Rico Weber, Saint Phalle’s first and longest assistant worked with both her and Jean Tinguely for 15 years, helping the two artists with projects such as Paradis Fantastique in New York, Golem and Noah’s Ark in Jerusalem, Tinguely’s Le Cyclop in France and Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Italy. Through art, Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Weber formed a familial bond that lasted a lifetime.
Rico Weber was born on Oct 7, 1942, in Hinwil – a small district of Zurich, Switzerland. Not much is known or written about Weber’s childhood, except that it was difficult. He had a very strict upbringing and was terrorized by his teachers at school due to his dyslexia.
In his early adulthood, Weber joined the hippie movement and traveled through Europe for the next 3 years. He settled in Stockholm, Sweden where he took a job as a cook/dishwasher at the Moderna Museet.
In 1966 artist Niki de Saint Phalle was working on a temporary indoor sculpture installation called HON at the very same museum Rico Weber was working in. Saint Phalle was creating this monumental sculpture in collaboration with fellow artists Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt. Weber met Saint Phalle at the museum and began working on the HON with the artists.
“He soon came to work on the HON and we quickly became friends. He decided to join up with us and to become our first assistant. He was both Jean’s and my assistant, which is a unique situation considering the diversity of materials and work. And we worked together for many many years…”
In the documentary Rico Weber: Spurensuche im magischen Kabinett by Stefan Hugentobler (2006), many friends and fellow artists describe Weber as a loyal and dedicated assistant to Saint Phalle and Tinguely. During his time with the couple, he never worked on his own art because he did not want to use their notoriety or artistic influence to advance his own career as an artist.
“A great friendship and complicity grew between me and Rico and Jean over the years. We shared our way of life with him and he was always ready to go along with any mad project we had in mind…nothing was impossible”
Over the 15 years of working together, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and Rico Weber became a family unit. Weber’s exposure to many diverse artists and experiences in various projects fueled his own creativity and desire to create.
As described by Bloum Cardenas (Saint Phalle’s granddaughter) “Jean and Niki were like parents to Rico”. Weber remarked they were so close that the 3 of them were waiting for “the end” together.
Rico Weber was an immense help to Niki de Saint Phalle-especially when she began creating large-scale sculptures. Saint Phalle would make a maquette, decide she wanted to enlarge it 100 times bigger in size, and Weber would be at her side, helping her realize the vision.
Weber was the first to try fiberglass with Saint Phalle; they learned many new techniques together. According to Swiss sculptor and friend Rene Progin, it was Weber who proposed the use of wet cement to be sprayed onto the large sculptures. Progin remarked that, in a sense, Weber was not just Saint Phalle’s assistant but also co-creator. (Hugentobler, 2006).
After years of assisting Saint Phalle and Tinguely, Weber (with the endless encouragement of Saint Phalle) decided it was time to focus on his own art.
“When Rico was 40 he decided he had to make a choice; either to remain a first-class assistant for the rest of his life or to take the plunge and to realize his lifelong ambition of becoming an artist in his own right. This is what he chose, and he is now a successful artist”
As an artist, Rico Weber was influenced by photorealism. According to his friends, he was his own harshest critic. Niki de Saint Phalle noted, that “he spent several difficult years unsatisfied with what he was doing. Rico is a long-distance runner. He never gave up. He kept on going, experimenting with new materials and new ideas.”
Rico Weber’s artistic debut occurred in 1978 at Galerie Felix Handschin in Basel. The exhibition was called Hammerausstellung. According to the book Rico Weber: Energie Magie Souvenir (Blanchard, Raoul., et al. Kunstahalle Burgdorf, 1995) the artist participated in the show with a series of plaster casts of himself lying down, arms crossed behind his head. He called this series “Ich liege, wo ich liege möchte” [transl. I lie where I want to lie].
Molds of these “life-size Rico’s” were used to create multiple sculptures that would be placed in various locations at Le Cyclop. This 74-foot monumental sculpture created by Jean Tinguely is hidden in a forest outside of Paris. Le Cyclop took 20 years to complete and was a collaborative effort between Tinguely and many other artists, including Saint Phalle and Weber. There are 12 Gisants (recumbent Weber figures) at Le Cyclop. Several have been placed inside the massive sculpture and several hidden in the green grass of the forest that surrounds it.
Rico Weber continued experimenting with various mediums and, as noted by artist Rene Progin, the first pieces that Weber was truly satisfied with were the ones tied with fetishes, religion, culture (Hugentobler, 2006).
Weber explored the fetish of voyeurism with an art piece titled Die Unbekannte von vis-a-vis [transl. The stranger from across]. The series consisted of window boxes illuminated from behind, showing shadows of body silhouettes. Weber wanted to exemplify life in a large, populated city with people living so close to one another (Blanchard, Raoul., et al.)
In the late 1980’s Rico Weber further explored art by creating what he described as “energy-still life”. Weber created reliefs from wall cutouts and mounted everyday items such as cables, lamps, and electrical outlets onto them. He explained it as follows “Still life comes from painting…The objects are shown in real life, the whole thing has little in common with reality because it’s not a cutout from any wall. Therefore it is a still life, namely an arrangement. Energy, especially electrical energy, simply represents the time I live in…I am fascinated by the everyday life of these things.” (Blanchard, Raoul., et al.)
“For the last few years, Rico has made some remarkable unique reliefs. Gray-lead. Out of these strange new materials that he has created. He transforms daily objects like an electric socket into a magic talisman”
Although Weber had moved on from being an assistant to developing his own art and living a life separate from Saint Phalle and Tinguely, unity continued to exist. Bloum Cardenas noted that the sudden death of Jean Tinguely in 1991 not only had a great impact on Weber but also brought him close again to Saint Phalle.
In early 2000 Weber traveled to Jerusalem to oversee the construction of Saint Phalle’s Noah’s Ark. At that point, Saint Phalle’s health had begun to deteriorate so Weber visited her in California one last time. Speaking of this last meeting, Cardenas said that Saint Phalle was Weber’s emotional protector and when she died, he no longer had her as his armor. Soon after, Rico Weber was diagnosed with cancer. He fought hard to get better so he could continue creating his art. “I hope to be able to work the maximum few years that I have left to live. (Rico Weber. Hugentobler, 2006).
In Hugentobler’s documentary, many colleagues and friends commented on Weber’s spirit and his positivity, as they did not know that he had cancer until the very end of his battle. Towards the end of the disease, Weber made several self-recorded videos describing his physical and emotional state. A video clip from the documentary shows a note Weber left on his bed the last time before entering the hospital:
Dated: September 2, 2004
I will surely come back OK. I still have a lot to do!! Rico
Rico Weber passed away on October 8, 2004. Weber’s archives were donated, as requested by him, to the Museum of Art and History, Fribourg.
Posthumously, there has been a renewed interest in Rico Weber’s art. His creations and his spirit have been celebrated in a number of art exhibitions, most in his home country of Switzerland:
2021 Body Double, Galerie Maria Bernheim, London
2020 Silver Dust, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2019 Cruise Kidman Kubrick, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2018 Colors on Speed, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2018 Interiors, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2018 Rico Weber, an homage, Ortsmuseum Hinwil, Hinwil
2017 Swiss Pop, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva
2017 Retral Images, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2017 Beauty & Room, PALP Festival, Sion, Switzerland