Finding Joy In Life And Art

This month the Niki Charitable Art Foundation is marking the occasion of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 90th birthday!!!

Joy is a major subject in Saint Phalle’s art that is rarely addressed, if only to make a dismissed reference to it being whimsical, which it is not. 

I used to think there was a need to provoke, to attack religion, and the generals. And then I understood that there is nothing more shocking than joy.” 

Catherine Francblin, renowned art historian, author and biographer of Niki de Saint Phalle, explored this topic in her essay Niki de Saint Phalle: The Joy Factory, published in the Beaux-Arts Mons exhibition catalog of 2018 titled Niki de Saint Phalle: Here everything is possible. Francblin is the first and only author to write a scholarly biography on Saint Phalle: Niki de Saint Phalle. La Révolte à l’oeuvre (Editions Hazan, 2013).

clock, Nana, flowers, heart, plate, dream machine  and the calligraphy in the artist's famous style saying "I  would like to give you everything"
I would like to give you everything, 1970. Photo: © Niki Charitable Art Foundation

The idea of joyous art was first discovered by Saint Phalle in 1955 during her visit to Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain. 

That day, my life changed. I told myself that one day, I too would build a garden of happiness. I saw the mothers with their children, and felt an air of freedom; the people seemed to have left the worries of their daily lives far behind. Adults and children were there in an atmosphere of dreams, and of joy, and I thought that one day, I too would make a garden like that.” 

Francblin explained that even from Saint Phalle’s early days as an artist, she had a desire to make her art for the public; to connect spectators with her art and with her life.

Saint Phalle went through a long creative process and several phases of creation to expel her anger: her infamous Shooting Paintings, followed by her figurative assemblages made of toys and creepy imagery, such as BirthsBrides and Têtes.  Francblin noted that even though Saint Phalle was performing the violent act of shooting at her Tirs, there was still a sense of positivity for the crowd that was watching, sometimes participating in the event.

Having been a long-time rebel with a rifle, and after a long career in art, I am giving something back to society. I want to bring people joy." 

This is the time when she started creating her first Nanas. Francblin described Niki’s Nanas in her essay: ‘They demonstrate a solidarity between the different moments of her evolution and allow us to understand the manifestation of joy in her work as the fruit of having conquered the painful, oppressive feelings that brought her desire to fly high in the sky crashing down.’ 

Joy is expressed in Niki de Saint Phalle’s art through many ways; monumental artwork, colors, curves, arabesque, dance. The use of color is one of the first things that one notices about Niki de Saint Phalle’s art. As Francblin stated ‘…colour has always been a part of the artist’s basic arsenal; it is one of her primary resources in the manufacture of joy.’ 

La Femme et L’Oiseau Fontaine, 1967-1988. Installed at La Petite Escalère. Photo © DALiM  via Christies.com

Niki de Saint Phalle created art that was large, loud, bursting with colors as equally as it was containing layers of details, symbolism, and secrets. She chose joy to be at the forefront of her artistry; turning sometimes serious subjects into playful experiences.

Saint Phalle also used her colorful style to address various social, political, and environmental issues that she was passionate about. One of these causes was raising awareness about AIDS during the height of the virus’ impact globally. For Saint Phalle it started on a personal level when people she loved were dying all around her from the disease. AIDS was a topic that spread fear and death as the world faced this new and unknown virus.

As Saint Phalle’s granddaughter Bloum Cardenas explained, ‘In the mid 80’s condoms had been out of use for some time and were not easy to reintroduce to the public. Saint Phalle tried endlessly to create colorful ones to make their use “fun”. The condom designs then became sculptures called Obelisks from which Saint Phalle made trilogies. The idea took a life of its own within her art, reflecting a certain sense of humor.’

Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1986 illustrative book AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands was published in English, French, German, Japanese, Italian and Romansh. Saint Phalle used her vivid colors and playful images to teach the world about AIDS in a simple yet informative way.

Excerpt from AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands. Verlag Bucher (1986)

Catherine Francblin further examined Saint Phalle’s various artworks and their symbolization of joy. She noted Saint Phalle’s fondness for arabesques, her preference for rounded shapes, and her love of trees.

Francblin pointed out the arabesque form of Saint Phalle’s Nanas with arms outstretched and one leg up in a twirling-like position and the roundness of their curves serve to express joy, happiness, and sensuality of the female body. Saint Phalle’s upside down Nanas look as if they are doing a hand stand or somersault. Francblin compared this to an acrobat, reminiscent of a circus, creating joy in nostalgia.

Photos: NCAF Archives

The monumentality of her works, and of the Nanas in particular, makes an essential contribution to turning the art of Saint Phalle into a kingdom of joy. Like love, joy touches the hyperbolic; it grows us, augments us, and increases our sense of expansion and power.’ (Francblin, C. The Joy Factory)

Due to the major impact that visiting Gaudí’s Park Güell had on her art, it is apparent that Saint Phalle created sculptures with outdoor display in mind. Throughout her time living in France many of the sculptures could be found sprawling in the grass. During her time in California she created many sculptures and installed them in public venues throughout San Diego County.

In 2006, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation worked with the Atlanta Botanical Garden to bring a major outdoor art exhibition of Niki de Saint Phalle to the City. Niki in the Garden was a six month exhibition featuring approximately 30 of Saint Phalle’s life size sculptures that visitors could enjoy in harmony with nature. The exhibition drew 225,000 visitors during its installation.

Nana Maison II, 1966-1987. Installed at Atlanta Botanical Garden, 2006. Image by Holly Smith via Flickr.com

The show then traveled to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago in 2007, and continued to St. Louis where it was shown at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2008.

What is glorious about her is the way in which she engaged with the social and therefore the political terrain, through work that is far removed from any realistic perspective. The joy that electrifies, the joy that defies gravity, the joy that energizes, the joy that connects and subtly confronts power, and turns her art into a realized utopia.’ (Francblin,C. The Joy Factory)

Niki de Saint Phalle with Lili ou Tony, 1966.  Photo © E. Hubert
I felt my new message was to give joy. […] I feel that what I’m supposed to do is bring joy into people’s hearts. And if people tell me that they’ve had 5 minutes of joy looking at my art, it makes me feel good an it makes me feel that my art is worthwhile. 

Niki de Saint Phalle, Interview with Kazunori Tsujikawa and Yoshiro Toriumi, Sankei Shimbun Newspaper: June 2000

Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank Catherine Francblin for her insight and help with this blog.

Happy Birthday Niki!

GianCarlo Montebello: A Life for Art and Jewelry

GianCarlo Montebello, source:act-it.org

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation is honoring the life and work of designer, craftsman, and jeweler GianCarlo Montebello, who passed away this September in Milan.

Montebello was born in Milan in 1941, and the Italian designer remained in his beloved city throughout his life. He attended the Art School at Sforza Castle, which was followed by a 3 year working relationship with influential and visionary industrial designers, Dino Gavina and Maria Simoncini. Montebello worked in their studio, meeting various craftsman and architects that helped him discover his other artistic interests, such as jewelry design.

In 1967 Montebello founded GEM Montebello, creating high quality and affordable limited edition multiples of jewelry in collaboration with over 50 artists. Some of the famed artists he worked with included Pol Bury, Rafael Soto, César, Lucio Fontana, Arman, Matta, and Man Ray. 

Montebello’s relationship with Man Ray was vital to his development as a jeweler and the two worked together until Man Ray’s death in 1976. When Montebello worked with artists he “always learned by listening and watching, it is learning with the eyes and the ears to progress”. (GianCarlo Montebello interview by Philippe Ungar, 09/18/2017)

LeTrou ring by Man Ray an GEM Montebello, 1970. Photo: Christie’s

Another one of these long standing collaborations he formed was with Niki de Saint Phalle. The two were introduced by friend and fellow artist, Fausta Squatriti at an exhibition in Milan celebrating the 10th anniversary of New Realism. Of his first meeting with Saint Phalle, Montebello described it as “Beautiful, completely natural, as if we already knew each other.” (Ungar, 2017)

Montebello and Saint Phalle created many pieces together throughout the 1970’s, the first being a Nana made in gold, of which 12 signed and numbered copies were created. Earrings, necklaces, brooches, and cufflinks followed.

Bouche (necklace), 1973. Photo: © Antonia Mulas
“With Niki, she wanted a collaboration, she didn't want a passive person. The unique pieces were of course made by Niki, with the help of her assistants. But when she was making multiples, or jewelry in small series, which can be considered multiples, she wanted the opinion of the person who was working with her on one of her ideas…She wasn't imposing anything, she wanted that other person to participate because it brought the play to life, it wasn't a reproduction, it was authentic.”

From: Ungar Interview, 2007

Le Poet et sa muse, 1974/2013. Photo: Louisa Guinness Gallery
Serpent (cufflinks), 1971. Photo source: Pinterest
Assemblage (necklace), 1974. Photo: Aaron Serafino

Saint Phalle had plans to collaborate with Montebello on more projects but that was never realized due to her death in 2002.

GEM Montebello was closed in 1978 after his jewelry was stolen at a public exhibition in Italy. Montebello described this experience as “…so strong that I disappeared to recover from this shock…” (Ungar Interview, 2017) The jeweler then focused on making his own designs, the first of which he named “Punto Colore”. These creations focused on the mobility of the jewelry and led to many more beautiful and different pieces which have been shown all over the world in galleries and museums alike.

POIGNET bracelet by GianCarlo Montebello, 2002. Photo: Archimagazine
“I’m not an art critic. It is the experience of a person who has always worked with the material that becomes jewel, and these jewels are designed to be worn, and not to be displayed in a shop window"

From: Ungar Interview, 2007

GianCarlo Montebello was a master at turning artists’ visions into wearable art and his exquisite designs are evident of this.

Le CYCLOP: Then and Now

HeadMonstreLe Cyclop – these are all names for Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely’s monumental sculpture residing in the woods of Milly-La-Forêt, a commune outside of Paris where he lived. 

In October 2020 Le Cyclop will be closed for approximately one year in order to complete a critical and large-scale restoration program. The focus is on the 325 m² of mirrored surface created by Niki de Saint Phalle, along with the fountain system, and the Hommage aux Déportés,  a wagon created by artist Eva Aeppli.

Described by Swedish museum director Pontus Hulten as Tinguely’s lifelong dream project, Le Cyclop weighs 350 tons and measures 22.3 meters (approximately 74 feet) in height (Le rêve de Jean. Film byLouise Faure and Anne Julien, Quatre A Quatre Films, 2005). The creative process of Le Cyclop began with drawings in 1969 and took more than 20 years to complete. Tinguely built it with many other artists, making it a true collaborative effort of dedication and an inventive work of art.

Le Cyclop, 1976

Jean Tinguely was born in Fribourg, Switzerland and spent his childhood in Basel. He was involved in various political movements from a young age and identified himself as an anarchist (Canal,Virginie. Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop. Paris, CNAP, 2007).

In the 1950’s Tinguely moved to France and met Niki de Saint Phalle who would become his partner both romantically and artistically.

Both Tinguely and Saint Phalle went through phases of destruction as art in their careers; Saint Phalle with her “shooting paintings” and Tinguely with his explosive mechanical machines, as exemplified by Homage to New York (1960). Then came the period of creation. Each of them envisioned monumental sculpture parks; Tinguely with Le Cyclop and Saint Phalle with The Tarot Garden. 

In the 1960’s as Tinguely created bigger, more intricate machines, he learned how to incorporate welding, scrap metal and the use of tension in his art. Tinguely would find scrap metal and other materials in junk yards to make his inventions.

Tinguely and Saint Phalle were also interested in constructing art that allowed spectator interaction. In 1962 both artists participated in an experimental exhibition titled Dylaby. With the help of museum director Willem Sandberg and curator Ad Petersen, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam turned into a labyrinth of art installations that could be experienced by museum visitors. 

After creating another interactive and monumental art piece, HON, with Niki de Saint Phalle in 1966, Tinguely decided it was time to turn his dream of Le Cyclop into reality. Along with many drawings and sketches, Tinguely and fellow Swiss sculptor Bernhard Luginbühl created a maquette titled Gigantoleum (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007). Tinguely envisioned it as an interactive park. After failing to secure patrons for funding, this maquette developed into Head, with the help of Saint Phalle. Tinguely remarked “It’s a Niki de Saint Phalle idea above all.” (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

Model of Gigantoleum / Kulturstation I, 1968, source: Facebook/Artinside
Maquette pour Le Cyclop – La Tête, 1970, source: Tumblr

Tinguely and Saint Phalle purchased the land for Le Cyclop in the area where they were living at the time, Milly-La-Forêt. It was inexpensive because there was a restriction against building on the land. Tinguely met with the mayor and was given unofficial approval to begin construction. Saint Phalle and Tinguely gave the property to their friend and art patron, Jean de Menil because, as Saint Phalle explained:

Once we'd bought the land, we decided that we didn't want to be the owners of it, because we were going to ask other artists to take part in the project"

From: Jean Tinguely, Le Cyclop, 2007

The first crew of artists and friends that began work on Le Cyclop along with Jean Tinguely, were Rico Weber, Bernhard LuginbühlPaul Wiedmer, Seppi Imhof and, of course, Niki de Saint Phalle. Weber, who assisted Tinguely and Saint Phalle on many of their projects, became an artist in his own right, primarily with his graphite reliefs. Tinguely funded the project entirely on his own which allowed for “no bureaucracy, no external authorization and no financial gain involved in creating it”(Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

Pontus Hulten describes Le Cyclop as “the realization of a big anarchistic utopia” (Le rêve de Jean, 2005)Tinguely decided to build Le Cyclop around four large oak trees because he wanted it to be hidden from view and the neighboring villages. He even buried heifer liver and lungs to stimulate forest growth, as recommended to him by a local forester (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007). The first arduous task was clearing a pathway into the forest for delivery of the tons and tons of scrap metal that was purchased from a local scrap metal merchant named Duperche. Next a layer of concrete was laid as the foundation for Le Cyclop and railway sleepers were erected like pillars to construct the varying platform levels.

Tinguely quickly realized that he needed a skilled welder to create his massive Head. He placed an ad in a Swiss newspaper, asking for a person who “can weld, play Swiss cards, and was not afraid of heights” (Le rêve de Jean, 2005). Seppi Imhof replied via postcard and arrived in Milly-La-Forêt in 1971. Imhof came to be known as Tinguely’s right hand man. The small crew worked day and night building Le Cyclop piece by piece while working their way up into the trees.

Le Cyclop early construction. Photos: Association Le Cyclop

There was a great camaraderie amongst the artists; they worked, ate, and practically lived at the site. As noted in the book Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, many of the artists expressed that Jean Tinguely enjoyed the collaboration immensely. 

Besides the small crew that began on this journey with him, he also invited many other artists to participate. There are artworks within Le Cyclop from artists Eva AeppliArmanPhilippe BouveretCésarPierre Marie LejeuneJean-Pierre Raynaud, Larry RiversJesús Rafael Soto, and Daniel Spoerri (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

In 1975, Niki de Saint Phalle wrote, directed, filmed, and starred in the movie Un réve plus long que la nuit at Le Cyclop. Many of the artists that were building Le Cyclop can be found in the film. 

Tinguely was able to keep his monster hidden in the forest for several years. Then in the 1980’s, vandals began entering the property, destroying parts of Le Cyclop. In an attempt to deter them, Tinguely created trap doors and dead-end stairways (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007). These measures were not successful and Tinguely abandoned his project for several years. Saint Phalle recalls this period of time:

The Head slept… Jean had no desire to finish the Head at that particular moment."

In 1985 Tinguely proposed to move Le Cyclop to a new location, a very expensive and very difficult endeavor not favored by government officials. Soon after, he had multiple heart attacks resulting in a three week coma. During this time Saint Phalle was trying to convince the French Ministry of Culture to take ownership of Le Cyclop. In 1987 the French government agreed, which allowed for financial support in the installation of electricity, water, and fences to protect the property (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

CNAP (Centre National des Arts Plastiques), a public institution that is a branch of the Ministry of Culture was given the responsibility for Le Cyclop conservation, security, and public access to the site. The organization also manages moral and property rights issues.

Covering Le Cyclop entirely in mirrors was Saint Phalle’s idea. It took her almost ten years to decide what materials she would use. By this time Saint Phalle was known for her use of bright colors and beautiful mosaics but she stated that use of such bright hues would overpower the beauty of the surrounding nature (Le rêve de Jean, 2005). Thousands of small pieces of mirror were applied to the face of Le Cyclop, glistening in the sun. 

Various parts of Le Cyclop are also specific homages to Tinguely’s friends and artistic inspirations that had died. A flat, square pond was constructed at the top of the sculpture, honoring Tinguely’s friend Yves Klein. A chocolate grinder was placed at the entrance of Le Cyclop-a tribute to another friend and artist Marcel Duchamp. A relief was built as a fake concrete door covered with wooden elements to honor artist Louise Nevelson. And Meta-Merzbau, a metal sculpture, was inspired by artist Kurt Schwitter’s piece titled Merzbau (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

f.l.t.r. Hommage à Yves Klein by Jean Tinguely, source: AKG images
Méta-Merzbau by Seppi Imhof, ca. 1974
Hommage à Louise Nevelson by Bernhard Luginbühl, 1974
Broyeuse de chocolate by Marcel Duchamp, 1977, source: Association Le Cyclop

Jean Tinguely never saw the completion of his masterpiece in the forest; he died in August 1991. Saint Phalle made certain that Le Cyclop was completed and, in 1994, it was inaugurated by French President Francois Mitterand and Jacques Toubon, the Minister of Culture.

Letter from Niki de Saint Phalle to President François Mitterrand
Journal de Geneve, 25 May 1994. source: NCAF Archives

In 1988 the Association Le Cyclop was created to undertake the daily maintenance of Le Cyclop, develop its cultural and artistic program, and create a website for the public to discover it. The association consists of director François Taillade, head of visitor relations Fleur Colombini, administrator Jean-Baptiste Clerc, as well as Fatima Fonseca and Thierry Ruda, who are in charge of reception and technical support.

In 2012 the Association Le Cyclop began branching out into the contemporary art world. It has helped artists in the conception artistic research combining music and visual arts, collaborative artist creations, and art works relating to nature. These three areas of work are very relevant to Le Cyclop site. Artists’ residences, contemporary art exhibitions, performances, and lectures encourage the merging of creativity and research. Throughout the open season at Le Cyclop, screenings of artists’ videos and documentary films are shown in a converted container close to the sculpture. 

Since its official opening in 1994 Le Cyclop has not undergone any major renovations. Aging, weather conditions and the humidity of the forest have caused the reflective element of the mirrors to disappear and, since 2014, the face of Le Cyclop has been covered by a protective net to prevent its mirrors from falling.

Photo: Association Le Cyclop

The year-long tremendous restoration project includes many organizations that will help with the extensive amount of work. In 2012, the CNAP signed a partnership with the LRMH (Historical Monuments Research Laboratory). This department of the Ministry of Culture is dedicated to research on the preservation of historical monuments, buildings and objects. In order to identify the most suitable materials for the restoration of the Face aux miroirs, the LRMH carried out artificial aging tests in the laboratory on several types of mirrors. The mirror selected for its resistance to climatic conditions after testing, is produced by the Saint-Gobain company. These mirrors were donated to the CNAP in the form of sponsorship in kind. The 3D mirror survey was provided by 3DO Reality Capture. These measures will allow the CNAP to remain faithful to the cutting work carried out under the supervision of Niki de Saint Phalle during the installation of the mirrors between 1987-1991. All of these elements enabled the GFTK architects selected for the restoration to carry out the preliminary studies of the project.

The cost of Le Cyclop restoration project is approximately 1.4 million Euros. Some of this has been collected through crowdfunding, fundraising opportunities, a generous partnership with Saint-Gobain who offers the mirrors, a french bank (Crédit Agricole) and the most substantial amount financed by the Ministry of Culture. Soon with CNAP having the financial ability to restore Le Cyclop, Jean Tinguely’s masterpiece will once again come to life in woods of Milly-La-Forêt, bringing joy and wonderment to all its visitors. 

Photo: Fabienne Villegle, 1997

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank the CNAP Director of Collections, Aude Bodet, and the Director of Association Le Cyclop, François Taillade, for their insight and help with this blog.

The Spirit of Coming Together

“I call the sculpture Coming Together because that is what we must achieve as individuals and as a city.” 

 Excerpt of Niki de Saint Phalle’s speech for Coming Together Dedication Ceremony, read in her absence by Martha Longenecker, 25 October 2001. Source: NCAF Archives

Coming Together is a public art project that was supported by various San Diego agencies; the Port of San Diego Public Art Program, the Public Art Partnership, the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, and the San Diego Convention Center Corp. After failing to come to an agreement on a preceding proposal by Los Angeles based artist Nancy Rubins, board members agreed that Saint Phalle’s artistic style and legacy was the perfect choice for a new public art project in San Diego. 

Once she agreed, Saint Phalle looked at various locations in San Diego County to build her art piece. During this time, the San Diego Convention Center began its expansion. There was a location available that became the site for the project. The project was funded by the Port of San Diego and constructed in 2001.

One of Saint Phalle’s longtime assistants, Marcelo Zitelli, recalls how Saint Phalle came upon the idea of creating Coming Together. Saint Phalle had created a small model in her studio in France in 1988 as part of her series called “Skinnys”. This sculpture series, started in the early 1980’s, signifies Saint Phalle’s personal struggle with emphysema and sickness. Whereas the “Skinnys” represent the airy, light and relieved sensation that her lungs could not achieve.

When my lungs were severely damaged by working in polyester, air came into my life. I had to learn how to breathe again, breathe deeply. The Skinnys reflected that change.

Niki de Saint Phalle in Insider/Outsider World Inspired Art. Exhibition Catalogue. San Diego: Mingei International Museum, 1998.

With her move to San Diego, the model was transported to her local warehouse where it sat on a shelf unnoticed for many years. During one of the times Saint Phalle and Zitelli were visiting the warehouse, she saw the unfinished model and took it to her studio in La Jolla.

When she was commissioned by the City of San Diego, Saint Phalle decided this model would be a perfect fit for the project and she wanted to create an enlarged version of it.

A colorful drawing of the sculpture titled "Coming Together" with a flower, and eye, an arrow, a dancing Nana and a question mark surrounding it. The signature of the artist is below the design. This is the invitation to the dedication ceremony of the public sculpture.
Invitation for dedication ceremony of Coming Together, 2001
The sculpture I have proposed to the Convention Center is the image of one person in all his or her magnificence and joy, which is represented by its brightly colored glass flickering in the sunlight, I also show the darker image of the self in the gray and black tones. 

There is the feminine side with the longer hair and the masculine side. It is the coming together, the integration of the self.


It is a western interpretation of ying yang. The windows in the head allow us to see nature and the sea, representing an awareness of our surroundings. The mirrors will give, like the wheel of life, a sense of perpetual movement. Each time of day will reflected in the mirrors. The sunset, the sunrise.


This sculpture also represents my personal struggle to integrate the different sides of my personality. This is a challenge we all face.


A city also needs a “Coming Together”, an integration of all its elements. What better site than the convention center as the soul of the city unified.

Niki de Saint Phalle, 2001. Source: NCAF Archives

Coming Together is the largest “Skinny” Saint Phalle made, standing at 30 feet in height and weighing 10 tons. It was constructed in 3 pieces and bolted to the ground when it was installed at its permanent location.

Construction and Installation of Coming Together, 2001. Photos © Lech Juretko

The sculpture was built by fabricator La Paloma Fine Arts and design materials were then applied by local artisan company Art Mosaic Inc. The owner of Art Mosaic Inc, Lech Juretko worked closely with Saint Phalle from 1994. He described the abundance of materials that were used on Coming Together. There is a myriad of colors; upwards of 70 various shades of glass and mirror, as well as 6-7 different kinds of stones and rocks purchased from all parts of the world. There are fossils, turquoise, pink quartz rocks from Madagascar, and even a green Agate slab that Juretko brought from his home country of Poland.

Niki de Saint Phalle humorously said of her vast use of the design materials:  “I think I’m the most expensive sculptor alive because I’m using all these materials.”  (Niki de Saint Phalle-Coming Together. Dir. Nick Nordquist. KPBS in association with Niki de Saint Phalle, 2002. Documentary).

Niki de Saint Phalle and Art Mosaic Inc. artisan Lech Juretko, 2001. Photo: © Lech Juretko

Creating Public Art has always been important for Niki de Saint Phalle. Her large scale artworks have been accomplished through various collaborations. Saint Phalle understood the necessity of having a strong, talented team to help achieve her artistic vision.ver New York expresses:

Saint Phalle’s sculptures are colorful, joyful, and meant to allow interaction between audience and art, yet there are also powerful reasons and purpose to them. Amongst these are religions conflicts, health pandemics, race, gender, and politics. 

Golemwas built in 1971-1972 as an artistic playground in Jerusalem. Amidst the religious war occurring in the city, the park turned into a safe haven for children to play with each other, regardless of faith.

Golem, 1971-1972 Photos: © Leonard Bezzola Estate

1968 was also the year of the birth of Saint Phalles’ inflatable Nanas. These The artist was also very involved in creating awareness and providing education to the public about AIDS with a book she wrote and illustrated with the help of Swiss immunologist and AIDS specialist Dr. Silvio Barandun. The book titled AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands was published in 1986 in the United States and then was translated into German, French, Italian, and Japanese.

The significance of Coming Together was magnified with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The original date set for the dedication ceremony was September 14, 2001, but this had to be delayed until October 25th. Due to her deteriorating health, Saint Phalle was unable to attend the ceremony and asked her longtime friends, Martha Longenecker and Ted Tourtelotte, speak in her honor. San Diego mayor Dick Murphy stated in his speech during the October 25th dedication ceremony:

“In light of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and the subsequent coming together of America in unity, we could not have picked a better name for this particular sculpture or a more appropriate sculpture in the history of San Diego or America.”

Excerpt of Mayor Dick Murphy’s speech for Coming Together Dedication Ceremony, 25 October 2001. Source: NCAF Archives

Niki de Saint Phalle, 1987. Photo: NCAF Archives

Besides Coming Together in downtown San Diego, there are also three large mosaic sculptures at the San Diego Waterfront Park (SealBaseball Player #19, and Serpent Tree). The Sun God sculpture is a 14 foot colorful bird that sits upon a 15 foot concrete arch, amongst trees and grass at the University of San Diego, CA.  It was Saint Phalle’s first outdoor sculpture in America, commissioned in 1983. At the Kit Carson Park in Escondido, CA stands Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. It is an ode to the legendary Amazon queen Califia and the artists’ last major project before her death in 2002.

Installed at the UC San Diego campus, La Jolla, California

In the face of the current global pandemic, the humanity, kindness and support people have shown each other is inspiring. Niki de Saint Phalle knew the importance of forming a united front, of people joining together and forgetting their differences. Coming Together, embodies Saint Phalle’s belief in the unification of communities and of balance within ourselves.

Niki de Saint Phalle And New York

Many Niki de Saint Phalle fans may not realize the deep connection she has with New York City, and how this influenced both her upbringing and her artistic career.

Although Saint Phalle was born in France, she spent most of her childhood and adolescent years in New York City. The family lived in the affluent Upper East Side neighborhood of the city, specifically East 88th Street and Park Avenue, while summers were spent on Long Island or Connecticut. Saint Phalle wrote of her constant moves:

“New spaces, new trees, furniture, smells NO ROOTS. Change became a part of my interior landscape. How can one grow roots in New York City which lies on a bed of rock?"

 Traces. Acatos (1999)

After a short stint at a strict Catholic school, from which she was expelled, she attended the Brearley School for Girls. Saint Phalle described Brearley as “a progressive school that changed my life…, “ further explaining that “At Brearley I became a feminist. We were indoctrinated with the idea that women could and should achieve.”  Traces. Acatos (1999)

It is at this school that Saint Phalle met Jackie Matisse, granddaughter of French artist Henri Matisse, with whom she would remain friends with throughout her lifetime. In the book Traces, Saint Phalle recalled many memories of her adolescence spent walking in Central Park, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, and standing in front of the snake exhibit at the zoo, shaking, terrified of the slithering reptiles.

8-year-old Niki in Central Park. Source: Traces, 1999

Saint Phalle’s time at Brearley school ended after two short years, when she was dismissed for painting red fig leaves on the schools’ Greek statues. 

“My own violence is linked to my personal history, energy and temperament, and the city I grew up in?"

Traces. Acatos (1999)

At 16 Niki de Saint Phalle did some modeling. Soon after she met Harry Mathews, an old friend of her older brother John, and they eloped within a years’ time; she was 18 and he was 19.

The Newlyweds, Harry and Niki Mathews, 1949. Source: NCAF Archives

In 1951 Saint Phalle had her first child, Laura, and settled into life as a housewife and stay-at- home mother. After a period of extensive traveling, during which time she had her second child, Philip, the family decided to live in Paris. The decision to become expats came during a time of McCarthyism and segregation in America. In Paris, Saint Phalle familiarized herself with the works of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline.

“The promise of the new suburban American life was not exciting for Harry and me, far from it. The prospect of heading out into the world and away from America was wonderful for us."

Traces. Acatos (1999)

In 1960, Saint Phalle decided to fully emerge herself in her artwork. She separated from Harry Mathews, who became the primary caretaker of their children, and eventually she began living with Swiss Kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, in Paris.

Tinguely and Saint Phalle moved into the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1962 and then again from 1964 to 1965. During her stays, Saint Phalle created an abundance of work including her shooting paintings, known as Tirs , as well as her early Nanas.

Niki de Saint Phalle at the Chelsea Hotel, Photo: © Yves Debraine;
Leto ou La Crucifixion (The Crucifixion), c. 1965 

One of Saint Phalle’s Tirs was made specifically with New York in mind as the title Pirodactyl over New York expresses:

Niki de Saint Phalle: My Art-My Dreams. Edited by Carla Schulz-Hoffman, Prestel-Verlag, 2008; Pirodactyl over New York. 1962

In 1962, Saint Phalle opened her first one-woman, self-titled exhibition in New York at the Alexandre Iolas Gallery. It included a shooting gallery, Homage to Le Facteur Cheval, where museum visitors had a chance to fire at one of her Tirs. Iolas was a legendary Greek gallerist who owned multiple galleries, in New York and in Europe (Paris, Milan, Athens, Rome, Geneva, and Madrid) from the 1950’s to the late 1970’s. He discovered and shaped the careers of many artists such as Andy Warhol, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, and Takis. Saint Phalle and Iolas had a long standing, working relationship during which she held many of her exhibitions at his New York Gallery.

“There was Alexander Iolas my gallery dealer who really believed in my work and welcomed all the changes I made. He was very important to me, the man who discovered the surrealists and believed in them. He bought my work and gave me 17 shows; he gave me enough money to live on when my work didn’t sell and he said ‘I would be upset if you were selling, it would be a very bad sign, it’s good this resistance’."

Niki de Saint Phalle interview, no date. Source: NCAF Archives

Niki de Saint Phalle prepping a Tir at the Iolas Gallery, New York 1962. Photo: © Hans Namuth

Saint Phalle returned to New York after she and Tinguely collaborated on a major sculptural art project titled Le Paradis Fantastique, for the Universal Expo 1967 in Montreal Canada, When the expo concluded, the sculptures were dismantled, and next shown at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. They were then moved to the Conservatory Garden Lawn in Central Park, New York, where they were exhibited for one year.

New York Magazine, July 1968. Photo: Jill Krementz
“In New York, per se, you know, she was well from the time of the big installation in Central Park in 1968, the one that originated in Montreal and then came to New York that was quite an event in New York. People always remembered that and so Niki had that indelible presence always, even when she wasn’t exhibiting. A good critical reception always I think."

Joseph Rickards, Director at Gimpel NY. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 27 September 2010

1968 was also the year of the birth of Saint Phalles’ inflatable Nanas. These colorful and fun pool toys were first produced by Marlo Plastics and distributed by Saint Phalle’s sister, Elizabeth, who was married to art dealer Larry Rubin. The inflatables appeared in the pages of Vogue magazine in April 1968.

Photo: © Bert Stern for Vogue 1968; Children with Inflatable Nanas at Le Paradis Fantastique, Conservatory Garden Central Park, New York, May 1968. Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust.

Saint Phalle had many shows at the Gimpel Weitzenhoffer Gallery; both in New York and in London. Here Joseph Rickards, director of the Gimpel Weitzenhoffer Gallery, remembers Saint Phalle’s exhibition Monumental Projects at the gallery, in 1979:

Source: NCAF Archives
“It was a show with real impact, we kept the gallery, as I 
recall, fairly dark with the sculptures spotlighted and they just had this beautiful, crystal appearance. They were luminous, magical when you walked in the door; partly because they were very different from everything else being done in New York at that time. I mean, there was just nothing else like it, Niki was her own person. You know, so many artists are parts of schools and they relate to other artists, well Niki was her own person, and doing her own thing, and you had that sense very clearly when you walked into the exhibition."

Joseph Rickards, Director at Gimpel NY. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 27 September 2010

New York had a significant impact on Saint Phalle sharing her artistry to the American audience. As her daughter Laura Duke states in a 2011 interview: 

“Because she grew up in New York so the monumental dimension of New York is really important, the more energy, the more the spirit of business and American values ​​which are very far from French values ​​where you shouldn't make waves, you shouldn't be noticed and all that… So yeah if she hadn't grown up in America she would not have done her work, that’s clear."

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation is thrilled to work with MoMA PS1 in bringing Saint Phalle back to New York. Her art, her vision, her unique creativity will be renewed with long standing fans and will, undoubtedly, capture the interest of all fans alike. The MoMA PS1 exhibition Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life opens April 5th and runs until September 7th, 2020.

When polyester resin forms more than a sculpture: Niki de Saint Phalle and the Haligon workshop

Artist Niki de Saint Phalle squads on the floor at her studio in Soisy surrounded by colorful sculptures. She holds a brush in her right hand aiming to paint an element sculpture tiled "Profile" for "Fontaine Chateau-Chinon", a collaborative project with Jean Tinguely, located in France.
Photo: © Laurent Condominas
“I learned that when you work with good natured people, who are honest with their work, we strive to make the most of what we can do for them…with Niki we always move forward.”
Robert Haligon. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 12 July 2009

 

Niki de Saint Phalle had many “work families” throughout her artistic career.  The first of these, which also became one of the longest and most important working relationships she had, was with the Haligon family. 
Over a period of approximately 25 years, this family of artisans helped Saint Phalle create around 3,000 sculptures, from large scale outdoor pieces of art to smaller multiples.

The Haligon dynasty began in the 1800’s, starting with sculptor Luis Haligon. The family business was passed down generation to generation, until Robert Haligon took over in 1948 due to the death of his father.
The art studio which was originally located in Paris-Montparnasse, France was moved to Périgny-sur-Yerres. It was there that Robert Haligon, along with wife Arlette, evolved the techniques used by the generations that came before them. They began to reproduce, as well as enlarge sculptures.

The Haligons have four children who work in various capacities in the business; Olivier, Gerard, Marie, and Agnes. Gerard took over his parents’ workshop in 1994, while Olivier opened his own studio in Miami, Florida in 1998. Marie, the in-house painter at the studio since 1989, is a specialist in the reproduction of hand painting. Meanwhile the youngest sibling Agnes assists in the management of the workshop as well as the follow-up and maintenance of the technical documentation of the works.

Robert Haligon first saw the work of Saint Phalle at the 1967 Montreal World Expo. She had completed Paradis Fantastique with Jean Tinguely, which is a  set of nine monumental sculptures and six machines placed as a sculpture garden on the roof of the French Pavilion. Robert and Arlette Haligon had already embarked on the adventure of using laminated resin with artists César, Dubuffet, and Mirò. In that moment, the pair understood the interest and advantages that this new material could represent for Saint Phalle. Robert Haligon didn’t know it at the time, but later he would have the job of restoring these same sculptures in Stockholm.

Photo: Shunk-Kender © J Paul Getty Trust

In 1971 Saint Phalle set up a meeting with Robert Haligon at her studio. She asked Robert to make molds for three of her sculptures, originally patterned in clay, and he proposed to make them from resin instead of the more traditional plaster. Saint Phalle was very happy with the result and there began a collaboration that lasted for a quarter of a century.

Photo: © Laurent Condominas
“Working with Niki was always something intense. So whatever 
small thing, big thing, or personal thing it was intense and
extraordinary.”
Robert Haligon. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 12 July 2009

 

Saint Phalle kept the Haligons busy with constant projects; whether it be enlarging maquettes into life size sculptures or reproducing smaller sized sculpture editions, vases, etc. 

For the process of making editions, Saint Phalle created a sculpture in clay with which Robert could produce a mold and a prototype in plaster or resin. Saint Phalle painted the prototype that served as the sample piece for the reproduction of 8 to 12 more sculptures, in resin, with the same colors and design. It was important for her that the reproduction felt as though she herself made the piece. Therefore, Saint Phalle personally trained Marie Haligon, helping her understand the spirit, style, and requirements of the art. Saint Phalle trusted Marie Haligon and her remarkable skills to reproduce the painting style and colors that are so recognizably Saint Phalle’s.

Robert Haligon remembers that the work atmosphere with Saint Phalle was very harmonious and trusting. He explained that, because Saint Phalle was so very confident in his ability to execute her artistic vision, that there was very little need for communication or explanation. 

They would either work at his studio in Périgny-sur-Yerres or he would go to her studio. Models would be prepared and transported to his studio for the reproduction process. There were many updates and reports sent via faxes, adorned with Saint Phalle’s drawings and unique handwriting. Saint Phalle and the entire Haligon family became very close; she would lunch at Périgny-sur-Yerres. Their mealtime conversations ranged from typical work issues to more personal subjects, such as family, children and even politics.

Source: NCAF Archives

In terms of technique, Saint Phalle’s approach was always changing and improving. Robert Haligon recalls that Saint Phalle was not a fan of shiny paints. She liked to use Flashe because it dried with a matte finish. When he did reproductions for her, they had to be done in the same painted format. The outdoor sculptures, on the other hand, needed shiny paint because matte paint was destroyed very quickly when exposed to the corrosive agents of the atmosphere. Haligon remembers that she had to first get used to the idea of the outdoor sculptures being shiny. In time she decided “But you know what, the shiny looks good outdoors”. This was the start of her using mirrors on the outdoor sculptures because, as Saint Phalle said “Since it must be brilliant, it will be brilliant”.  As he explained it,  Saint Phalle was a person who was open to everything and she adjusted very well to the required techniques.

Photo: © Laurent Condominas

When Saint Phalle moved to the United States permanently, for health reasons their collaboration diminished but  their close relationship remained. Robert Haligon and his wife visited her in San Diego where they spent the time reminiscing about their years long collaborations and enjoyed the time with each other.

Robert Haligon collaborated with Saint Phalle on pieces such as the Stravinsky FountainChateau ChinonThe Serpent TreeTemple of All ReligionsRicardo Cat, and some smaller sculptures at the Tarot Garden.

When Gerard Haligon took over the family business, he assisted Saint Phalle with many sculptures as well. Amongst them were the Three Graces FountainGanesh,and the Rhinoceros.

Before leaving for Miami, Oliver Haligon also took part in fabricating Saint Phalle’s monumental works in resin, at his studio in Paris, that were then painted at Robert Haligon’s studio. Such was the case for Nana Bloum 6 meters.

The Gerard Haligon Studio, now named Art and Concept is the official restorer for Niki de Saint Phalle artworks. In March 2010, Gerard and Sylvie Haligon were awarded the title of master craftsman in crafts by the French Chamber of Trades and Crafts.

“She impressed the world by her tenacity, and her courage, and 
her willingness to make everything in the best way possible.”
Robert Haligon. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 12 July 2009

 

Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank the Haligon family for their insight and help with this blog.

A Monumental Dream

Niki de Saint Phalle looks into the camera as she paints the Nana figure attached to Reve de L'Oiseau. The artist wears a head scarf, white sweater and pants.
Source: NCAF Archives

"If I had to define myself it wouldn’t be as an artist but as an achiever of dreams"
Niki de Saint Phalle

 

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Niki de Saint Phalle beginning to build her first major permanent architectural venture, Le Rêve de L’Oiseau (The Bird’s Dream). This project consists of three sculpture houses, built in the Var region of the south of France, for her friend Rainer von Hessen. LeRêve de L’Oiseau was somewhat shrouded in mystery for a long time. Saint Phalle rarely spoke about the project as Hessen wanted to avoid public attention, allowing him to live there in privacy. Her archives held photos of the construction, under the obscure title 3 pavillons, literature was hard to find and mostly in French, and even the surrounding townsfolk initially had no idea what was being built on the property.

the three structures peek out from thick green trees up on a hillside
Source: Youtube © TV5MONDE / Rmn-Grand Palais, 2014

I have always had a dream of doing architectural things. 
It started with my sculptures getting bigger and bigger.”
Niki de Saint Phalle, The Miami Herald, March 1974

 

Rainer von Hessen and Niki de Saint Phalle met after he saw a photo of HON, the 1966 installation for Moderna Museet Stockholm, in a German magazine and was intrigued. Their collaborations started when Saint Phalle first designed the costumes and sets to Aristhophanes’s Lysistrata, directed by Hessen (then known under the stage name Diez). Thereafter, Hessen co-authored and directed her play ICH, which was performed at the Staatstheater Kassel in 1968.

Hessen approached Saint Phalle with an idea the same year: “I wanted to build myself a summer retreat. […] I wanted, instead of living in a closed house with everything under one roof, rather to walk through nature in order to get from one room to the next.” 

The concept of the three houses was born: a living space, a kitchen, and an “artsy” outhouse. First sketches and models were created in 1968, and elements from the set designs of ICH, as well as Last Night I had a Dream and were applied. Later, Saint Phalle and Hessen assembled their team that helped make The Bird’s Dream come true, among them Jean Tinguely, Rico Weber and Gilles Margo-Duclot.

To make these fantastical houses Saint Phalle and Hessen covered the basic structures that Hessen had built on his property with chicken wire to create the desired shape. The reliefs they created were then coated with polyester in Paris and applied to the houses. Since its toxic fumes became a serious threat to the artist’s health, Hessen asked the local mason to continue the work with concrete. Saint Phalle learned valuable lessons from this process that she would use in later architectural projects, such as the Golem or Tarot Garden. The enormous sculptures were created from the ground up. The often curvy, rounded shapes were constructed by first welding together metal rods and then covered with chicken wire and sprayed with concrete. 

I love roundness, curves, waves… The world is round, the world 
is a breast. I don’t like right angles. They scare me.” 
Niki de Saint Phalle, Niki de Saint Phalle: Un Rȇve d’ Architecte, 2014

 

Each sculpture house is unique with distinctive features.

The Bird’s Dream is a kitchen

A large bird with its wings spread on the kitchen roof gives the sculptural group its name. The bird is an iconographic element from ICH and used by Saint Phalle consistently in her work. The outside dining area consists of seating built into one cave-like wall, while the dining table takes the shape of a mushroom. On another outside wall, a dragon is menacing a couple in bed. Next to the plant-shaped front door with a spider, a Nana cook is welcoming visitors with a shopping bag in her hand. Dimensions: width 5.9m; depth 4.8m; height 4.5m

the kitchen viewed from the front with seating area; the kitchen viewed from the side with entrance
Photo Source: NCAF Archives

The Sorceress hides a water closet inside

This structure is covered with long wavy hair, painted with shiny metallic paint, that extends to the ground. The flooring inside is covered with glass mosaic. Once construction completed, Saint Phalle decided that she did not like the square metal door, and wanted it changed. Her wish was fulfilled in the course of a restoration. Dimensions: width 6.0m; depth: 4.7m; height: 4.2m

A silver-painted figure covers the entrance to the water closet. It looks sternly into the distance.
Photo Source: NCAF Archives

Big Clarice is the sleeping space

The original idea for the living area was the shape of a Sphinx. It was not realized due to financial limitations. Instead, Jean Tinguely proposed that the structure housing the bedroom is shaped with Saint Phalle’s signature Nana form.  The breasts of the Nana serve as two children’s bedrooms, which can be accessed by a ladder staircase. There is a bathroom with a giant Nana-shaped bathtub. The name of the house became Big Clarice, after one of Saint Phalle’s close friends, Clarice Rivers.  Dimensions: width 9.5m; depth 5.0m; height 7.0m

A pencil drawing by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely of the outside of Big Clarice in frontal view, as well as primitive structural lines inside and with a canopy. Next a black marker drawing on grid paper showing Big Clarice next to a figure and a tree. The notes in Niki de Saint Phalle's handwriting say: "taille d'un home" and "1969 project pour construction de nano maison"
Bottom pictures shows Rainer von Hessen on a ladder painting orange patches on Big Clarice. Niki de Saint Phalle paints the front kneeling down.
top left: Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely, Dessin. Collection Rainer von Hessen
top right: Niki de Saint Phalle, Projet pour construction de nana maison, 1969. Collection MoMA NY
bottom: Photo: Rico Weber / © MAH Fribourg

The original design of the Sphinx would be used 10 years later to build the Empress in Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden. The Bird ’s Dream became, in more than one respect, a precursor of the artists’ major work in Italy.

Niki de Saint Phalle goes from sculpture to architecture, it 
inserts works in the nature and not in a museum, and they feel
habitable.” 
Niki de Saint Phalle, Le Monde, September 2014

 

As with most of Saint Phalle’s art, these summer homes caused controversy amongst the townspeople. Some questioned the validity of these homes as art, referenced in local articles titled: “Niki de Saint Phalle’s Challenge of Plan-de-la-Tour: Worthy of Pornography Carnival or the Museum of Modern Art”  (Le Provençal, January 1972) and “These Monsters in the Heart of Provence: Houses that amuse or scandalize” (France-Soir L’Intransigeant, August 1971).

newspaper article in French asks "Who authorized this horror?" Two images in color of the sculptural houses are printed.
Source: NCAF Archives

In 2007 Le Rêve de L’Oiseau was awarded the distinction Patrimoine de XXe siecle; a label given to architectural projects of the 20th century that embody cultural heritage. One year later, the entire property of Le Rêve de L’Oiseau was listed, by the Ministry of Culture, as a Historical Landmark (Monument Historique Classé).

Also in 2008, Rainer von Hessen transferred the deed to this property to the family of Sybille and Jean-Marc Heftler-Louiche, through a 95 years long term lease. After that, it shall return to the Société des Amis du Rȇve de L’Oiseau, a non-profit association which has been created for this purpose. 

Extensive restorations have been executed on this 13 hectare (30 acre) property, since 2008. The property is not, for the time being, open to the public. 

Interested in learning more about Niki de Saint Phalle’s architectural projects?

RMN Grand Palais. DVD titled Niki de Saint Phalle: An Architect's dream from 2014. ASIN number for purchase: B00LLK054

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank both Rainer von Hessen and Jean-Marc Heftler-Louiche for their insight and help with this blog. 

It’s been 20 Years – What’s new with the Tarot Garden?

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Il Giardino Dei Tarocchi, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. For many years before its opening, people would just walk in and many met Saint Phalle there, working, having tea, or overseeing the construction. The garden was officially opened to the public in May of 1998, the project having started in the late 70’s and ending upon Saint Phalle’s passing in 2002. The Tarot Garden Foundation was established in 1997. Its mission is to maintain and preserve this monumental work of art.

Overview of the Tarot Garden © Il Giardino Dei Tarocchi, All rights reserved. Photos: Peter Granser

 

Many people helped Niki de Saint Phalle build her masterpiece. A number of the original crew continued working with the Tarot Garden Foundation, Ugo Celletti, Antonio Urtis, Marco Iacotonio, Claudio Celletti, Gian Piero Ottavi, and Alessia Celletti. Ugo Celletti was the local postman and slowly started helping in the garden, eventually taking on a great number of tasks. He remained working in the garden until his passing in 2016.

“He began by making stone paths, and then graduate to putting
wire mesh on the iron sculptures to receive cement, Later, Ugo 
would ask me to try his hand at putting the mirrors on the 
sculptures. He has become a poet of putting on mirrors.”
Excerpt quote of Niki de Saint Phalle

 

Since opening, additional members have joined, Fabio Mancini, Massimo Menchetti, Alessandro Celletti, Dario Fortunato, Giulia Celletti, Giuseppina Fini.

When Saint Phalle passed in 2002 all new work on the sculptures ceased. The focus turned to conservation, maintenance, restoration, and management of keeping the garden safe and efficient. Conservation is the main focus. With laws having changed in Europe regarding manufacturing of mirrors, new problems have surfaced with the replacement of some mirrors. Small stone walls were added near the back of the garden to help redirect rain runoff to avoid soil being carried away. The walls help redirect the water to preserve the garden’s landscape and paths. A well is to be added to draw water which will be utilized for irrigation of the garden’s plants. “Don’t Smoke” signs, also written in French, Italian and German, were added throughout the garden this past June due to the number of cigarette butts that were littering the grounds.

“Don’t Smoke” signs in the Tarot Garden, Photo: Alessandro Celletti  

 

Another addition to the garden is a cafe pavilion that currently is under construction. The cafe was designed by architect Mario Botta. He also designed the entrance wall to the Tarot Garden back in 1997. Botta graciously designed this in memory of his beautiful friendship with Niki de Saint Phalle. The pavilion will be used for reception and cafe services for visitors as early as March 2019.

“I asked my friend Mario Botta to make the entrance of the garden
in contrast to what was inside. Mario made a masculine fortress-
like wall of local stones, which marks clearly the separation of
the world without and the world within.”
Quote of Niki de Saint Phalle

 

The number of visitors coming to the Tarot Garden has increased exponentially since it’s opening. During its first year in 1998, the garden had just over 18,200 visitors. By 2007 the park was receiving roughly 54,000 guests and by 2017 attendance had jumped to 109,900. With the significant increase in guests, focus has been on maintaining the sculptures, paths, and greenery of the garden to ensure Niki de Saint Phalle’s vision and concept, along with the visitors’ safety. The Tarot Garden is also considering opening earlier in the day during July and August to accommodate the increase in guests to the garden. In 2017 the parking lot was expanded for the same reason. Various solutions are being considered in order to preserve the experience of the Tarot Garden. With the sometimes heavy influx of people, the esoteric aspect of the experience is diminished.

While no work can be done within the garden, there is one sculpture that is allowed to be moved, namely the Fool. His tarot card represents a new beginning in a journey, not knowing what to expect but with an unlimited potential.

“The Fool’s number is 0, no number, but for me 0 is a number. The
Fool in the tarot deck is as strong as all the other cards put
together. Why? Because he represents man on his spiritual quest. Not knowing where he is going, the Fool is ready to discover. He is the hero of the fairy tales who appears dim witted but is able
to find the “treasure” where others have failed.”
Excerpt quote of Niki de Saint Phalle, The Tarot Garden book

 

Left: The World,  Right: The Fool
© Il Giardino Dei Tarocchi, All rights reserved. Photo: Katrin Baumann, 2011. 

 

Saint Phalle would change The Fool’s location, and had moved him twice in the past. He is currently installed by The World. He may be moved again in the future to keep him wandering, or not. His current placement reminds one of the current world migrations now happening due to war and climate change. 

The Tarot Foundation is also working on arranging small concerts to be held at the Tarot Garden. In 2000 a surprise birthday party was held for Niki de Saint Phalle at the Emperor’s Castle. Niki de Saint Phalle’s friend Marie-France Pestel-Debord, vice president of the Tarot Garden Foundation, organized for a band to play in the courtyard. Saint Phalle wanted concerts to continue being a part of the Tarot Garden and the Foundation plans to arrange some to happen in the near future.  

 

Stills from Niki de Saint Phalle’s birthday celebration, 1999

 

During her lifetime, Niki de Saint Phalle produced a number of fan articles and merchandise to fund her projects. Most of her projects during the 90’s were done to specifically fund the Tarot Garden. In a similar way, the Tarot Garden Foundation does the same to remain sustainable. One of those items Saint Phalle had created were inflatable nanas, of all shapes and sizes. With the help of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation and the company Jet Creations, the Tarot Garden is now selling again one style of Saint Phalle’s nanas. Different shapes and sizes are expected to be added during the coming year. The shop will also be adding puzzles and a children activity book.

 

Nana inflatable, Niki Charitable Art Foundation

 

A detailed chronology, “Niki de Saint Phalle and the Tarot Garden” was published by Benteli in 2010. Authors Marella Caracciolo Chia and Jill Johnston share memories and facts about the gardens 20 years of construction. The text is accompanied by photos Giulio Pietromarchi took over the years. The book has been published in English, French, and Italian, and is available at the Tarot Garden or online through the publisher’s website (https://www.benteli.ch/en/art/the-tarot-garden-luxury-edition.html).

In 2015 the Tarot Garden’s website received a major update. You can view the website in English, Italian, French, and German. An interactive map provides more information about each sculpture and its placement in the garden. Have feedback for the Tarot Garden? You can go to the website (http://ilgiardinodeitarocchi.it/en/contact/) and share your thoughts with the Tarot Garden Foundation! It’s been 20 years since the Tarot Garden officially opened to the public. With more and more people discovering Niki de Saint Phalle’s Il Giardino Dei Tarocchi, the Tarot Garden Foundation will continue to maintain and conserve it, so visitors can enter and become immersed in a part of Saint Phalle’s magical world.

 

Want to know more about the Tarot Garden?

The Tarot Garden © Il Giardino Dei Tarocchi, All rights reserved. Photos: Peter Granse

Niki’s Sculptures in “Le Cimetière de Montparnasse”

“Cimetière Montparnasse”, the famous cemetery in Paris, was established in 1824. It is the resting place of many artists, poets, authors, and intellectuals. It is also where two of Niki de Saint Phalle’s friends, Ricardo Menon and Jean-Jacques Goetzman, are buried. Saint Phalle created sculptures to be installed at their graves. Both men were HIV positive and died of AIDS. 

Niki de Saint Phalle was very involved in the fight against AIDS. In 1986 she published the book, AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands in English and later in French, German, Japanese, and Italian. In 1990 and 1991 she participated in the creation of a series of animated public service announcements for France Sécurité Sociale. She did so with her son, Philip Mathews, to help raise awareness about the disease. By this time a number of Saint Phalle’s friends had been diagnosed with AIDS and funerals had sadly become all too frequent.

A Cat For Ricardo

Ricardo was Niki de Saint Phalle’s assistant for ten years. He worked with her in the Tarot Garden, eventually living in the Tower of Babel. He introduced her to the ceramicist, Venera Finocchiaro, who later made all the ceramics for the Tarot Garden. When she experienced debilitating arthritis, Ricardo would feed, carry, and bathe her. They shared an incredibly strong bond. Saint Phalle often warned Ricardo about AIDS worrying that he would catch the virus. 

“Ricardo was very close to her and… you know sometimes you have 
relationships with people that are even closer than the people 
that you are with physically.”
Quote from interview with Ted Tourtelotte, NCAF Archives

 

Ricardo introduced a fellow Argentinian, Marcelo Zitelli, to Saint Phalle who later became her next assistant. Ricardo left the Tarot Garden and returned to France, not telling Saint Phalle that he had contracted AIDS. It wasn’t until two years later, once he was hospitalized, that she found out.

“Today, when I think of him tears come to my eyes. I wished I had
BEEN THERE FOR HIM… Ricardo YOU FOOL. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME??? 
I know you wanted to shield me, but we BOTH SUFFERED MORE- You 
alone with your SECRET and me unable to ease your torments.”
Except from Niki de Saint Phalle’s writings 

 

Niki de Saint Phalle found Ricardo to be like a cat, proud, mysterious, and sexy. When he was dying in the hospital she promised him she would make a cat sculpture in his honor and place it on his tomb. He liked the idea and she set about securing an honorable and memorable place for him to be buried.  


Left: Drawing by Niki de Saint Phalle of Chat de Ricardo at Montparnasse
Right: Niki de Saint Phalle working on Chat de Ricardo, Photo: © Laurent Condominas  

 

“I realized a few days ago that when RICARDO DIED, it was the 
beginning of a long DEPRESSION for me. I gave up a lot of things.
Not consciously but little by little… I was simply CRUCIFYING 
myself, IDENTIFYING with my young friends who had died from AIDS.”
Except from Niki de Saint Phalle’s writings, NCAF Archives

 

The death of Ricardo was particularly traumatic for both Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. Saint Phalle started on the sculpture that would sit on Ricardo’s grave, slowly working through her depression. On the other hand, Tinguely focused on the issues surrounding the end of life. He began preparing for his own death. He stopped taking his medication and ignored his body’s health, dying two years later in 1991. The stone in front of the Ricardo Cat sculpture reads, “Pour notre grand ami Ricardo mort trop tôt jeune, aimé, et beau” (For our great friend Ricardo died too young, loved, and beautiful). There is a similar sculpture at the Tarot Garden so Saint Phalle could keep Ricardo close. 

Chat de Ricardo, 1989


A Bird For Jean-Jacques

When Niki de Saint Phalle first met Jean-Jacques it was through another friend, Geoffrey Humphrey, who also died of AIDS. Jean-Jacques had already been diagnosed with the virus and was Humphrey’s roommate at an AIDS housing complex. Jean-Jacques also met Niki de Saint Phalle’s son, Philip Matthews, who took care of him before his death. Jean-Jacques had lived a very hard and troubled life. He began writing an autobiography with Philip’s help. They went to New York where Jean-Jacques witnessed a gay couple openly holding hands. He was brought to tears having never experienced such freedom for gay couples. When Jean-Jacques died in 1992 Niki de Saint Phalle decided to make a sculpture for his grave. She likened Jean-Jacques to a bird. She considered that he met an unhappy ending to an already miserable life and decided to create a mosaic mirror bird in his honor.

“Unfortunately all my birds have unhappy endings… Birds are 
messengers from our world to the next. My Guardian Angel is 
a bird.”
Excerpt from The Wounded Animals by Niki de Saint Phalle

 

 

Niki de Saint Phalle had Marcelo create the metal part of the sculpture from Jean Tinguely’s scrap metal stash. The metal of the sculpture resembles the human body and the suffering, transforming to the mirrored bird that flies away in a spiritual state. His grave reads, “A mon Ami Jean-Jacques un oiseau qui s’est envolé trop tôt” (To my friend Jean-Jacques who flew away too early).

 

Oiseau pour Jean-Jacques, 1998

 

Ricardo Menon and Jean-Jacques Goetzman were only two among many of Niki de Saint Phalle’s friends that died of AIDS. Saint Phalle expressed her feelings and emotions through her art and that was no different with Chat de Ricardo and Oiseau pour Jean-Jacques. The smiling, colorful cat covered in hearts and flowers echoes the love Niki de Saint Phalle had for her assistant. The mirrored bird reflects the light and sky, a freedom from the harsh, angular, rusting metal and the suffering of her friend. If you visit Montparnasse, you can see both sculptures dedicated to the two men that died too early and left a hole in an artist’s life.

 

Our blog in The Brooklyn Rail

Niki at Chelsea Hotel

The Chelsea Hotel in New York City was home to a number of artists, writers, and musicians. The red brick building that sits on 23d street rented rooms both by the day and by the month. During the 60’s you could rent a workshop for $300 a month, or a room for $8 a day. This attracted a wide range of individuals from Mark Twain to Bob Dylan, as well as several artist like Andy Warhol and a number of the Nouveaux Réalistes like Yves Klein, Arman, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. It was where Saint Phalle stayed for a time in 1962 and again between 1964-65, creating several pieces while she was there.

“From the beginning of its life as a hotel, it attracted a 
creative clientele drawn by the noise-resistant space to work and
play in… The hotel is steeped in odd memories and a touching 
sense of cultural continuity.”
Except from Smithsonian, December 1983

 

 

The Hotel Chelsea, New York City, 2012

 

After her show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1962, Niki de Saint Phalle returned to New York and took up residence at the Chelsea Hotel. She began working on one of her shooting paintings, “Gorgo in New York” that was shown at the Alexander Iolas Gallery later that year. It became a part of the Menil Collection and was later gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Gorgo in New York, Niki de Saint Phalle, 1962

 

 

Niki de Saint Phalle left the Chelsea Hotel in 1963 and moved with Jean Tinguely to France. It wasn’t until late 1964 that she returned to the hotel and both artists rented rooms, Saint Phalle renting two as she began producing a great number of pieces.

“Permanent and semi-permanent constitute the aristocracy of 
artistic emigration. First, because they can afford to stay in 
America or come and go. This coming and going is the true 
luxury of consecration: Arman, Tinguely, Niki de Saint-Phalle
and Martial Raysse practice this sport in particular.”
Excerpt from Art Loisirs, December 1966

 

In early 1965, a number of Saint Phalle’s pieces still are made of found objects and toys. The Bride and Astarte’s Wake are two pieces Niki de Saint Phalle created where she still uses these materials but where we also see fabrics introduced.

Niki de Saint Phalle with The Bride and Astarte’s Wake at the Chelsea Hotel, 1965 © Yves Debraine Archives

 

While staying at the Chelsea Hotel, Niki de Saint Phalle wrote to her friend Pontus Hulten saying she was “working like a tiger”! When he came to visit in March 1965, he was amazed to see the amount of work Saint Phalle was producing. She continued working with fabric and yarn, glueing the pieces with great intricacy and detail. She created patterns without paint, laying out bands of color that swirled and curved across the figures, seeing the birth of Saint Phalle’s early Nanas.

Clipping from New York Herald Tribune, March 1965

 

“Her sculptures don’t contain a smudge of marble, clay, or stone 
used by square chiselers. Instead, her figures are made of 
chicken-wire, fabric, plastic, paper, and glue — strictly from 
Displaysville… her studio is at the Chelsea Hotel on W. 23d 
Street - in the heart of New York’s display industry. I told Niki
she should try her hand at window mannequins. They might 
not fit into size 12 dresses, but they’d stop traffic.”
Excerpt Quote from Women’s Wear Daily, April 1965 

 

During this time, Niki de Saint Phalle was further inspired by her friend Clarice Rivers. Clarice and her husband, artist Larry Rivers, lived in the Southampton’s on Long Island while Clarice was pregnant in late 1964. It was late spring of 1965 that Saint Phalle made a number of the Nanas, with Clarice’s pregnancy having inspired her. Niki de Saint Phalle also did a collaborative piece with Larry Rivers. Rivers drew Clarice in profile with a full pregnant belly that Saint Phalle then filled in with a collage of colorful strips of paper and cut out images. This piece was later given to Clarice’s daughter, Gwendolyn.

 

[Portrait de Clarice Rivers enceinte], Niki de Saint Phalle & Larry Rivers 1964

 

“You know I was her inspiration for the Nanas… the first one, the
upside-down Nana for instance, might have been the first one and 
it was very sturdy and a big belly and… I think solid enough to 
stand on your head sort of thing. I like that interpretation and 
then there were all kinds of Nanas.”
Quote of Clarice Rivers about Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas

 

In August 1965, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely leave the Chelsea Hotel. Saint Phalle returned to her home in France while Jean Tinguely traveled to Brazil with Pontus Hulten. When the two men returned to France, the workshop had been completely taken over by Nanas. In September of that same year that Saint Phalle’s Nanas are exhibited for the first time at the Alexandre Iolas Gallery in Paris.

 

Niki de Saint Phalle working at the Chelsea Hotel, 1965 © Yves Debraine Archives

 

While Saint Phalle worked on her sculptures in 1965, photographer Yves Debraine visited the hotel and documented a number of artists staying there. An exhibit, “Chelsea Hotel, New York 1965” is now open at Espace Jean Tinguely – Niki de Saint Phalle Museum of Art and History in Fribourg, Germany through September. A number of Debraine’s photographs show Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely during their stay at the Chelsea Hotel.

 

Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely at the Chelsea Hotel, hanging on the wall: La Crucifixion, 1965 © Yves Debraine Archives

 

In August 2011 the Chelsea Hotel closed for renovations. With several owner changes since then and construction complications due to tenants still occupying a number of units, the work has been slow going. The Chelsea Hotel plans on maintaining a hotel-residential mix, even keeping some rooms in their original state, for example the preservation of the unit once inhabited by poet Dylan Thomas. However, after years of renovation work and hurdles, the hotel plans to reopen sometime this year.