It’s 1962 in Malibu, and Niki de Saint Phalle, 31, a former Vogue model, wears a white jumpsuit as she aims her .22-caliber rifle at a large plaster assemblage made of the detritus of everyday life, which she has created with the help of the sculptor Jean Tinguely, her Swiss lover and collaborator. Attached to the structure’s white surface are balloons impregnated with colored paints; they explode as she hits them, paint dribbling randomly down. Jane Fonda and artist Edward Kienholz are among the luminaries present to see this Tir (shooting), a proto-performative exploration of creativity and rage.
Though Saint Phalle is best known for her Tirs and her vibrant, figurative Nanas—colorful, instantly recognizable wire-and-polyester sculptures that cast women as larger-than-life figures—“Niki de Saint Phalle, Structures for Life,” the first major exhibition on the artist in New York City, opening at MoMA PS1 on March 11, aims to entirely recast her career and reputation. The show’s curator, Ruba Katrib, compares the artist’s influence to that of Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama, and writes in the accompanying book, “Her dedication to reaching larger publics led her to broaden the conventions of artistic production. She wanted her work to live not just in galleries and museums, but out in the world.”
While Saint Phalle was once considered a “sellout” to commerce and lowbrow public taste, Katrib and others propose that her strategies—architecture integrated with nature; site-specific public sculptures; insistence on the vital role of collaboration; and a determination to support her projects through creative merchandising—were not only prescient but utterly contemporary.
Saint Phalle was an outsider artist born in 1930 to an insider French banking family. A privileged New York–area upbringing did not erase the memory of her early isolation from her parents or her father’s sexual abuse starting in her 11th summer. At 18, having been expelled from convent school and other private academies, she married the American writer Harry Mathews. Saint Phalle began to draw and paint, but it wasn’t until she was institutionalized after a mental breakdown, at 22, that she realized art would be her salvation.
Jane Fonda and artist Edward Kienholz are among the luminaries present to see this Tir (shooting), a proto-performative exploration of creativity and rage.
Saint Phalle’s early work depicted magical legends and strange creatures, dragons and castles. Eventually—inspired by alternative architectural traditions such as Postman Cheval’s 19th-century architectural fantasy, near Lyon; Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Güell, in Barcelona; and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, in Los Angeles—she incorporated stones, shells, and found objects. But after Saint Phalle saw the provocations of Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein, befriended artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and met her Paris neighbor Tinguely, risk and political activism became her stock-in-trade. By the age of 30, she had abandoned her husband and two young children to move in with Tinguely and devote herself to a life of art.
She wrote that she was lucky to find art because, as she put it, “I had, on a psychological level, all it takes to become a terrorist.” As the rage of the Tirs diminished, Saint Phalle moved to more feminist sculptures of brides and pregnant women, works that incorporated everything from plastic toys to wool. This paved the way for the mythological universe of her Nana statues and the giant Hon woman-as-cathedral environment of 1966 that astounded visitors at the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm, who had to enter through an opening between the figure’s legs. Saint Phalle avowed little interest in traditional domestic incarnations, seeing herself more as “a Mata Hari”-type heroine.
By the age of 30, Saint Phalle had abandoned her husband and two young children to devote herself to a life of art.
Saint Phalle and Tinguely had an open relationship that was complex and occasionally violent. They became known as the Bonnie and Clyde of the art world, and their mutual admiration, Saint Phalle said, drove each of them “to do even bigger or crazier things.” But the strain of commingling life with work would prove too much. Though they continued to collaborate throughout their lives, both moved on to other relationships. Oddly, it wasn’t until then that they chose to marry: Saint Phalle had come to view marriage as the death of the individual and of love.
As likely to be found in Dior as in jeans, Saint Phalle also worked in photo collages, autofiction, multi-media, video, film, children’s books, and parks and playgrounds, breaking down barriers between genres, always sharing attribution with her many lovers and fellow artists.
Her culminating work, the Tarot Garden, in Tuscany, is still open to the public. A series of 22 encrusted concrete sculptures based on the major arcana of the tarot deck, it was built with the help of Tinguely and local craftsmen on land donated by the family of Marella Agnelli. Saint Phalle self-funded the project through the sale of perfumes, mini Nanas, balloons, and jewelry—an early exercise in branding which set the art world against her. The Tarot Garden took 33 years to complete, and 6 of those years she lived on-site, in the mirrored womb of the Empress.
In 1993, Saint Phalle moved to Southern California for her health. The polyester used in the Nanas had corrupted her lungs, and her rheumatoid arthritis was exacerbated by the years living inside the Empress. Yet she continued work on many large-scale international public commissions. Saint Phalle died in La Jolla in 2002 at age 71, having obscured “painful content with a joyful aesthetic,” writes Katrib, for much of her life.
Saint Phalle is also the subject of an inaugural exhibition of the new Salon 94—a contemporary space in the former Upper East Side residence of Anna Hyatt Huntington—which opens on March 20 with a focus on her Nana sculptures. And next fall, at the Menil Collection, in Houston (and subsequently at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego), an exhibition will focus on her work from the 60s. These should reinforce Katrib’s contention that Saint Phalle’s rich and varied practice and her outsize utopian ambitions deserve a more complete reckoning in art history.
Patricia Zohn is a culture columnist who has contributed to numerous publications, including the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Town & Country