felt when she first locked eyes with Marisol’s disconcerting and enchanting sculpture.

“I was just gobsmacked. I’d never seen anything like that in my life, it was just so wonderful and joyful and funny and giant. I just remember thinking, ‘This is incredible, who makes these kinds of things?’ ” she said in a phone interview from her office at the museum, where another of Marisol’s works is now on view in a pop art exhibition. “I left that place thinking, ‘Wow, where are those people that think so differently?’ I honestly think that changed my life. I just will never forget seeing that.”

For the gallery, Marisol’s death brings to an end one of its most productive and enduring relationships with an American artist. But it also presents the opportunity to present her work to new audiences: Both “The Generals” and “Baby Girl” will be on view in “Defining Sculpture,” set to open on June 18 and run through Oct. 9.

“It’s very sad on behalf of the Albright-Knox family that she has passed,” Hughes said, “but she leaves such a legacy behind.”

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com