Marisol Escobar at the Brooks

A comprehensive retrospective.



In the late spring of 1968, Roger L. Stevens, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, received a typewritten letter from 115 Stonewall Place, in Memphis, Tennessee. The letter — dated June 10th and penned by a man named Waldo Zimmermann — called upon Stevens to stop his “highly offensive ... violation of the First Amendment,” or else face potential legal action. What Stevens had done was unconscionable, wrote Zimmermann, a highly visible local activist who frequently made the Memphis papers with his left-leaning opinions on abortion, environmentalism, and freedom of speech. Writing, he said, on behalf of the Thomas Jefferson Chapter of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Zimmermann claimed that the National Endowment, in “its recent action in Memphis,” ignored the views of “Jews, freethinkers, Buddhists, Moslems” and “non-Christians of all persuasions.”

Zimmermann’s vitriol came in response to an article in that same morning’s Commercial Appeal reporting that the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (then known as the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery) had won a then-enormous $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a grant which would enable the museum to commission a new sculpture for its permanent collection. Entitled The Manger Scene, this new work when completed would become the Brooks Museum’s first-ever commissioned work of art.

The Manger Scene was expected to be a traditional figuration of the Holy Family — a Christmas crèche. The museum’s director had tapped an avant-garde New York artist named Marisol Escobar to sculpt Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and “as many attendant figures and animals as there will be funds for.”

But Robert J. McKnight, the Brooks director at the time and the man behind the commission, knew quite well that Waldo Zimmermann would have nothing to worry about as regards this particular “traditional” piece. Himself a Yale-trained architectural sculptor, McKnight knew that, on one level, the addition of this new crèche would be a natural extension of the museum’s existing collection of Christian-themed art. He also understood that authorizing what (with matching funds) would be a then-unprecedented $18,000 commission would bring attention to the Brooks, and help enhance the museum’s national reputation as a quality regional institution.

But Bob McKnight also knew more than most people in 1960s Memphis about the work of Marisol Escobar. He tapped her for the commission because the enigmatic Marisol was a far cry from a traditional sculptor. He knew that her “Manger Scene” would be anything but an evangelical gesture.

Before his Brooks directorship, McKnight had headed the Memphis Academy of Art (now the Memphis College of Art), but his talents went far beyond administration. He was a true polymath; earlier in his career, McKnight had sculpted large Western friezes, designed military airstrips, contracted for NASA, and reportedly invented 42 different kinds of riding lawnmowers as well as a variety of 3D glasses. While at Yale, he dated a young Katharine Hepburn and reportedly gave the actress money to attend her first New York audition. His connections in the national art scene ran deep, and his heart was in the world of art, whatever particular aspect of which he happened to be involved at the moment. As he once told a reporter: “If we live together we have to have some kind of visual understanding. Otherwise life may become almost unbearable.”

McKnight’s choice of Marisol Escobar (who by the late Sixties was known to one and all by her first name only) to sculpt the Brooks crèche was motivated by both professional and personal concerns. A commission executed by Marisol — a striking and irreverent figure in New York art circles — would invariably attract national attention to the Brooks. But Bob McKnight was also a personal collector of manger scenes; his own mother had sculpted creches from soapstone. The director’s views on female artists were less than enlightened (a 1960s Commercial Appeal article titled “Here’s One Field in Which Men Are Still Supreme” quotes him as saying that “women can’t or won’t spend the time it takes” to become great at art), but McKnight’s long familial association with crèches perhaps inspired him to select one of the country’s foremost contemporary female artists for the Brooks Museum’s crèche.

Born in 1930 in Paris to affluent Venezuelan parents, Maria Sol Escobar was widely traveled. She spent a privileged and peripatetic youth in New York, Caracas, Paris and Los Angeles. Marisol began her career as a wood carver, though her formal training was in painting and drawing. She found herself in New York City in the early 1950s, a time of artistic ferment in Greenwich Village, when a whole new school of now-famous painters and sculptors were enjoying its first public success. Quickly becoming an integral part of their circle, Marisol studied under Hans Hofmann, the so-called “Dean of Abstract Expressionism” (and a famously disgruntled painter who, Marisol once said, was the only teacher from whom she ever learned anything). Hofmann introduced her to the crowd of important artists who hung out at the Cedar Street Tavern, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock among them. As her biographer says, “She knew everybody.”

These acquaintances led to Marisol’s inclusion in several important group exhibitions and eventually to a 1957 solo show, held at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Chronicled in a Life magazine article titled “Latin Beauty’s Host of Stern People, Staring Pets,” this show featured a collection of rough-hewn wooden figures. Her sculpture Cat looks so austere and lifeless that it is almost totemic. Other sculptures from the show — a simple mother-father-child tableau called The American Family and an unembellished terracotta bust entitled Queen — are similarly chilly, despite the human warmth of the traditional materials that Marisol chose to use. She received a good deal of attention from this first exhibition but, put off by her own growing fame, Marisol moved to Rome for a year to find, as she told an interviewer, “a better way of life — a more relaxed and happier one.”

When Marisol returned from Rome, her work became larger, more colorful and more confrontational, though it is debatable as to whether it ever “relaxed.” Tea for Three, composed in 1960, was pieced together from painted wooden blocks and several hat forms that she found while visiting a friend on Long Island. It is her first of many pieces that would make use of found objects. To create Tea for Three, Marisol masked the three found hat forms with clown faces and arranged them in a line atop the tall block. The block, which serves as the characters’ collective body, is painted red, blue, and yellow — the colors of the Venezuelan flag. Extending from its center are two hands, one of which appears to offer the viewer a cup of tea.

There are several ways to read Tea for Three: as a toy or totem, as a deft political and social satire (the three clown heads wear modernist-looking miniature buildings as hats), or as a subtler comment on collective bodies. But it feels too hollow to be a totem and too mutable to be a hard critique. It seems more suited to a carnival than a protest. Even as it makes fun of you, the viewer, Tea for Three seems aware of its own toy-like absurdity.

Marisol was not the only prominent artist of the 1960s making art out of found objects. Robert Rauschenberg had recently begun making his highly political and sardonic “Combines” from found objects and collaged documents, while Jasper Johns was busy presenting reproduced American flags as fine art. The critic Douglass Dreishpoon called these artworks “a restorative endeavor … a postwar, urban phenomenon that elevated the fallout from a materialistic culture to a new level of poetry.” Marisol told an interviewer in 1965 that her making assemblage work “started as a kind of rebellion. Everything was so serious. I was very sad myself and the people I met were so depressing. I started doing something funny so that I would become happier — and it worked.”

She was then in her mid-thirties and at the height of her artistic fame, well-known for her sculpture and notorious for her antics in the New York art world. There were few female artists of the period who could match Marisol in reputation or success. She was also an aloof and intriguing presence — often guessed at, but rarely understood.

Brooks’ Director McKnight assembled the formidable funds for the commission with enthusiasm. He corresponded with Marisol frequently concerning her progress. In 1968, when he first visited Marisol’s cluttered New York studio, the petite artist — dwarfed by her larger-than-life, wooden sculptures — wore uniform black and had her long, black hair tied back in a tight bun. According to McKnight’s daughter, Peggy, who also made the trip, the artist minced few words, but showed them her nearly completed baby Jesus. (Marisol is shown cradling that particular sculpture in the 1969 photograph that graces this month’s cover.) She also spoke about her strict Catholic upbringing and allowed them a look at another of her projects: multiple casts of a man’s hands, face, and genitals. Says Peggy McKnight, “She had this very quirky, irreverent sense of humor about things that back then people took very seriously.”

Considering Marisol’s avant-garde style, there was little chance that her finished commission for the Brooks would be a religious cry-to-arms, but McKnight was sensitive to bad press. He wrote a chastising letter to The Commercial Appeal to inform them that Marisol would be titling her piece The Family (not The Manger Scene, as it was described at the time of the commission), and asked that the “record be set straight.” It was. Despite Zimmermann’s letter, no legal action was ever taken in the matter. The Family debuted at a Brooks opening in October 1969, alongside paintings by Carroll Cloar and a collection of Picasso ceramics. Admission to the exhibition was 50 cents.

The completed crèche of The Family depicts the infant Jesus lying in a plexiglass, neon-laced manger. His features are blockish and generalized, but the child’s anatomically correct wooden body is highly polished. Mary, who wears a bright blue brocade, appears to float several feet behind her son. Her face, breasts, feet, and hands are almost naturalistically cast, in contrast to the bejeweled, blue block that forms the rest of her figure. The center of the block opens to reveal a mirrored cabinet in the area where her womb would be. Joseph, beside her, is also built from a block-form. Only his praying hands and face are sculpted with detail. Both Mary and Joseph wear neon halos: Joseph’s is a minimal ring, while Mary’s halo is a large orb that looks as if it could have been pulled from Hollywood Boulevard signage.

Local reaction to the unveiling of The Family was mixed, especially at the beginning. The Commercial Appeal reported that “New York art authorities” approved of the piece, and that the Brooks as an institution had superseded its “provincial” reputation. Another Commercial Appeal article, by art critic Guy Northrop, was considerably more cautionary. Northrop alerted readers that “Marisol’s The Family is a work to be contemplated and meditated upon, no matter how much it hurts you to look into it yourself. And that’s what it forces you to do.”

Marisol’s attention to the Baby Jesus’s anatomy (she spares no detail) proved to be the most controversial aspect of the sculpture. WMC-TV reported that The Family is “a fascinating and awesome work of art which many people are finding difficult to accept as a reverent, religious expression,” but that the sculpture is “far greater than the sum of its parts.”

These concerns soon melted away; it was, after all, the late 1960s, even in Memphis. In the years since it came to town, The Family has been shown only occasionally at the Brooks, mostly because of its size — the sculpture easily dominates a room — but also because its neon and plexiglass components are too delicate to be left on permanent display. A 1983 internal museum report noted “scratches on Mary’s Halo.” It is difficult to read this report without noting some unintentional poetic overtones: As the Brooks grew into a larger and more diversified institution and the American art world shifted, Marisol and her well-known commission lost prominence.

The Family has spent most of its four-plus decades in Memphis in storage. If Waldo Zimmermann were still writing letters of dissent today, Marisol’s once-controversial work would not even be a blip on his radar screen.

This spring, The Family is finally coming out of the closet. Forty-six years after she delivered the museum’s first-ever commission, Marisol is once again the biggest news at what is now the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Opening June 14th,, Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper will comprise the most comprehensive exhibit of the artist’s oeuvre ever to be displayed anywhere.

This comprehensive Marisol retrospective owes its existence to Marina Pacini, the museum’s chief curator, whose passion for the artist’s work and determination to produce this exhibition has driven what turned out to be a ten-year project, an exhibition that will no doubt culminate Marisol’s career and has come recently to define Pacini’s as well.

When I first meet Marina Pacini in her Brooks office, she gestures me immediately towards a colleague’s upper-story window, from which we can peer down on the Brooks’ entrance. It is a sunny afternoon in March, and the museum is hosting its annual Spring Break Chalk Festival. The white crescent of pavement in front of the museum is so swarmed with children, parents, and their chalking that nothing remains of the entrance’s usual neoclassical austerity. Pacini seems charmed. A willowy woman with black hair streaked by grey, she turns to me and explains conspiratorially: “I’m spying.”

Marina Pacini wears dark-rimmed glasses and earrings made from tea strainers. She wears them practically, much in the same way that an ephemeral collection of tiny plastic snowglobes is arranged practically in her office — occupying a few shelves next to art catalogues, academic publications, and a solid yard of her own Marisol-related research. The same Marisol sculpture (Mi Mama Y Yo) that graces the museum’s exterior banner also provides the cover for Pacini’s most recent publication: a hardcover, oversized catalogue for the upcoming exhibition, published by Yale University Press. She is the principal author, along with four other specialists. It is a formidable and beautiful book.

Pacini did not come to Marisol and her work by way of the Brooks, though the first time the two women actually met face-to-face, in 2005, it was because Pacini — then a young curator with a specialization in modern sculpture — was working on an article about The Family. Pacini had become interested in Marisol as a graduate student at the University of Delaware in the 1980s, a period when the artist’s work had fallen far out of curatorial fashion. Pacini was drawn to this particular piece for reasons that she is still at some loss to explain, though she credits her love for folk art and preference for “art that is about something” (read: art that has a clear subject other than pure formal concerns, as Marisol’s socially-engaged pieces always do). The Venezuelan artist’s work also had personal relevance for Pacini, who was herself born in neighboring Colombia but grew up in New York. Both Latin-American women emerged feet-first into an art world that had still only recently opened to women.

When I ask Pacini how she first got in touch with Marisol, she laughs: “I wrote her a letter,” adding incredulously, “she’s in the phonebook.” Pacini’s incredulity was based on both how famous Marisol once was (“The Latin Garbo”) in her heyday and how private she became thereafter, both characteristics that seem incompatible with a listing in the white pages.

In 2005, Marisol invited Marina Pacini to visit the artist’s crowded TriBeCa studio. When Pacini showed up for the interview, Marisol did not answer the door. Pacini waited. Marisol did finally arrive, back from an errand, but the subsequent interview proved considerably more challenging than making initial contact. “I had done an awful lot of oral history interviews when I worked for the [Smithsonian] Archives of American Art,” Pacini says. “I had worked with a lot of different personalities. She was, without a doubt, one of the toughest interviews ever, and remained that way with every subsequent visit.”

Marisol’s silence during the interview — punctuated by monosyllabic answers — was not personal. As Bob McKnight and his daughter Peggy had observed decades earlier, she was beyond being reserved. Marisol was, in fact, somewhat famous for her silences. The critic Grace Glueck once credited her with having a “... whispery voice, toneless as a sleepwalker’s” in the same paragraph as she hailed her as a key figure in “this new American era of artist-as-star.”

There are anecdotes, no doubt apocryphal, about Marisol sitting so still at an outdoor dinner party that a spider built a cobweb in her armpit. She once showed up at the critic Dore Ashton’s house unannounced and unexplained, and proceeded to say nothing for more than an hour. Her public friendship with Andy Warhol did nothing to lessen her reputation of being, as she once described herself, a “cute and spooky” enigma. Most of her peers were convinced her silences were genuine rather than affected, but they certainly worked against her. As a result, today she is more often remembered as a weird Warholian celebrity instead of as a significant artist of the age.

Marisol is certainly a sculptor and painter of considerable renown, although she is not easily categorized. In mid-twentieth-century New York, back when fine art was all about movements (Abstract Expressionism! Post-Dada! Assemblage! Pop! Op!), Marisol clearly did not fit cleanly into any one circle.

She once told an interviewer, “I don’t like the idea of all those groups. An artist is an artist.” She has been in exhibitions that variously proclaimed her as (a) a Latin-American artist; (b) a feminist social commentator; (c) an “assemblage-ist”; (d) a pop artist; and (d) a folk artist. She emerges, in retrospect, as a soldier in no particular camp who, nonetheless, has been defined by every camp. Her work draws from many genres, but she is not there to savor the moment; she is not there to congratulate or criticize. Her sculptures merely hold up a mirror.

When I ask Marina Pucini about this, about how Marisol’s work shirks classification, she replies this way: “[Marisol] was asked ‘Do you think of yourself as a pop artist?’ and her answer was basically, ‘Call me pop, call me op, I don’t care — as long as I get into the show.’

“I think for her it was about ‘I make the work to make the work ... and I want to get it out there.’”

By the late 1960s, Marisol was an international art star. If her early artistic success had a single cause célèbre, it was the family. The Family in the Brooks Museum’s collection is but one of many families that Marisol constructed during that period, including two other sculptures and a drawing that bear the same name, as well as The Kennedy Family and Family Portrait.

Her most famous iteration of a domestic scene — a 1963 rendition of The Family that bears the same title as the Brooks commission was used to illustrate the cover of the December 28, 1970, issue of TIME magazine, alongside the prosaic headline: “The U.S. Family: ‘HELP!’” Other, less explicitly titled works such as Mi Mama Y Yo and Doll House are also family portraits. Of the 33 works included in the Brooks Marisol retrospective, at least nine depict families.

Marisol’s families sometimes are regarded as clinical social surveys or as the artist’s roundhouse criticisms of a displaced and shallow suburban sensibility. The artist herself never married or had children, and was hardly a middle-American figure in the New York art scene. A closer look at her family works, however, reveals the presence of more personal influences.

Marisol’s childhood was marked by tragedy. The artist’s mother committed suicide when Marisol was just 11, after which time Marisol stopped speaking for a year; Pacini attributes Marisol’s later silences to this early trauma. The artist spent the rest of her youth studying and living in Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, and New York, far away from anything resembling a traditional home. Marisol’s artistic families are often faceless and contorted, and are always forward facing: alienated from each other; blockish and inhuman.

Family Portrait, a lithograph, directly depicts Marisol’s mother, father, and brother, all seated on a park bench. The family image is central to the print, but obscured by negative tracings of Marisol’s face, feet, and hands. It is less a true family portrait than it is a portrait of Marisol herself, or, more correctly, a portrait of the negative space where the artist should be. As Pacini writes in the exhibition catalogue: “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.”

One of the most developed and best-known of Marisol’s families is the 1968 Mi Mama Y Yo. This portrait of metallic mother and daughter adds a strange, monumental note to the artist’s oeuvre. It is silent and stiff like a monument but, in keeping with all of Marisol’s work, genre-bending: the steel faces of mother and daughter almost wink at you, as if to question their own monumentality. (Marisol has always been fond of public art. In 1974, she created a 12-foot-tall statue of the famous Venezuelan physician Jose Gregorio Hernandez for a hospital in Caracas. Perhaps her most famous monumental work is the bronze statue of Father Damien erected in 1969 that stands at the entrance to the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu.)

Mi Mama Y Yo is also a starkly feminist work. The female figures are lifeless; their faces are masks. The mother and daughter are a spectre of femininity, as alien as the women in previous works such as The Party or Women Sitting on a Mirror. In interviews over the years, Marisol has always evaded using the term “feminist” to classify her work, but she has undeniably created radical artworks about the lives of women. Critic Cindy Nemser picked up on Marisol’s use of masks and facial casts as a device to deliver her social commentary: “[Marisol’s] message [is]: We must go on playing various roles until we can play no more.”

Pacini agrees that Marisol’s work is feminist. “I think what happened,” Pacini says, “was that she wanted people to judge for themselves ... I can’t look at her and not think of her as a trailblazer for women artists. This is an amazing model of a very successful woman artist who was making works on her own terms in a very sexist environment and managing to be quite successful at it.”

Marisol had a mixed relationship with how her work was viewed and interpreted, and she often purposefully shrank from the New York spotlight. She did not show work in New York between 1967 and 1973, time during which she lived and travelled in Asia and the South Seas. Marisol once reflected that she periodically abandoned the art world as an act of self-abnegation: “It was a feeling,” she told an interviewer, “that I had to reject something in order to be a strong person, even to be myself; I was so used to the idea that I would become nothing if I didn’t.”

The focus of her work in the 1970s shifted from social commentary to interior experience. When she returned to New York in 1973, Marisol debuted a collection of smaller wooden sculptures, including many self-portraits of the artist anthropomorphized as fish. Green Fish is a cast of Marisol’s face coupled with a finely wrought wooden body. It is soft and weird and oblique, a version of earlier self-portraits submerged in meditative gloss.

Marisol intended these works to be very “pure and simple” but her intent was critically taken to be a folk naivete. Despite her training, Marisol was often mistaken as a folk artist because she used traditional materials and drew inspiration from folk styles. “Calling me a folk artist,” she once quipped, “is like calling Picasso an African artist.”

Marisol’s 1970s work was dismissed as quirky and fun, but critically unimportant. It did not sell well. Pacini believes this was a timing issue, insisting that “[the fish] are mesmerizing ... the surfaces of the wood are absolutely extraordinary.”

At this point in time, she also focused, mid-career, on works on paper. Using simple materials (pencil, colored pencil, crayon), she drew feathered figures — or half-figures, floating in a colorful, futurist ether. The most haunting of this series is the beautiful 1974 work I Did My Future, in which a womanish figure is penetrated by many forms that look like mixes between hands and double-barrel shotguns. This drawing, for all the heaviness of its post-Pop subject matter, has a Kandinsky-like approach to color. It has an almost spiritual lightness.

In drawings like I Did My Future and in her many sculptures, Marisol often used as raw material her own face and body. She did so pointedly at times, but also as a matter of convenience; she often said that no one was around to model during her late work hours. A New York Times critic wrote in 1973 that narcissism was “the dark side of her inspiration.” This observed darkness perhaps stems from the steeliness with which she executed her own portraits — her self-portraiture is entirely without sympathy. Throughout her work, she is inaccessible, a mask of herself.

Marisol’s most accessible works came late in her career, from the 1980s, and they are mostly portraits in wood of her friends and role models: Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Rene Magritte, Black Fox, Picasso, Bishop Desmond Tutu. These works are far from naturalistic, but their subjects feel real rather than iconic. Her earlier portrait of Andy Warhol shows the iconographic artiste sitting in a chair, legs crossed and hands folded demurely in his lap. Warhol is seated formally but his eyes — drawn, like the rest of his body, onto a large wooden block — are remarkably aware. Marisol’s linework here is beautifully understated and evidences her real talent as a draftsman.

Perhaps the most enigmatic of her late works is her 1988 sculpture of Bishop Desmond Tutu. Like The Family, her Bishop Desmond Tutu uses light to high effect. Tutu’s body is made from a blood-red, 75-inch by 79-inch block of wood. The piece is dominant without sacrificing any frailty; it’s both magisterial and magical. It’s one of Marina Pacini’s favorites. “I tell everybody that you haven’t experienced that sculpture until you have seen it in the flesh [with] the light flowing out.”

Assembling and shipping a large sculpture exhibition is markedly more difficult than assembling an exhibition of paintings or works on paper. Shipping crates need to be specifically made and specifically priced; work is sensitive and exceptionally breakable, and often very heavy. Cost specifics are often hard to pinpoint until very late in the process, and as a result funding can be hard to find or unstable. Pacini explains the process of assembling a show like this one as a constant negotiation, a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of moving and unpredictable parts; if you are lucky, everything comes together at once.

Sculpture retrospectives are notoriously difficult to put together, even for large museums with big curatorial teams. For the tiny and close-knit team at the Brooks, a show the size of Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper is a deeply ambitious undertaking. Marina Pacini, for whom this exhibition is the culmination of ten years of singular effort, is frank in her assessment. “If I had known how complicated it was going to be to deal with sculptures on this scale, I don't know that I would have taken the project on. I’m not sorry — it is a fabulous project, she [Marisol] is very deserving and I am really proud of it — dealing with sculpture is complicated.”

Marisol herself, now in her mid-eighties and still living in New York, has offered consistent support for the Brooks exhibition from its beginning. Though her declining health no longer permits her to be actively engaged with the retrospective, her relationship with Pacini is clear in how the exhibition has been catalogued and curated. Marisol has allowed Pacini to access previously unseen parts of the artist’s personal archive, ensuring that the Brooks show is not only the most complete showing ever, but also the most personal exhibition of Marisol’s work.

The exhibition itself has been installed chronologically (early career to late career) with the 1968 Brooks commission of The Family as an entry point. The audio tour and literature is in both Spanish and English. After its display at the Brooks, Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper will travel the country; perhaps the most notable stop will be at El Museo del Barrio, in New York City.

Half a century after Bob McKnight’s inspired idea of commissioning a Christmas crèche for Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Memphis is finally getting a real payback. Memphians can at last go beyond The Family and see something close to the totality of Marisol’s incredible work with a full appreciation for its context and legacy. Insomuch as this exhibition will reflect that legacy, it will also create it. Marisol, the quiet and mysterious figure whose work has always eluded definition and frustrated critics, arrives in a new and perhaps definitive limelight. It is left to us to understand. As Marina Pacini says, “She wanted people to think for themselves.”

 

Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper opens at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art on June 17th, and will be on display at Tennessee’s oldest art museum until September 10, 2014. National sponsors include the Henry Luce Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Raymond James is corporate sponsor of the exhibition. For further information, call 901.544.6200.

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