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One might expect an exhibition focused on ten years of an artist’s practice to present a narrow slice of work, a partial—unsatisfying, even—picture of a lifelong creative evolution. Such a focus may seem best presented in book form. Yet Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (co-organized by the Menil Collection in Houston) exemplifies how a focused art historical examination of a particular portion of an artist’s career can make a successful exhibition. Saint Phalle is perhaps an especially noteworthy subject for such a presentation—over the course of a decade, changes in her practice developed rapidly, achieving fully mature and powerful work at every step. Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s outlines a fast-moving practice that boasted innovation at every turn.
Born in France and raised in the United States, Saint Phalle (1930–2002) began her career in Paris, where she made work alongside the most influential artists of the day. Saint Phalle was the only woman to be associated with Nouveau Réalisme—the French movement founded in 1960 by critic Pierre Restany. Her early work is in dialogue with artists such as Arman, Christo, and Jean Tinguely in its incorporation of found objects, as well as with Yves Klein’s happenings and performances. She was also in artistic exchange and collaboration with American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. She would eventually move back to the United States, settling in La Jolla, California, where the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is located.
The Saint Phalle pieces that are best known in the public sphere are the “Nana” sculptures, vividly colored female forms with exaggerated features, which appear paused in moments of exuberant dance. In contrast, the work for which she became first known in the art world was a series of paintings shot at with guns. How does an artist move from shooting paintings—evocatively expressive but deeply cerebral— to the whimsical, ebullient Nanas? Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s deftly reveals the mechanics of these surprising changes in her practice.
At MCASD, the exhibition occupies four galleries. In the first, visitors are greeted by a Nana in the center of the space. Early wall-bound assemblage works—found objects encrusted in plaster on plywood—hang on the walls. The standout is Hors-d’oeuvre, or Portrait of My Lover from 1960. In this piece, a white shirt covered in buttons is laid into a plaster ground. Above the shirt’s collar, a cork target occupies the space where a head would be. Two darts—thrown by the artist and visitors to the gallery—pierce the bullseye. This work foreshadows the shooting pictures in strategy and participation, her later figurative assemblages, and the humor that undergirds the later Nanas.
The second, larger gallery begins with a selection of the aforementioned works Saint Phalle called Tirs (“shots” in French). Ranging from intimate to monumental in scale, these pieces consist of reliefs constructed from plaster, embedded with bags of paint and small domestic objects. To finish the works, Saint Phalle would shoot the paintings with a .22-caliber rifle, puncturing the surface and allowing colored paint to explode and bleed across the white ground. She would soon welcome fellow artists and friends to join her in the shootings, drawing on spectacle to craft participatory experiences much in line with Nouveau Réalisme’s ideologies while asserting a devastating critique of Abstract Expressionism’s macho culture and patriarchal violence at large.
As evidenced in this second gallery, the Tirs evolved to include even more found objects, transform into outright assemblage, and, in some, move into fully three-dimensional space. They evoke Rauschenberg’s early combines in their fusion of object and painting, effectively deploying the strategy to include a wide array of imagery—including domestic goods, war planes, monsters, cityscapes, and religious iconography—all splattered with paint. Some of the elements are hand-built, and the works become increasingly bombastic in their evocation of a crash of creation and destruction. Works such as Gorgo in New York and Pirodactyl over New York (both 1962) have a marked cinematic quality and address, among other things, the era’s pervasive anxiety about the Cold War and the damage wrought by organized religion. Saint Phalle made fewer and fewer of the Tirs works as the decade progressed, explaining that she had become “addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug.” She felt, she said, “out of control” and turned away from the Tirs as her primary mode of making in 1963.
Entering the third gallery of MCASD’s exhibition is a shock. The space is filled with female bodies, ebullient with clashes of material and color. Made from 1964 to 1969, in works on paper, assemblage, mixed media, and painted polyester resin, they all draw on combinatory aesthetic strategies. Clarice (1964–65), a collaboration with the artist Larry Rivers, depicts his pregnant wife. Rivers drew the figure’s outline while Saint Phalle collaged and rendered explicitly feminine imagery—flowers, butterflies, birds, whimsical doodles—that suggests growth and birth of many kinds. The wall-bound assemblage Crucifixion (ca. 1965) presents a sex worker resplendent in lingerie. Her upper body is covered in toys (babies, cowboys, animals) and faux flowers. She wears curlers on her head and a mass of tangled black yarn for pubic hair. This and other assemblage works in the gallery operate with a more ambivalent tone, violence having been wielded against these women, yet the title positions the sex worker as a sanctified figure. In the gallery’s final section, a selection of Nanas—some covered in fabric and yarn, others in polyester resin and paint—dance across the floor and float in the air. In material and subject, these works presaged the coming feminist art movement of the 1970s. Ultimately, this gallery of women presents a radical leap, from anxiety and violence to joyous agency.
A small fourth gallery contains a variety of material. A case holds ephemera such as newspaper and magazine articles and exhibition brochures, as well as a few drawings and prints. Videos and photographs from the Tirs performances play on monitors and hang on the walls. In the center of the gallery stands a case containing Model for Hon, a 1966 maquette made of painted papier-mâché on wire mesh, measuring approximately thirteen by thirty-five by fifty-two inches. It was a preparatory work for Hon –- en katedral (Hon – a cathedral), which Saint Phalle would realize that same year. Hon was Saint Phalle’s most ambitious and provocative work to date. Installed at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, it featured an enormous, brightly painted Nana reclining on her back, her legs spread apart, a doorway between them welcoming visitors to step inside the sculpture. Her figure filled the large gallery space, her pregnant stomach and bent knees nearly touching the ceiling. The work presented a commanding, sacred feminine body, offering sanctuary to all.
Behind the maquette, the curators have hung on the wall a large offset print bearing a photograph of Hon in the Moderna Museet gallery space, surrounded by visitors. The sculpture in the photo is painted in the same vibrant colors as the papier-mâché sculpture in the case. This pairing—of object and image—elicits the experience of viewing Hon as effectively as one could for a monumental work no longer extant. This last gallery might have felt patched together, but the tight curation and smart installation present a cohesive finale to the exhibition, representative of Saint Phalle’s abundant accomplishments over the span of a mere decade.
It is worth noting that the exhibition’s curators, Jill Dawsey and Michelle White, have chosen to include very little biographical information in the wall texts (for example, it is not mentioned that Saint Phalle was in a romantic partnership with Jean Tinguely for many years, nor that she experienced abuse as a child—both of which have been heavily relied upon for past art historical examinations of the artist’s work). This was a wise choice. The exhibition’s catalog marks a major contribution to art history, offering a deep dive into the context of the artist’s work and its reception. By leaving biographical information and interpretation to the publication, the curators allow for the work to move beyond its historical context into the current moment, the effect of which is both powerful and troubling. I wish that Saint Phalle’s themes of patriarchal violence, global conflict, damage wrought by religion, and bodily autonomy were not entirely relevant today and instead relics of the past—interesting but unneeded in the present. Yet we are gripped in a stranglehold by these very issues still, and Saint Phalle’s work from the 1960s retains the same urgency—and effectiveness—as when it was made.
Independent Curator and Editor of HereIn Journal