The French-American artist rebelled against artistic tradition and forged her own emancipatory visual language
‘I would REJECT your system of values and write my own,’ declared the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle in “Dear MOTHER,” a letter she wrote for her 1992 catalogue. ‘I decided early to become a heroine. Who would I be? George Sand? Joan of Arc? Napoléon in drag?...Whatever I decided to do, I wanted it to be difficult, exciting, grand.’
Best known for her sprawling, colourful sculptures of larger-than-life women and fantastical creatures — breaking in at a time when the field of monumental sculpture was dominated by men — Saint Phalle continually defied convention throughout her career.
Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, focuses on the artist’s radical early work — her notorious Tirs Séances (Shooting Sessions) and the curvaceous, buoyant female figures she called Nanas. Furthering new scholarship on her role in the sixties and underscoring her place in post-war art history, the exhibition premiered at the Menil Collection in Houston in 2021 and will be at MCASD through 17 July, with support provided by Christie’s.
Revisiting these two series from the sixties brings Saint Phalle’s boundary-breaking practice into relief, illuminating how she bridged post-war art movements in France and the United States and laid critical groundwork for feminist visual art and performance.
From 1961 to 1963, Saint Phalle constructed intricate assemblages, in which she buried bags of paint, and sometimes eggs, tomatoes, and other materials that splatter, and covered the surface of the works with white plaster. She then invited fellow artists and creatives in her milieu, as well as the general public, to collaborate with her in firing at the plaster with a shotgun.
The resulting Tirs, in which violent bursts of pigment drip down clusters of mundane found objects, are not only dynamic action paintings that vandalize patriarchal signifiers and critique the spectacle of violence; they also document one of the first instances of modern performance art.
Michelle White, senior curator at the Menil, who co-curated Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s with Jill Dawsey of MCASD, notes that the shooting sessions were ‘an incredible, radical early feminist work of performance art — years before Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece.’
White also emphasizes the participatory nature of the events Saint Phalle staged: ‘The pictures of her, a beautiful lady with a shotgun, are what have circulated the most, when in fact it was more about collaboration, getting other people to shoot.’
Born outside of Paris in 1930 and raised in the US on the East Coast, Saint Phalle was often framed as a French artist, perhaps due to her association with Nouveau Réalisme, the avant-garde art movement founded by the painter Yves Klein and the art critic Pierre Restany in 1960. She was the only woman in the group.
However her shooting sessions, which spanned Europe and the US and engaged provocatively with the iconography of the American West, clarify her hybrid cultural identity. These happenings gathered artists from Nouveau Réalisme — including Klein, Restany, her husband Jean Tinguely, and Christo — as well as American post-war artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Edward Kienholz.
In 1963, Saint Phalle decided to end the Tirs series, which had culminated in large-scale tableaux taking aim at sacrosanct forms such as cathedrals and the faces of male political leaders, and she began an exuberant new body of work that posited a joyful and nonviolent alternative. As White describes, ‘There’s a shift from this attack on the patriarchy to putting forward a solution. What comes next? A matriarchy.’
Saint Phalle’s first Nanas — figural sculptures with voluptuous curves coated in vibrant collaged paper, fabric and painted doodles — made their debut at Galerie Alexandre Iolas in Paris in 1965. While Saint Phalle has frequently been mischaracterized as a naïve or outsider artist unbound by the confines of art history, White puts Saint Phalle in context as part of a long tradition of artists questioning tradition.
Where the Tirs offered ‘a critique of painting as a kind of masculine terrain,’ the Nanas take on one of the most fundamental approaches in representational art: the female figure. ‘She's liberating the tradition of the representation of the female body,’ White says, ‘She’s reclaiming it and giving agency to the subject.’
Over time Saint Phalle’s Nanas grew in number and size, and their constructions became heartier and more permanent as she moved outdoors, into the realm of public art and monumental sculpture. Her magnum opus, the famous Tarot Garden in Tuscany, features twenty-two monumental tarot figures constructed from reinforced concrete covered in mirrors and mosaic tiles. The vast sculpture park took nearly twenty years to complete — some of which she spent living in the sphinx-like Empress onsite — and opened to the public in 1998.
Throughout her career, Saint Phalle skillfully cultivated public interest and spectacle surrounding her work. She worked prolifically at enormous scale. She was a media sophisticate, whose shooting sessions were featured on television, and even parodied on the silver screen in the 1964 comedy What a Way to Go!, starring Shirley MacLaine and Paul Newman. But even after her death in 2002, the recognition of her place in the canon of post-war and contemporary art has been slower coming.
Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s dovetails with the artist’s first US survey show, Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life, which was exhibited at MoMA PS1 last year, as well as the 2022 publication of What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, an experimental biography by the writer Nicole Rudick, told through Saint Phalle’s own writings and drawings.
‘She was so ahead of her time,’ White says of Saint Phalle. ‘I feel fortunate that we were able to help bring this story and her work to scholarly attention. I’m just sorry it took this long.’