Niki de Saint Phalle was a French-American artist who gained recognition in the 1960s for her assemblages, sculptures, performance, and installation works that addressed feminist and social concerns of the time.Read More
Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, Saint Phalle spent her childhood in New York. As a teenager she began working as a model and married writer Harry Mathews in 1948. In 1953, the artist was institutionalised following a nervous breakdown; she would turn to artmaking after she was discharged.
Saint Phalle first received attention in the early 1960s for 'Tirs', meaning 'fire' or 'gunshot', a series that involved shooting at the canvas with actual firearms. Behind the canvas were plastic bags filled with paint, which would create bursts of colour as the bullets penetrated them.
Saint Phalle staged the shooting as performances or invited members of the audience to participate, including artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In her performances, de Saint Phalle explored the social roles and identities assigned to gender by dressing herself in costumes ranging from white overalls to a red dress.
In 1964, Saint Phalle joined the Nouveau réalisme group with her husband, the artist Jean Tinguely, whom she had married in the previous year. Founded in 1960 by the French art critic Pierre Restany, the movement—whose members also included Yves Klein, Christo, and Arman—examined the intersections between art and life.
In the mid-1960s, Saint Phalle increasingly shifted away from the violent 'Tirs' to the more lighthearted but equally bright-coloured 'Nanas', sculptures in the form of voluptuous female figures.
Referring to a French slang word for women, de Saint Phalle's 'Nanas' confront patriarchy in their unapologetically joyous and daring postures. The artist created 'Nanas' in numerous materials, including wool, yarn, wire, papier mâché, and polyester, and in various dimensions.
The largest of the artist's 'Nanas' was Hon (1966), an approximately 23-metre-tall sculpture lying on her back that the artist created with Tinguely and Finnish artist Per-Olof Ultvedt. First presented at Saint Phalle's solo exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Hon had a door between her open legs through which visitors could explore the inside of her body, including a bar in her breast.
Saint Phalle also aligned with the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, showing her support through her large Black 'Nanas' such as Black Venus (1965—1967) and Black Nana (1967—1969).
In the 1980s, she advocated for the awareness of HIV/AIDS through works including her book AIDS: You Can't Catch It Holding Hands (1987), whose illustrations feature dancers evocative of 'Nanas'.
Niki de Saint Phalle's sculptures can be found in numerous sites and cities. Tarot Garden (1979—2002) in Garavicchio, Tuscany, consists of large-scale structures inspired by the 22 major arcana of the tarot deck, and feature de Saint Phalle's characteristically bold colours and patterns, as well as Nana-like figures.
Living and working between France, the United States, and Switzerland, Saint Phalle exhibited internationally in her lifetime.
More recent solo exhibitions of her work include Joy Revolution, Salon 94, New York (2021); New Images of Man, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2020); Niki de Saint Phalle, Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong (2019); HON: Niki de Saint Phalle & Shen Yuan, Power Station of Art, Shanghai (2018); and Niki de Saint Phalle — The Big Shots, Sprengel Museum, Hanover (2016). In March 2021, New York's Museum of Modern Art presented Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life, the artist's first major museum exhibition in the United States, featuring over 200 works.
Select group exhibitions include Writing Beyond, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp (2021); Arcimboldo Face to Face, Centre Pompidou-Metz, France (2021); New Realisms, Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2018); Impasse Ronsin, Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York (2016); and Crosscurrents: Modern Art from the Sam Rose and Julie Walters Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (2015).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021