Niki is born Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle on October 29, 1930 in France. Her father is French, her mother American. She is the second of five children of a wealthy family who lose their business and fortune in the stock market collapse.
She spends most of her childhood and adolescence in New York City, though strong ties are maintained with the family in France through frequent visits. As a teenager, in an early display of her later artistic temperament, she paints the fig leaves of her convent school’s classical sculptures red. She transfers to a new school shortly thereafter.
As a young woman, Niki’s first career is as a fashion model, with photographs appearing in Vogue and Life. At 18, she elopes with childhood friend Harry Mathews.
Marie-Angès Fal de Saint Phalle, July 1932. Photo: © Unknown Niki de Saint Phalle and her sister Elisabeth in Central Park, March 1941. Photo: © Unknown Niki de Saint Phalle on the cover of Vogue, November 1952. Photo: © Vogue
In 1950, Niki begins making her first paintings while her husband studies music at Harvard University. Laura, their first child, is born in Boston in 1951.
In 1952, Niki moves to Paris to study theater and acting while Harry studies music. They summer in the south of France, Spain, and Italy, visiting museums and cathedrals.
In 1953, hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, Niki finds that painting helps her to overcome this crisis and decides to give up acting and become an artist.
After her recovery, Niki and Harry briefly return to Paris, where she is encouraged by other artists to continue painting in her unique self-taught style. They then move to Mallorca, where son Philip is born in 1955.
In Spain, Niki discovers the work of Antonio Gaudí and is deeply affected, especially by Park Güell in Barcelona, which plants the idea to create her own sculpture garden and inspires her to use diverse materials and found objects as essential elements in her art.
Niki and Harry return to Paris. Niki meets Jean Tinguely, who will become an artistic collaborator. She is further inspired by the art of Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau. Niki visits the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where she also discovers the work of Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Niki de Saint Phalle in Deya, Mallorca, 1955. Photo: © Unknown The Mathews on a stroll: Laura, Harry and Niki, 1955. Photo: © Unknown Niki de Saint Phalle at Park Guëll, Barcelona. Photo: © Unknown
In 1960, Niki and Harry separate and Harry moves to a new apartment with the children. Niki sets up a studio and continues her artistic experiments. She is included in an important group exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. By the end of the year Niki and Jean Tinguely move in together, sharing the same studio and living in an artists’ colony.
In the early 1960s Niki creates “shooting paintings” (Tirs), complex assemblages with concealed paint containers that are shot by pistol, rifle, or cannon fire. The impact of the projectile creates spontaneous effects which finish the work. The shooting paintings evolve to include elements of spectacle and performance. Niki becomes part of the Nouveau Réalisme group of artists — the only woman in a group that includes Arman, Christo, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, and Jacques de la Villeglé, among others.
Niki has her first solo exhibition in Paris in 1961 and becomes friends with American artists staying in Paris, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, and his wife Clarice.
Marcel Duchamp introduces Niki and Tinguely to Salvador Dali, with whom they go to Spain for a celebration in his honor and create a life-size exploding bull out of plaster, paper, and fireworks for the end of a traditional bullfight.
Niki is included in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In February 1962, Niki and Tinguely visit California and view Simon Rodia’s Watts Tower in south Los Angeles. Niki and Tinguely travel around California, Nevada, and Mexico, participating in exhibits and happenings.
Niki and Tinguely move to an old country inn outside of Paris at the end of 1963. Niki begins creating figurative reliefs — confrontational depictions of women, some giving birth, as well as dragons, monsters, and brides.
Niki de Saint Phalle preparing Tirs in her studio, rue Alfred Durand-Claye, Paris, 25 February 1961. Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust Niki de Saint Phalle shooting Old Master, Impasse Ronsin, Paris, 15 June 1961. Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, and a third person during a shooting session in the Impasse Ronsin, 26 June 1961. Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust
Inspired by the pregnancy of Larry Rivers’ wife Clarice in 1965, Niki makes her first Nanas, archetypal female figures which are updated versions of “Every(wo)man.” (The word “nana” is French for “dame” or “chick.”) For the first exhibit of Nanas, Niki’s first artist book is published. This develops into another of Niki’s prolific art forms: hand-lettered graphic works in the form of invitations, posters, books, and other writings. In 1966, Niki collaborates on Hon (Swedish for “she”) for the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. The outer form of Hon is a building-size giant reclining Nana with an interior environment entered from between her legs. This piece garners worldwide attention and intensifies her desire to build her own sculpture garden.
Niki works with Tinguely on Le Paradis Fantastique, a commission for the French Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal. Working on Le Paradis Fantastique, she is exposed to the toxic fumes of polyester resin. This and other materials used in her work cause severe damage to her lungs, resulting in recurrent health problems.
Niki designs Nana inflatables, a multiple in plastic that are produced and distributed in the United States.
Niki de Saint Phalle and Clarice Rivers working on the wire frame for a Nana Gwendolyn, Southampton, Long Island, summer 1965. Photo: © Camilla McGrath / Earl McGrath Gallery. Niki de Saint Phalle painting Hon at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1966. Photo: © Hans Hammarskiöld Niki de Saint Phalle surrounded by her Nanas, Soisy-sur-École, 1966. Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust
Niki’s first permanent architectural project is a private commission for a summer residence in the south of France, completed in 1971. Niki begins to develop other “fantastic” architectural projects that require intensive planning and organization. Niki travels to India and Egypt, broadening the repertoire of cultural experiences and visual associations used in her work.
Niki and Jean Tinguely marry on July 13, 1971.
Niki receives a public commission to create Golem, an architectural project for children in Jerusalem’s Rabinovitch Park, which is completed the following year.
In 1972, Niki receives a second private architectural commission in Belgium and begins a productive association with art fabricator Haligon for her large-scale sculptures and work in editions. Niki also makes her first jewelry design for GEM Montebello Laboratory, Milan.
Niki creates three large-scale Nanas for a permanent site near the town hall in Hannover, Germany in 1974. The citizens nickname them Sophie, Charlotte, and Caroline in honor of three historically distinguished women of Hannover.
Niki is hospitalized with a serious lung ailment and recuperates in the Swiss mountains. While there, she meets an old friend from her time in New York in the 1950s, Marella Caracciolo Agnelli. Niki shares her dream of building a sculpture garden based on symbols from the Tarot. Marella’s brothers, Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo, offer a parcel of land in Garavicchio in Tuscany, Italy, as a site. The massive undertaking of the garden will consume Niki’s thoughts and energies for nearly twenty years.
Excerpt from exhibition catalogue Niki de Saint Phalle at Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotteram, 1976 Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Rico Weber and Roger Nellens at the Construction site of Le Dragon de Knokke, circa 1972-1973. Photo: © Ad Petersen
In 1975, her sculptural tableau Last Night I Had a Dream is installed on the exterior of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, for an arts festival. She returns to Switzerland for a period of time and further develops ideas for her Tarot Garden.
Niki makes first models related to the figures that will be represented in the Tarot Garden, and foundations are laid in 1978. In 1980, construction begins on the first architectural sculpture, The High Priestess, representing female creativity and strength. Niki will spend the major part of the next ten years on site receiving assistance from many friends and supporters. In 1982, she moves into The Empress, a building designed in the shape of a sphinx that serves as her studio and home.
In 1979, Niki becomes interested in linear sculpture-drawings in space and makes the Skinnies. This series of totem-like pieces often have colored lights and elements suspended by string.
Niki de Saint Phalle with Le Vide, 2 April 1980, Tages-Anzeiger Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely in Garavicchio, Italy, 1979. Photo: © Unknown Niki de Saint Phalle with background for unrealized film Travelling Companion, c.1977, unknown magazine article.
In 1980, the Ulm Museum organizes the first retrospective of Niki’s graphic work. She receives a major retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, which travels around Europe. She also exhibits in Japan.
Niki creates the first of her snake chairs, vases, and lamps that same year.
Niki creates a perfume, with a sculptural vial, that bears her name for the Jaqueline Cochran Company in 1982. The money from the perfume goes to finance the Tarot Garden.
Niki and Tinguely collaborate on a fountain next to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. It is an homage to Igor Stravinsky.
In 1983, Niki designs prints for a project to support the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles. This work, in the form of a pictographic letter, expresses her early awareness and concern for those afflicted by AIDS. She continues to be involved in AIDS prevention and education efforts. The same year the Stuart Foundation commissions a sculpture, Sun God, for the campus of the University of California at San Diego. Niki suffers her first bouts of recurring and debilitating attacks of rheumatoid arthritis.
Niki de Saint Phalle sitting by Stravinsky Fountain. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Reflection of Niki de Saint Phalle painting Le Monde. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Niki de Saint Phalle inside the Empress, Tarot Garden, 1987. Photo: © Laurent Condominas
From 1984 to 1987, Niki spends most of her time at the Tarot Garden. She begins a series of flower vases in the shape of various animals.
In collaboration with Dr. Silvio Barandun, Niki writes and illustrates the book AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands. This informative text, presented in a positive and compassionate format, is published in seven languages. She has major retrospectives in Germany and America.
Niki revives a sculptural theme from the mid-1970s by making L’Oiseau amoureux (Bird in Love) as a gigantic kite for a worldwide traveling kite exhibition in 1988.
Niki de Saint Phalle and her assistants working on element for La Fontaine de Chateau Chinon in studio, 1988. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Niki de Saint Phalle with Le Grand Diable at La Commanderie, France, 1990. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Niki de Saint Phalle in Munich, 1987. Photo: © Unknown
In 1991, Niki makes a large-scale model for Le Temple Idéal, a place of worship for all religions. This architectural sculpture was originally conceived in the early 1970s as a response to the religious intolerance she observed while working in Jerusalem. Niki received a commission from the city of Nîmes, France, to build Le Temple Idéal, but politics prevent the project from being realized.
Jean Tinguely dies in Bern, Switzerland in August 1991. In his honor, Niki makes her first kinetic sculptures, the Meta-Tinguelys.
For health reasons, in 1994, Niki moves to La Jolla, California, where she lives for next eight years. She establishes a studio for working with mirrors, glass, and stones, which she is increasingly using in her sculptures instead of paint.
Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo: © Unknown Niki de Saint Phalle sitting in front of Le Temple Idéal in Bonn, 1992. Photo: M. Rosenstiehl © J. Paul Getty Trust Niki de Saint Phalle working on Bepe’s Arizona Dream. Photo: © Laurent Condominas
Niki and Swiss architect Mario Botta begin a major sculpture/architecture project, Noah’s Ark, in Jerusalem, which is inaugurated in 2001.
Through 2000, Niki works on the Black Heroes series, an homage to prominent African-Americans, including athletes and musicians such as Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is begun in Escondido, California in 2000. She draws much of its imagery from her interpretations of early California history, myth, and legend, Native Americans and Meso-American culture, and the study of indigenous plant and wildlife.
That year Niki is also awarded the 12th Praemium Imperial Prize in Japan, considered to be the equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the art world.
In 2001 Niki receives a commission to redesign and ornament three rooms in the historic 17th century Grotto built in Hannover’s Royal Herrenhausen Garden, originally decorated with shells, crystals, and minerals, which were removed in the 18th century.
Niki de Saint Phalle dies on May 21, 2002, at the age of 71 in La Jolla, California.
With work overseen by Niki’s granddaughter, Bloum Cardenas, and her longtime assistants, her remaining projects are completed. The Grotto opens in March 2003, with mosaic decorations of glass, mirrors, and pebbles as well as a host of painted and sculpted figures. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is dedicated and opens to the public on October 26, 2003. This is her first American garden and the last major project realized by the artist.
The Niki Charitable Art Foundation, a non-profit organization, is established to promote and protect Niki’s artistic legacy.
Niki sitting in Serpent Chair. Photo: © Masashi Kuroiwa Niki de Saint Phalle and Lech Juretko choosing glass for Gila Monster. Photo: Rico Weber / © Etat de Fribourg Suisse / Musée d’art et d’histoire Fribourg Suisse Niki de Saint Phalle painting Petite Ganesh in studio. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain © J. Paul Getty Trust