Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002) created two large-scale sculptures that are located outside of the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego. They are the Le Poète et sa muse (Poet and Muse, 1998) and Nikigator (2001). Established in 1978, the museum’s name, Mingei, translates to “art of the people” in Japanese. International folk art, craft, and design are celebrated in its collection with the playful deconstruction and re-contextualization of everyday objects. American artist Martha Longenecker (1920 – 2013) was founder of the Museum and close friends with Saint Phalle. Born in Oklahoma City, Longenecker attended UCLA and later the Claremont Graduate School. She then completed post-graduate research in Japan, studying ceramics under the auspices of Shōji Hamada and Tatsuzō Shimaoka. From 1955 – 1990, Longenecker was professor emeritus of art at San Diego State University.
Le Poète et sa muse officially entered Mingei’s collection in 1999 as a gift from Francis and Harvey White. It represents a male poet holding a female muse on his shoulders. The stout body ultimately undergoes a metamorphosis – male arms gradually transition into a voluptuous female body with wings. This anthropomorphic process is commonly applied to deities and forces of nature in ancient civilizations. Consisting of glass, stones, glass, and polyester, the monumental sculpture pays homage to artistic creative processes and inspiration. The eupeptic and insouciant Nikigator sits atop polyurethane foam. Drawing heavily from Antonio Gaudí’s Parc Güell in Barcelona, Spain, the brightly-colored alligator sculpture consists of clay tiles encrusted with mosaic glass and resin tumbled stones. Its shiny, elongated exterior with exaggerated features measures 83” x 98” x 332″ and invites visitor interaction from children of all ages.
Saint Phalle was not only represented in the Mingei’s collection, she also became one of its most important benefactors. In 1998, the Museum organized a Niki de Saint Phalle Retrospective entitled Insider /Outsider World Inspired Art which was sponsored by Audrey Geisel. The exhibition was funded in part by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Program. Curated by Janice Parente, it consisted of approximately 100 paintings, reliefs, graphics, and maquettes, including a nineteen-foot Guardian Angel hanging in the Museum’s rotunda. The exhibition also extended outside and showcased eight monumental animal sculptures designed in collaboration with Swiss architect Mario Botta for a Noah’s Art Park in Jerusalem. Insider /Outsider World Inspired Art was considered to be the most extensive representation of Saint Phalle’s work in the United States.
Poet and Muse, 1998 and Nikigator, 2001. © Jewel Goode, 2014. All Rights Reserved.