NEW YORK – Niki de Saint-Phalle (1930-2002), a French-American who was born Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint-Phalle, battled her inner demons through her art. After following a golden path – becoming a top fashion model, marrying, then starting a family, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Art, expressing deep, fearless aggression, became her only solace.
She soon became a star. Through the early 1960s, she invited astounded admirers to fire at her “shooting paintings” – composed of scissors, eggbeaters and doll arms attached to white, thickly plastered boards – with pistols, rifles or miniature cannons. This not only shattered the artworks’ textured reliefs, but also exploded concealed, paint-filled balloons, streaking the boards with hit-and-miss streams of color.
Saint-Phalle’s “executions” not only merged destruction with creation, but also art with performance. “Performance art did not yet exist,” she wrote, “ but this was a performance. Here I was, an attractive girl (if I had been ugly they would have said I had a complex and not paid any attention), screaming against men in my … shooting.” Though admittedly therapeutic, these aggressive, collaborative performances eventually ceased.
Saint-Phalle’s collaborative experimentation continued – especially Jean Tinguely, a Swiss kinetic artist who eventually became her second husband.
Saint-Phalle, a lapsed Catholic, also created cathedral and altar-shaped assemblages plastered irreverently with pistols, knives, stuffed bats, crucifixes and Madonnas. Those reaching today’s market command outstanding prices.
Well before the rise of women’s lib, this self-taught artist also constructed collages of oddly proportioned feminine figures. Youthful, sensual, maternal or aged, all challenge traditional art and stereotyped female roles.
Saint-Phalle’s works grew in size along with her reputation. In 1966, as women were re-imagining their societal roles, Saint-Phalle, collaborating with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultlvedt, created Hon (“she” in Swedish). Visitors accessed Hon, a monumental, rotund, reclining “nana” (a “broad” or “dame” in French) from between her legs.
Her joyous, bulbous, broad-bottomed, gaily patterned, pirouetting papier-mâché, polyester or fiberglass Nanas also embody the female form in arrogant, liberated. glory. So do scores of Saint-Phalle’s garish, voluptuous Nana graphics.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Saint-Phalle also created black Nanas. Her Black is Different screenprint (1994), for example, depicts a powerfully exuberant Black Nana amid hand-written, curlicued comments: “I saw a fat woman on the beach today and she reminded me of a great pagan goddess. I have made many black figures in my work. Black Venus, Black Madonna, Black Men, Black Nanas. It has always been an important color for me … Black is me now.”
Other graphics crawl with multihued, childlike, delightfully frightening insects, worms, serpents, spiders or bugaboos. Narrative ones, like You are my lover for ever and never (1968), Why don’t you love me? (1968) and Our Love Was a Beautiful Flower (1969), evoke entries in a teenage diary.
Over time, Saint-Phalle also created fantastical public sculpture gardens in California, Paris, Stockholm, and elsewhere, delighting children, adults and professionals alike. Her imaginative menageries, adorned with shattered mirrors, crackle glazes, pebbles and provocative protrusions, often double as climbing toys. The massive, misshapen, cockeyed “Monster” inhabiting Jerusalem, Israel, for example, boasts three, red, slippery, tongue-like slides.
In addition, Saint-Phalle spent nearly 24 years creating Tarot Garden, a larger-than-life lifework, in Tuscany, Italy. Its 22 iron, steel and wire mesh, concrete-covered eclectic sculptures, glittering with mirror, glass and ceramic mosaics, not only interpret mystical Tarot meanings, but also reflect the feminine experience.
To finance this Garden of Eden, Saint-Phalle created a fragrance in her name for the Jaqueline Cochran Co., New York. She also designed its deep-blue glass flacon, its gold cap bearing two frolicsome snakes entwined.
In addition, Saint-Phalle wrote, directed and acted in a movie, designed functional objects and created see-through Skinnys, lean, spirited pieces featuring elements suspended by strings and illuminated by colored lights. Silkscreens, lithographs, as well as additional collaborative commissions, followed.
Saint-Phalle died of emphysema in 2002, possibly due to decades of inhaling chemical fumes, a byproduct of her creations. In addition to her whimsical outdoor installations, her works enliven major art institutions throughout the world.
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