PARIS — I have never particularly admired French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s overly familiar and obvious Nanas (French slang for “broads”) — the gaudy, plump, joyous everywoman figures that made the artist’s case for female affirmation. Nor am I a huge fan of the Stravinsky Fountain at the Centre Pompidou, her collaboration with her husband, the artist Jean Tinguely. So I was somewhat reluctant to hit the Grand Palais to see her retrospective. But I was very satisfied that I did, as I was casually bowled over with the intensity of her total oeuvre, discovering her full spectrum as an artist. For me, she is more powerful than her mighty, dancing, archetypal female figures, even though they were developed in relation to the position of women in society half a century ago. Indeed, her solo retrospective, and the concurrent Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne, mark a fairly strong season for woman artists in Paris, albeit women who have already died.
Born Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, child of an American mother (Jeanne Jacqueline Harper) and the Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle (a ruined banker), de Saint Phalle grew up in America and began her rather saucy life there. In the show, de Saint Phalle is introduced first as a very pretty and slender professional fashion model, appearing in the late 1940s on the covers of Life magazine and French Vogue. At 18, she elopes with the wonderful writer Harry Mathews, soon to be know for his association with Oulipo and the Locus Solus journal (so named after the novel Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel). They move to Paris in the mid-’50s, where de Saint Phalle pursues a painting career and has her first solo exhibition in 1956. I was particularly taken with this early work, such as “Pink Nude in Landscape” (1956-58), with its cheeky Pollock-meets-Dubuffet painting style, full of both visual noise and charm.
In the early ’60s she is attracted to assemblage after discovering the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers, and incorporates found objects into her pieces, such as “Saint Sébastien (Portrait of My Lover/Portrait of My Beloved/Martyr nécessaire)” (1961). It was at this point in the exhibition that I began to concentrate on the theoretical qualities of her multiplicitious lyricism.
This work was followed by the radical, breakout, creative-destructive series of Shoot pieces of the early ’60s — which incorporate elements of performance, sculpture, and painting — such as “Tir” (“Firing”) (1961) and “King Kong” (1963). With this vanguard work she joins the Nouveau réalisme movement along with Tinguely, Yves Klein, Raymond Hains, and César.
The sexually and religiously charged Shoot pieces, full of psychic destruction, were made by embedding polythene bags of paint into bas relief sculptures of human forms and assemblaged toys that are covered in several layers of white plaster and painted stark white. She thus creates a surface that she herself will pierce with the shots from a .22 rifle, releasing flows and bursts of colors from the bags of paint, and completing the painting. This period is amply illustrated with many films and interviews shown side-by-side with the works. I was fascinated to see her murder paintings, make them bleed colors, and come back to a better life.
This work led to a series of romantic freestanding assemblage sculptures, such as “Cheval et la Mariée” (1964), where my conflicting ideas and intellectual positions about marriage were mitigated by amusement. In 1966, de Saint Phalle collaborated with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt on a large-scale, vagina-themed sculpture called “hon-en katedral” (“she-a cathedral”) for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, a giant, reclining Nana whose internal environment was entered from between her legs. This piece elicited massive press coverage worldwide. The provocative feminist and psychological interpretations are too tempting to be avoided and I admit that watching a film on it tickled the clownish Duchampian in me. This work became the model for her highly complex and detailed “Tarot Garden” (1998), a huge sculpture park in Tuscany on which she worked for nearly two decades. Her lovely idealism is fully realized in these works, which often give form to an alogical visual approach based in the theoretical constructs of the feminine.
I was even more impressed with de Saint Phalle’s keen satirical eye for patriarchal bluster, which she tied to an intense alertness and a heightened capacity to sympathize with the downtrodden. She made this clear in her political activism around resistance to France’s war in Algeria, segregation in the US, the war in Vietnam, and the AIDS crisis. Undeniably, I was moved by her immersive chamber titled “Skull (Meditation Room)” (1990), an AIDS-related piece of baffling trepidation, lamentation, and mourning. It is an artwork of tragic cries and private perturbations.
All told, I was seduced by the rebellious grace of de Saint Phalle’s interdisciplinary works. What is particularly interesting about her art today is how it ties empowerment to inventive myth. It is based neither in reductive purism nor fragmentary isolation. Her pleasantly nudging work contains a poetic, passionate, and political meaning that does not rely on a logic or language of appropriation.