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.