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.”