In Drug Journey, an unpublished manuscript written in 1995, Niki de Saint Phalle wonders, “Does one have to go through catastrophe to arrive at vision?” It’s an apt question for the French American artist, whose life was marked by heartbreaking challenges, from surviving sexual abuse at the hands of her own father, to losing close friends to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to battling debilitating illness in her later years.
And yet, despite facing incredible adversity, Saint Phalle’s artworks — including her groundbreaking Tirs series and monumental Tarot Garden — are some of the most powerful and exuberant of the 20th century. “Perhaps to create something incredible,” she writes later, “one has to go through the extremes.”
This reflection comes from What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, an experimental account of the artist’s life by Nicole Rudick and published by Siglio Press. The book is timely: Saint Phalle has recently gained well-deserved attention for her work, including an excellent exhibition at the Menil Collection that will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego this spring. But it’s also not tackling completely new territory: The artist has already been the subject of a number of monographs, and she also published a set of memoirs before her death in 2002. Still, Saint Phalle’s complex life and work — and the overlaps between the two — continue to fascinate and elude us.
“What is the truth of a person anyway?” Rudick asks in her introduction to the book. After perusing the artist’s archive in Southern California, the author decided to let Saint Phalle speak for herself. What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined presents selections from the artist’s published and unpublished prints, doodles, letters, and diaries, which Rudick has arranged in roughly chronological order.
Saint Phalle’s texts, which appear in a mixture of handwritten notes, colorful drawings, and typed pages, are composed in both English and French, and peppered with her signature bright colors and imaginative characters. Together, the materials give readers a dynamic and intimate view of the artist through time. “I always felt that the Garden of Eden was right next to Hell,” Saint Phalle writes in her 1995 manuscript, and the book follows her international journey weathering the highs and lows of being an artist, woman, friend, daughter, lover, and mother.
The person who emerges is open, driven, and often remarkably perceptive about who she is and why. “One of the reasons very little has been written on my work is that I am difficult to categorize,” the artist writes in a draft of her text “Niki by Niki.” It’s lucky, then, that she has left so much writing herself.
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