Photo Essays

Discovering Niki de Saint Phalle’s Eerie Early Work

Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, "Heart" (1963) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, “Heart” (1963) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MIAMI BEACH — Among the many compelling booths in Art Basel Miami Beach‘s new art historical sector “Survey” is a selection of early assemblage works and “shooting paintings” by Niki de Saint Phalle that are gloomy, gooey, violent, and unrecognizable from the colorful whimsy for which she later became known.

'Niki de Saint Phalle: En Joue! Assemblages and Tirs (1960–1964)' installation view at Art Basel Miami Beach
‘Niki de Saint Phalle: En Joue! Assemblages and Tirs (1960–1964)’ installation view at Art Basel Miami Beach

Presented by Paris’s Galerie Georges-Philippe et Nathalie Vallois, the small but revelatory presentation includes five large-scale sculptures and a grid of 24 small “landscape-assemblages” from 1960–64. The most jarring works are coated in white plaster, which gives them a ghostly air. In some cases they have been splattered with paint that de Saint Phalle applied by embedding small balloons of paint into the sculptures and then shooting them, hence the series’ name, Tirs or Shots.

Niki de Saint Phalle, "Tir (Fragment de Dracula II)" (1961)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Tir (Fragment de Dracula II)” (1961)

The exhibition’s most colorful piece, “Tir (Fragment de Dracula II)” (1961), for instance, looks like a riotous drip painting from afar. But on closer inspection one can clearly see where the artist and her cohorts (including the influential critic Pierre Restany) shot through balloons full of paint with a rifle. The work’s surface is pockmarked with eruptions of color like miniature volcanoes. Unlike the smoothed lines and saturated hues of her best known works, this piece and others on view here bear witness to an unexpected belief in the creative potential of destruction.

Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, "Tir (Fragment de Dracula II)" (1961)
Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, “Tir (Fragment de Dracula II)” (1961)

De Saint Phalle’s knack for assemblage, however, is most evident in works like “Heart” (1963) — which looks uncannily like an Ashley Bickerton sculpture sent back in time 50 years — “Cathédrale” (1962), and “Assemblage (Figure with Dartboard Head)” (circa 1962), each of which resembles a very recognizable image from afar and becomes much more detailed and disturbing up close.

Niki de Saint Phalle, "Heart" (1963)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Heart” (1963)

It’s difficult not to recognize the iconic silhouette of Notre Dame de Paris when first glimpsing “Cathédrale,” but the bas-relief sculpture is actually made up of innumerable plastic figurines — gargoyles, crucifixes, and saints alongside toy soldiers, guns, cyclists, and monkeys — all bound together in plaster. Though these works anticipate the playful, polychromatic works of her later years, the muted palette of blue and white with the occasional, gun-powered paint splatter lends the work an uncharacteristically ominous edge. Particularly in an art fair setting that seems so much more amenable to de Saint Phalle’s more familiar pop art statuary, these unfamiliar and intricate works are a welcome surprise.

Niki de Saint Phalle, "Cathédrale" (1962)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Cathédrale” (1962)
Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, "Cathédrale" (1962)
Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, “Cathédrale” (1962)
NIki de Saint Phalle, "Fragment de l'homme au facteur Cheval" (1962)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Fragment de l’homme au facteur Cheval” (1962)
Detail of NIki de Saint Phalle, "Fragment de l'homme au facteur Cheval" (1962)
Detail of NIki de Saint Phalle, “Fragment de l’homme au facteur Cheval” (1962)
Niki de Saint Phalle, "24 Small Assemblages" (circa 1960–61)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “24 Small Assemblages” (circa 1960–61)
Niki de Saint Phalle, "Assemblage (Figure with Dartboard Head)" (circa 1962)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Assemblage (Figure with Dartboard Head)” (circa 1962)
Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, "Assemblage (Figure with Dartboard Head)" (circa 1962)
Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle, “Assemblage (Figure with Dartboard Head)” (circa 1962)

Niki de Saint Phalle: En Joue! Assemblages and Tirs (1960–1964) continues in the Galerie Georges-Philippe et Nathalie Vallois booth (S11) at Art Basel Miami Beach (1901 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach) through December 7.

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