Niki de Saint Phalle was many things to many people, and most importantly she was an artist.In the 20 years since her death, Saint Phalle’s art has gained more relevance and notoriety as time passes. Her views on social and political issues such as female roles, equality, and violence were progressive for the time period, even in the world of art. Saint Phalle always seemed to be a step ahead, in her convictions as well as in her artwork.
On May 21st, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation celebrates the life of an artist, our artist, Niki de Saint Phalle.
Niki Saint Phalle used her art to express her views on issues beyond her own personal life: female independence and equality, racism, LGBTQ+, AIDS, abortion, gun violence, and the environment are some of the topics her artistry covered.
Since her passing in 2002, there have been 780 exhibitions featuring Saint Phalle’s art worldwide, with 139 being solo shows and installations. Notable among them are the major retrospective Niki de Saint Phalle at the Grand Palais in Paris, curated by Camille Morineau and Lucia Pesapane in 2014 before traveling to Muséo Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain in 2015.
Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Lifein 2021at MoMA PS1 in New York was the artist’s first major US survey show after her passing, curated by Ruba Katrib. It featured an extensive body of works, film, and photographs.
The remarkable exhibition Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960sopened at the Menil Collection in Houston last year. It highlights the ten years during which Saint Phalle created her tirs and Nanas, and was curated jointly by Michelle White of the Menil Collection and Jill Dawsey of MCASD. The show traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego where it is currently on view until July. For more information and to plan your visit, go to the museum’s website: https://mcasd.org/exhibitions/niki-de-saint-phalle-1960s
A more unknown fact is that when Niki de Saint Phalle passed away on May 21, 2002 it was already Jean Tinguely’s birthday in Europe due to the time difference. The two were friends, lovers, spouses, competitors, and collaborators united in their art.
Jean Tinguely remains truly contemporary in his work; a kinetic metal poet to be rediscovered. This Sunday, May 22nd, Jean Tinguely’s monumental sculpture Le Cyclop reopens to the public after a major two-year restoration. Visit https://www.lecyclop.com to organize your visit.
“Part of me wanted to be an actress, another part wanted to direct plays, a third part wanted to write and yet I keep on doodling all the time like in school…Some of my drawings look like those of mad people. Don’t we all have madness in us? Some of us are able to express it more easily."
In her book Traces, Saint Phalle remembered her childhood in the context of acting and role play. Having a reputation among the siblings for her creative imagination, she described play acting with them, and that her love for performing blossomed at The Brearley School, an all-girls private school in New York. She started reading Shakespeare out loud, performing in classical Greek and modern plays, notably in the role of queens. “Brearley encouraged me to write and act. My first play was about the Witches of Endor. […] I remember playing queen Clytemnestra in Agamemnon of Euripides. It was there that I wrote my first poems.”
Niki de Saint Phalle expressed her creativity through various types of art: painting, sculpting, shooting paintings, writing and theater. She created scenery for various plays, acted in some, and wrote her own as well.
“Apart from as a source of inspiration for her own works, she regarded theatre and stage performance as an opportunity to trigger reactions in the audience and to have it play an active role. The biggest chance of winning a new audience that was unfamiliar with art, de Saint Phalle believed, was on stage.” (Kemfert, Beate At last I found the Treasure, Kehrer Verlag 2016)
Saint Phalle’s first involvement with stage performance occurred in a small Parisian theater in 1961. This “avant-garde” happening titled “Variations II: Homage to David Tudor, 1961” was, indeed, a homage to the experimental music composer and pianist David Tudor. It was based on a musical piece that was given to Tudor as a birthday gift by American composer John Cage. The participants included Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg shot at Saint Phalle’s Tir “Shooting Painting American Embassy”. In 2012, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation gifted this artwork to MoMA New York.
In 1962 Saint Phalle participated a play titled The Construction of Boston. The script was written by American playwright Kenneth Koch and directed by American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. This was a “one-night-only” showing taking place at Maidman Playhouse in New York, owned by John Wulp. Wulp himself was a scenic designer, director, and producer. Besides Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg, notably Frank Stella, Henry Geldzahler and Maxine Groffsky joined this performance. “Rauschenberg chose to make the weather and the people; Tinguely chose to make the architecture; Niki de Saint Phalle chose to bring art to Boston; I wrote the text” (Koch, Kenneth, A Change of Hearts, Vintage Books: 1973).
Koch and the artist group were worried that no one would come to the play but the exact opposite occurred; the show’s 200 tickets were completely sold out within 1 hour and there was a strict policy that no tickets were to be given out for free or put aside for press, VIP or family. Many important persons in the art world showed up such as Marcel Duchamp, Virgil Thomson, Leo Castelli, and various art directors and dealers.
John Wulp described in his Esquire Magazine article, The night they all saw, at last, what was happening(1963), that once Senator Javits and his wife showed up demanding to get in, the theater doors completely opened, and that everyone waiting outside flooded in to watch the performance. The crew was completely surprised that a 15-minute performance with tickets being sold for $3 a seat would be in such high demand!
The play was all over the place: Tinguely constructed a brick wall to obstruct the stage view partially, all while wearing a gown, channeling Mae West. Saint Phalle created a plaster object “Vénus de Milo” and shot at it, disguised as Napoleon Bonaparte.
A few years later, Saint Phalle ventured yet again into another creative field by lending her artistic abilities to create scenery and costumes for the ballet “L’Éloge de da folie” by Roland Petit, in March of 1966.
“The aim was to create a contemporary ballet, ‘made in 1966’, in which modernfollies were to be visualized and made tangible, not only through dance…the visual artists de Saint Phalle, Raysse, and Tinguely not only designed stage sets and costumes in the classic sense, but also brought in their ideas and images, which became part of the overall concept.” (Kemfert)
Lysistrata, also brought to the stage in 1966, was based on the classical Greek comedy by Aristophanes and tells the story of the women of Athens uniting to rebel against their men as a way to stop the ongoing war. It was directed by Rainer von Diez and performed at the Staatstheater in Kassel, Germany. Diez was introduced to Saint Phalle’s art through her HONexhibition in Stockholm earlier that year. Diez (a.k.a. Rainer von Hessen) would later commission her to build her first architectural Le rêve de l’oiseau in the south of France, and play the main character in Saint Phalle’s film DADDY (1972). Here, for Lysistrata, Saint Phalle produced the scenery and costumes for the play, cleverly creating a version of HON…: a walk-in torso as a symbol of the Acropolis in Athens…as the centerpiece on stage.
Niki de Saint Phalle collaborated once again with director Rainer Diez on her first own play titled “Ich” (also known as Me, Moi, All About Me), also performed at the Staatstheater in Kassel, in June 1968. It premiered at the opening of “documenta IV“, a prominent German exhibition featuring contemporary, avant-garde art that is still being held every 5 years. The script was co-authored by Saint Phalle and Diez, with the main subject being a young woman’s journey of self-realization as she revolts against her family. During the play, a projection of drawings is shown while the main character “Ich” narrates a fantastic story.
Clark Cooldridge contre l’Assemblée des femmes d’Artistophane was Saint Phalle’s final theater collaboration, once again with Rainer von Diez. The theme of this play was a modernized version of Lysistrata. Saint Phalle and Diez approached Laurent Condominas to write the adaptation. The plot involves “…a fictitious character by the name of Clark Cooldridge, a lost spaceman who lands on a desolated planet. Cooldridge gradually discovers that he has actually returned to Earth, which has been devastated by a nuclear war. The primitive population lives in holes in the ground and caves, and worships a giant stone phallus.” (Kemfert) Condominas described the play as “a sort of science fiction adaptation of Aristophane’s famed sex war when women decided to stop men from starting a war by declaring they would go on a sex strike”.
Saint Phalle created the stage settings and poster, while daughter Laura Condominas designed the costumes.
The show played for a month in 1974, in a theater called “The Palace” which later became “the most famous, scandalous and trendiest nightclub; a Parisian equivalent to ‘Club 54’ in New York City,” as Condominas notes.
Niki de Saint Phalle was very vocal in describing the remarkable, family-like relationships she formed with her assistants and work crews. With as much support Saint Phalle had from her colleagues, she greatly supported their endeavors as well.
When Marcelo Zitelli, then assistant of Saint Phalle’s and a lifelong friend, returned to the theater, he said Saint Phalle was ecstatic for him. Zitelli, a life-long actor and director, produced a play in 1998 titled La Tragedia Comica (The Comic Tragedy). It was based on the original 1988 French play by Ives Hunstad and Eve Bonfanti. Saint Phalle was not only familiar with it, she was also very fond of the story it told. It was a tale of a fictional theater character (with a large wooden nose) that was searching for a human who was fated to become an actor, and who would be able to embody his character. The play involved audience participation, and was recognized for its humor and poetry.
Saint Phalle designed the poster for Zitelli’s version. Unfortunately, she was not able to see the production because it was shown at the Teatro Concerto in Argentina. Marcelo Zitelli affectionately recalls how supportive Saint Phalle was, and that their connection was so strong because of their shared love of the theater. “We had a lot of conversations about theater. We even started a project for a film and began writing the script for her to act in.” He remembered Saint Phalle telling him on several occasions that “my sculptures are connected to the theatre because they have always told a story”.
Rico Weber, Saint Phalle’s first and longest assistant worked with both her and Jean Tinguely for 15 years, helping the two artists with projects such as Paradis Fantastiquein New York, Golem and Noah’s Ark in Jerusalem, Tinguely’s Le Cyclop in France and Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Italy. Through art, Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Weber formed a familial bond that lasted a lifetime.
Rico Weber was born on Oct 7, 1942, in Hinwil – a small district of Zurich, Switzerland. Not much is known or written about Weber’s childhood, except that it was difficult. He had a very strict upbringing and was terrorized by his teachers at school due to his dyslexia.
In his early adulthood, Weber joined the hippie movement and traveled through Europe for the next 3 years. He settled in Stockholm, Sweden where he took a job as a cook/dishwasher at the Moderna Museet.
In 1966 artist Niki de Saint Phalle was working on a temporary indoor sculpture installation calledHON at the very same museum Rico Weber was working in. Saint Phalle was creating this monumental sculpture in collaboration with fellow artists Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt. Weber met Saint Phalle at the museum and began working on the HON with the artists.
“He soon came to work on the HON and we quickly became friends. He decided to join up with us and to become our first assistant. He was both Jean’s and my assistant, which is a unique situation considering the diversity of materials and work. And we worked together for many many years…”
In the documentaryRico Weber: Spurensuche im magischen Kabinett by Stefan Hugentobler (2006), many friends and fellow artists describe Weber as a loyal and dedicated assistant to Saint Phalle and Tinguely. During his time with the couple, he never worked on his own art because he did not want to use their notoriety or artistic influence to advance his own career as an artist.
“A great friendship and complicity grew between me and Rico and Jean over the years. We shared our way of life with him and he was always ready to go along with any mad project we had in mind…nothing was impossible”
Over the 15 years of working together, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and Rico Weber became a family unit. Weber’s exposure to many diverse artists and experiences in various projects fueled his own creativity and desire to create.
As described by Bloum Cardenas (Saint Phalle’s granddaughter) “Jean and Niki were like parents to Rico”. Weber remarked they were so close that the 3 of them were waiting for “the end” together.
Rico Weber was an immense help to Niki de Saint Phalle-especially when she began creating large-scale sculptures. Saint Phalle would make a maquette, decide she wanted to enlarge it 100 times bigger in size, and Weber would be at her side, helping her realize the vision.
Weber was the first to try fiberglass with Saint Phalle; they learned many new techniques together. According to Swiss sculptor and friend Rene Progin, it was Weber who proposed the use of wet cement to be sprayed onto the large sculptures. Progin remarked that, in a sense, Weber was not just Saint Phalle’s assistant but also co-creator. (Hugentobler, 2006).
After years of assisting Saint Phalle and Tinguely, Weber (with the endless encouragement of Saint Phalle) decided it was time to focus on his own art.
“When Rico was 40 he decided he had to make a choice; either to remain a first-class assistant for the rest of his life or to take the plunge and to realize his lifelong ambition of becoming an artist in his own right. This is what he chose, and he is now a successful artist”
As an artist, Rico Weber was influenced by photorealism. According to his friends, he was his own harshest critic. Niki de Saint Phalle noted, that “he spent several difficult years unsatisfied with what he was doing. Rico is a long-distance runner. He never gave up. He kept on going, experimenting with new materials and new ideas.”
Rico Weber’s artistic debut occurred in 1978 at Galerie Felix Handschin in Basel. The exhibition was called Hammerausstellung. According to the book Rico Weber: Energie Magie Souvenir (Blanchard, Raoul., et al. Kunstahalle Burgdorf, 1995) the artist participated in the show with a series of plaster casts of himself lying down, arms crossed behind his head. He called this series “Ich liege, wo ich liege möchte” [transl. I lie where I want to lie].
Molds of these “life-size Rico’s” were used to create multiple sculptures that would be placed in various locations at Le Cyclop. This 74-foot monumental sculpture created by Jean Tinguely is hidden in a forest outside of Paris. Le Cyclop took 20 years to complete and was a collaborative effort between Tinguely and many other artists, including Saint Phalle and Weber. There are 12 Gisants (recumbent Weber figures) at Le Cyclop. Several have been placed inside the massive sculpture and several hidden in the green grass of the forest that surrounds it.
Rico Weber continued experimenting with various mediums and, as noted by artist Rene Progin, the first pieces that Weber was truly satisfied with were the ones tied with fetishes, religion, culture (Hugentobler, 2006).
Weber explored the fetish of voyeurism with an art piece titled Die Unbekannte von vis-a-vis [transl. The stranger from across]. The series consisted of window boxes illuminated from behind, showing shadows of body silhouettes. Weber wanted to exemplify life in a large, populated city with people living so close to one another (Blanchard, Raoul., et al.)
In the late 1980’s Rico Weber further explored art by creating what he described as “energy-still life”. Weber created reliefs from wall cutouts and mounted everyday items such as cables, lamps, and electrical outlets onto them. He explained it as follows “Still life comes from painting…The objects are shown in real life, the whole thing has little in common with reality because it’s not a cutout from any wall. Therefore it is a still life, namely an arrangement. Energy, especially electrical energy, simply represents the time I live in…I am fascinated by the everyday life of these things.” (Blanchard, Raoul., et al.)
“For the last few years, Rico has made some remarkable unique reliefs. Gray-lead. Out of these strange new materials that he has created. He transforms daily objects like an electric socket into a magic talisman”
Although Weber had moved on from being an assistant to developing his own art and living a life separate from Saint Phalle and Tinguely, unity continued to exist. Bloum Cardenas noted that the sudden death of Jean Tinguely in 1991 not only had a great impact on Weber but also brought him close again to Saint Phalle.
In early 2000 Weber traveled to Jerusalem to oversee the construction of Saint Phalle’s Noah’s Ark. At that point, Saint Phalle’s health had begun to deteriorate so Weber visited her in California one last time. Speaking of this last meeting, Cardenas said that Saint Phalle was Weber’s emotional protector and when she died, he no longer had her as his armor. Soon after, Rico Weber was diagnosed with cancer. He fought hard to get better so he could continue creating his art. “I hope to be able to work the maximum few years that I have left to live. (Rico Weber. Hugentobler, 2006).
In Hugentobler’s documentary, many colleagues and friends commented on Weber’s spirit and his positivity, as they did not know that he had cancer until the very end of his battle. Towards the end of the disease, Weber made several self-recorded videos describing his physical and emotional state. A video clip from the documentary shows a note Weber left on his bed the last time before entering the hospital:
Dated: September 2, 2004
I will surely come back OK. I still have a lot to do!! Rico
Rico Weber passed away on October 8, 2004. Weber’s archives were donated, as requested by him, to the Museum of Art and History, Fribourg.
Posthumously, there has been a renewed interest in Rico Weber’s art. His creations and his spirit have been celebrated in a number of art exhibitions, most in his home country of Switzerland:
2021 Body Double, Galerie Maria Bernheim, London 2020 Silver Dust, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich 2019 Cruise Kidman Kubrick, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich 2018 Colors on Speed, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich 2018 Interiors, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich 2018 Rico Weber, an homage, Ortsmuseum Hinwil, Hinwil 2017 Swiss Pop, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva 2017 Retral Images, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich 2017 Beauty & Room, PALP Festival, Sion, Switzerland
Sun God is a 14-foot bird installed on a 15-foot concrete arch. It was commissioned by the Stuart Collection which was founded by James Stuart DeSilva for the University of California San Diego.
Niki de Saint Phalle was the first artist to be commissioned to make an artwork for UCSD and Sun God was actually Saint Phalle’s first massive outdoor sculpture in the United States. The artist was chosen by the Stuart Collection Advisory Board, which consisted of Pontus Hultén, Pierre Restany, and Jim Demetrion, amongst others. Hultén and Restany were good friends of Saint Phalle and familiar with her creative spirit and artistic vision. Naturally, they were very much in support of her getting this project.
Saint Phalle submitted three different ideas for the proposed work; Life Saviour, Nana House, and Sun God. She, herself, favored Sun God, describing it as an “homage to the Southwest”.
“Birds have been a major theme in my work; I think they’re free and spiritual. I hope if I get reincarnated I’ll get turned into a bird. I love their magic, their freedom.”
In 1981, Saint Phalle visited the UCSD campus with husband and fellow artist Jean Tinguely to choose a location for the sculpture, which she found in a grassy field near the Mandeville Center for the Arts.
"When I came to UC San Diego, Jim DeSilva rented a helicopter to go around the campus for me to choose the place for my piece - and I was scared to death. I thought a lot about the roots of California, which were Native American and Mexican. I wanted something that would mean something on a spiritual level. And I chose an eagle."
Niki de Saint Phalle envisioned this massive 14-foot bird to be perched on an enormous concrete arch, which had to be built on-site at the university. Working off a miniature styrofoam maquette made by Saint Phalle, artist Mathieu Gregoire assisted in creating the arch made of steel, wire mesh, and spraying it with gunite.
The bird itself was constructed in the Haligon workshop in France and then transported to the school campus. The Haligon family had been working with Saint Phalle since the early 1970’s – creating molds for her sculptures, reproducing editions, and enlarging sculptures.
Mary Livingstone Beebe, longtime director of the UCSD Stuart Collection was vital in the planning and installation of Sun God. During this 3 year process, she also became a good friend of Saint Phalle.
In 1983, Sun God was finally delivered to the UCSD campus and installed on top of the enormous archway.
“And it was met with a mixture of delight, distress, dismay, but it immediately became embraced as a campus character and almost an informal mascot so you know that has been very successful.” (Beebe, Mary Livingstone. Interview by Philippe Ungar, 10 May 2011)
Stemming from the Sun God sculpture, UCSD began organizing a campus festival of the same name Sun God Festival. It is an annual music and arts event, taking place every spring, that began in 1984 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Sun God installation. Over the years the festival has evolved, with booth sponsors, food trucks, and even waterslides to cool down from the San Diego heat.
Early on, Sun God became a landmark and meeting place for students on campus. Throughout the years, students have decorated and celebrated the big bird; wearing a cap and gown for graduation, holding a book, and yearly decorations for Sun God’sbirthday as well as holidays such as Christmas.
Albeit being in such a busy, public location, the Sun God has never been vandalized. The sculpture has been restored twice in its long-standing existence. In the early ’90s, Sun God began to fade due to sun exposure so the Haligon family traveled from France. The artisans removed all the paint off in order to re-do the paintwork and the gold leaf. Then in 2016, Sun God was again stripped down to its original white base because of paint cracking from weather exposure. This second restoration was headed by La Paloma Fine Arts who used Saint Phalle’s original sketches to match the color and gold leaf application.
Sun God is a significant sculpture for Niki de Saint Phalle and San Diego, not only because it is the first outdoor large scale artwork made by the artist in America, but also because of the meaning it had for her.
“It is a celebration, not just of the immensity and the beauty of the climate and the beauty of the landscape, but also the cultural identity between Mexican art…and Indian art. So there’s many cultures that meet here, many different landscapes. So that’s how this creature god of the sun, the life-giving force came about and that’s why he’s here today.”
AWARE, which stands for Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions, is a non-profit organization specializing in women artists. Its new podcast series The Great Ladies of Artexplores the history of 20th century female artists through their own words. The first episode of the podcast is about sculpture and who better to start off in this incredible series than Niki de Saint Phalle!
As one of the most famous female artists of the 20th century, Saint Phalle made a name for herself in an often male- dominated industry. She used various mediums as forms of her artistic expression, political and social views and life experiences; from her early shooting paintings (Tirs) to the full-bodied, brightly painted Nanas made of polyester resin. Saint Phalle’s sculptures became larger and larger, as she created a massive sculpture park titled The Tarot Garden, along with children’s play structures like Golem in Jerusalem, and various monumental sculptures that have been installed internationally (Hon,Hannover Nanas, Coming Together).
AWARE was co-founded by curator and art historian Camille Morineau in 2014. The website describes the organization’s mission as follows:
“The primary ambition of AWARE is to rewrite the history of art on an equal footing. Placing women on the same level as their male counterparts and making their works known is long overdue.”
Camille Morineau is a distinguished curator who has been working in various major Parisian museums for twenty years; ten of those years she spent at the Centre Georges Pompdiou where she curated elles@centrepompidou, which ran from 2009-2011. It was a landmark exhibition, featuring over 130 works from exclusively female artists in the national museum of modern art’s collection. In 2014, she curated a comprehensive and impressive survey of Saint Phalle’s works at the Grand Palais in Paris. Morineau worked as director of exhibitions and collections at La Monnaie de Paris from 2016-2019, and curated Women House (2017-2018) along with the museum’s exhibition curator, Lucia Pesapane. In 2020 Morineau was awarded the Legion d’ Honneur. She was also appointed president of the board of directors of the Ecole du Louvre by decree of the President of the Republic, after being a member of the Board of Directors for a short time.
When asked what was her incentive in creating AWARE in 2014, Morineau responded:
I think there’s a lack of information on women artists and that the internet is an important tool to share information. It enables students, researchers and the public to find information on our bilingual website. We’ve already published 500 biographies on women artists and we’d like to publish several thousand. Information is more easily available in Europe or North America but we need to work more on Latin America, Asia and Africa. Soon I’m going to recruit somebody who will be responsible for international development so we can establish a network of specialists, obtain information and organise events in other countries and continents. We want to establish better relationships with universities, museums, collectors, galleries and artists.(https://saywho.fr/en/interviews/camille-morineau-art-paris/)
AWARE has created a very comprehensive and all-inclusive website that displays the depth of their involvement and commitment to all things women art, as well as their many collaborative efforts with other organizations.
The organization hosts and takes part in a variety of symposiums and webinars, open to the public who can meet with guest speakers for discussions and questions on topics such as Women in Abstraction, (organized with the Musée National d’Art Moderne and the Département Culture et Création – Centre Pompidou) or Reclaim: Narratives of African Women as part of a larger collaboration with a project called the Africa 2020 Season.
In 2017 AWARE created the PrixAWARE Reward. It began out of observation that women are underrepresented among artists who win prizes in art world (only 20-30% of artists selected are female). Two winners are chosen each year; the Prix AWARE Prize (for artists whose career began less than 10 yrs ago) & the Outstanding Merit Prize (for artists whose career began 30 years ago or more-lifetime achievement). These awards are supported by Ministry for Culture and CHANEL Fund for Women in Arts and Culture.
The Prix Prize winner will have one or more of her works acquired by the Cnap collections and a production grant for a solo exhibition to be held within the d.c.a (French Association for the Development of Contemporary Art Centres) and/or Platform network (cluster of Regional Contemporary Art Funds).
The Outstanding Merit Prize winner would receive a 10,000 EUR grant and a monographic publication. The winners for 2021 were just chosen this month with Gaëlle Choisne as the 2021 Prix Prize winner, and the Merit Prize winner is Barbara Chase-Riboud.
Congratulations to both artists!
At the AWARE headquarters in Paris, there is a documentation center, which gives researchers and students direct access to 2400 references (compiled of monographs, exhibition catalogues, essays, and reviews) on women artists and feminist art. Visitors can access the references in person or online via the documentation center portal. It is also possible to hire a consultant to assist in research.
AWARE is an extremely valuable organization, bringing light to amazing female artists that otherwise may be overlooked in the art world. AWARE gives the public access to learn about powerful, creative, yet underrepresented women artists, giving them the credit they deserve.
Showcased are Saint Phalle’s exploration into large-scale sculpture projects such as houses, parks, and playgrounds. “This exhibition foregrounds the artist’s interdisciplinary endeavours, focusing on the visionary architecture and utopian sculpture environments that formed the core of her later work.” (Source: MoMA PS1)
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).
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 Births, Brides 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.’
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 ’80s 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.
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.
‘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.
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)
“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.
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)
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.
“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
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.
“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.
Head, Monstre, Le 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.
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 withThe 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).
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 LeCyclop along with Jean Tinguely, were Rico Weber, Bernhard Luginbühl, Paul 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 LeCyclop 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 LeCyclop 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.
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.
In 1975, Niki de Saint Phalle wrote, directed, filmed, and starred in the movie Un réve plus long que la nuit at LeCyclop. 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 LeCyclop. 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 LeCyclop 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 LeCyclop-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).
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.
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 LeCyclop 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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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).
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.
Golem, was 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.
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
Besides Coming Together in downtown San Diego, there are also three large mosaic sculptures at the San Diego Waterfront Park (Seal, Baseball 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 standsQueen 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of Saint Phalle’s Tirs was made specifically with New York in mind as the title Pirodactyl over New York expresses:
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
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.
“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.
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:
“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.