Niki de Saint Phalle (born Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, 29 October 1930 – 21 May 2002) was a French-American sculptor, painter and filmmaker. Widely noted as one of the few female monumental sculptor Saint Phalle was also known for her social commitment and work.
She had a difficult and traumatic childhood and a multiply-disrupted education, which she wrote about many decades later. After an early marriage and two children, she began creating art in a naïve, experimental style. She first received worldwide attention for angry, violent assemblages which had been shot by firearms. These evolved into Nanas, light-hearted, whimsical, colorful, large-scale sculptures of animals, monsters, and female figures. Her most comprehensive work was the Tarot Garden, a large sculpture garden containing numerous works ranging up to house-sized creations. Her idiosyncratic style has been called “outsider art”; she had no formal training in art, but associated freely with many other contemporary artists, writers, and composers.
Throughout her creative career, she collaborated with other well-known artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, composer John Cage, and architect Mario Botta, as well as dozens of less-known artists and craftspersons. For several decades, she worked especially closely with Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, who also became her second husband. In her later years, she suffered from multiple chronic health problems attributed to repeated exposure to glass fibers and petrochemical fumes from the experimental materials she had used in her pioneering artworks, but she continued to create prolifically until the end of her life.
A critic has observed that Saint Phalle’s “insistence on exuberance, emotion and sensuality, her pursuit of the figurative and her bold use of color have not endeared her to everyone in a minimalist age”. She was well known in Europe, but her work was little-seen in the US, until her final years in San Diego. Another critic said: “The French-born, American-raised artist is one of the most significant female and feminist artists of the 20th century, and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world during her lifetime”.
MoMA PS1 presents the first New York museum exhibition of the work of visionary feminist artist Niki de Saint Phalle (American and French, 1930‒2002). On view from March 11 to September 6, 2021, Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life will feature over 200 works created from the mid-1960s until the artist’s death, including sculptures, prints, drawings, jewelry, films, and archival materials. Highlighting Saint Phalle’s interdisciplinary approach and engagement with key social and political issues, the exhibition will focus on works that she created to transform environments, individuals, and society.
From the beginning of her career in the 1950s, Saint Phalle pushed against accepted artistic practices, creating work that used assemblage as well as performative and collaborative modes of production. Saint Phalle initially gained attention in the early 1960s with her Tirs, paintings produced by firing a gun at plaster reliefs to release pockets of paint, and Nanas, brightly colored sculptures of female figures whose sinuous curves would inform much of her work to come. Beginning in the late 1960s, Saint Phalle started producing large-scale sculptures, which led to an expansion of her practice into architectural projects, sculpture gardens, books, prints, films, theater sets, clothing, jewelry, and, famously, her own perfume.
Central to the exhibition is an examination of Saint Phalle’s large-scale outdoor sculptures and architectural projects, including Le rêve de l’oiseau (built for Rainer von Diez between 1968 and 1971); Golem, a playground in Jerusalem (1971-72); Le Dragon de Knokke, a children’s playhouse in Belgium (1973-75); and La fontaine Stravinsky (1983); among others. These are represented in the exhibition by the many models she made in preparation for and in homage to her architectural works, as well as through a wide selection of archival materials—many of which have never before been exhibited.
The ideas explored in these works culminated in Saint Phalle’s central life project, Tarot Garden, a massive architectural park outside Rome, Italy, which she began constructing in the late 1970s and continued to develop alongside key collaborators until her death. Opened to the public in 1998, the garden and its structures, which are based on the 22 Major Arcana of the tarot deck, allow for moments of interaction and reflection that underscore Saint Phalle’s use of art to alter perception. The exhibition will include photographs and drawings of Tarot
Garden as well as models that Saint Phalle created for its various structures. For Saint Phalle, these structures were charged spaces of imagination from which she envisioned experimental societies emerging, places “where you could have a new kind of life, to just be free.”
Saint Phalle also created a series of innovative works that reflect an ethos of collaboration and engagement with the politics of social space. Addressing subjects that ranged from women’s rights to climate change and HIV/AIDS awareness, Saint Phalle was often at the vanguard in addressing the social and political issues of her time. Her illustrated book, AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands (1986), written in collaboration with Dr. Silvio Barandun, worked to destigmatize the disease and was translated into six languages.
Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life is organized by Ruba Katrib, Curator, with Josephine Graf, Assistant Curator, MoMA PS1.