Niki de Saint Phalle: Made (it) in America

Niki de Saint Phalle, a ground breaking artist known for her vibrant and daring works, captivated audiences worldwide with her unique style and provocative themes. Throughout her career, Saint Phalle left an indelible mark on the art world, and her influence continues to resonate today. Saint Phalle’s success began in European galleries and museums, and throughout her career, she aimed to expand her audience and showcase her work in museum exhibitions in the United States as well. Surprisingly, for such a notable artist, Saint Phalle only had 3 major museum exhibitions in the USA during her lifetime.

The American public was introduced to Niki de Saint Phalle with a significant group exhibition in 1961, The Art of AssemblagePut on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), then traveled to The Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, and The San Francisco Museum of Art before going overseas,  it highlighted the art of Marcel DuchampRobert RauschenbergMan RayKurt SchwittersJean Tinguely among other renowned and new artists. Saint Phalle’s not-so-subtle, violent landscape assemblage “Tu est moi” was featured.

Seitz, W.C. (1961) The art of assemblage. New York, New York: The Museum of Modern Art
Niki de Saint Phalle. Tu est moi. 1960.Collection Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey    

Followed by numerous U.S. gallery exhibitions at Dwan in Los Angeles, and Iolas in New York, who were her major patrons, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely collaborated on Le Paradis Fantastique for the World Fair in Montreal ’67. This sculpture consisted of nine large polyester figures painted in neon colors by Niki de Saint Phalle, combined with six massive kinetic machines by Jean Tinguely. From the The French Pavilion in Montreal, it traveled to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York and then was displayed in 1968 at the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, New York for a whole year. It is now on permanent display at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paradis Fantastique (New York, May 1, 1968) Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo Courtesy of New York City Park Department

The age-old question “How do you get a solo show at a museum” was answered for Niki de Saint Phalle when her exhibtion Niki de Saint Phalle: Monumental Projects, Maquettes and Photographs at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer in New York was picked up by  Columbus Museum of Art from 27 May 1980 to  22 June 1980.

It was a momentous occasion for the artist, who had yet to receive widespread recognition in the United States, but it did not come without some controversy. The exhibition caused somewhat of a stir in Columbus, as Saint Phalle’s artworks were not considered academic, and may have been too “playful” for some art critics.  Some members of the Columbus Museum of Art were quoted to have described the artists’ sculptures as “tasteless jokes on the public” (Hall, Jacqueline. “Works Challenge Columbus” Columbus Dispatch, 4 June 1980, p. C-7)

Kasyon, Doug. ” Sculptor has U.S. debut here.” The Ohio State Lantern, 2 June 1980, p.8
Hall, Jacqueline. “Works Challenge Columbus”. Columbus Dispatch, 4 June 1980, p. C-7

In the fall of 1987, the Nassau County Museum of Art showcased a retrospective of the artist’s iconic creations in an exhibition that brought the fantastical world of Niki de Saint Phalle to life. Curated by Phyllis Stigliano and Janice Parente, “Fantastic Vision: Works by Niki de Saint Phalle” from 27 September 1987 to 3 January 1988, provided a captivating journey through Saint Phalle’s diverse oeuvre, with about 60 works on view, featuring her celebrated Nanas, Tirs, and monumental outdoor sculptures, including the legendary Tarot Garden.

Exhibition space at Nassau County Museum Roslyn, 1987. Source: NCAF Archive,
Exhibition activity Nassau County Museum Roslyn “Niki de Saint Phalle” (You can color all over), 1987

The show was described by Newsday as “the largest one-person exhibition of de Saint Phalle’s work ever organized in this country”. (Lipson, Karin. “A Sculptor by many other fames”. Newsday. 13 September 1987)

Bourdon, David. (1987) Niki at Nassau: Fantastic vision : Works by Niki de Saint Phalle. Roslyn, New York: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art

Interestingly, one of the art pieces that was displayed in the 1987 exhibition, Le Regard bleu was recently purchased by the Niki Charitable Art Foundation and will be exhibited at Salon 94 in their upcoming show, Tableaux Éclatés, which begins April 30th, 2024. 

Later in life, after the artist returned to the United States, one of Saint Phalle’s biggest supporters has been The Mingei International Museum in San Diego, CA.  The museum has played a pivotal role in showcasing her works. A testament to the enduring bond between artist and institution, the Mingei International Museum served as a cherished venue for many of Saint Phalle’s shows. At the helm was Martha Longenecker, the museum’s founder.

Together, they forged a partnership and friendship that would leave an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of San Diego. One of the most notable exhibitions hosted by the museum  was “Niki de Saint Phalle: Insider/Outsider World Inspired Art,” which ran from 24 May 1998 to 31 January 1999.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Insider, Outsider World Inspired Art. Mingei International Museum, 1998
     February 23, 1998

     Dear Martha,
     I am very honored and grateful that you 
     are giving me a show in your museum. You know 
     what an admirer I am of the beautiful shows 
     you have put on expressing the world’s soul 
     in its various aspects. Whether you are showing 
     a jade show or an Amazon show, or a doll 
     show, for me it is all part of one thing, it is 
     part of the WORLD’S SOUL.
     I fell an enormous link to every culture. 
     I have been nourished by, looked at, loved so 
     many different things whether it was Mexican, 
     or American Indian, Italian, or Eastern Art. 
     I have wondered about, seen, and loved the 
     wonders of this world. They are a part of me.

Excerpt from letter from Niki de Saint Phalle to Martha Longenecker, Niki de Saint Phalle: Insider, Outsider World Inspired Art. Mingei International Museum, 1998. 

“Saint Phalle is a high-spirited survivor of ill health and hidebound traditions. She’s also an enormously productive workaholic as her current exhibition attests. “Niki de Saint Phalle: Insider/Outsider World Inspired Art, features about 100 sculptures, paintings, reliefs, graphic works and maquettes made during the last 15 years, and it only skims the surface of her output”. (Muchnic, Suzanne. “Outsize and Outrageous”. Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1998)

This exhibition not only celebrated a diverse array of artworks that spanned Saint Phalle’s illustrious career, but also the 20th anniversary of the museum itself.

Skull (Meditation room) (1990), Le Banc des Générations (1998) and Gwendolyn (1966/1990)
Exhibition space at Mingei International Museum 1998. Source: NCAF Archives

Since Niki de Saint Phalle’s death in 2002, there have been various US museums that curated incredible exhibitions of the artists’ lifelong works. These include the California Center for the Arts Escondido Museum, the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, and MoMA PS1 in New York.

Most recently, a traveling exhibition titled Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s began in 2021 at the renowned museum The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas and ended at the prestigious Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, CA – the beach side town that the artist made her permanent home in the later years of her life.

The artists’ legacy in America has also been preserved in various collections of numerous museums across the country. A list of artworks museum collections worldwide can be found on the NCAF website

Some notable U.S. museum collections include: 

Grand Oiseau de feu sur l’arche at Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, Ganesh in collection Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, California (gift of Mr. Ron and Mary Taylor), as well as Nana and Serpent at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York (gift of Mr. Jeffrey Loria).

Vivian (1965), collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, IL. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Randall Shapiro. Photo: Emily Corker, 2022
Black Venus (1965-1967). Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation. Photo: © Brigitte Hellgoth
Le Banc (1989) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. Photo: Jana Nier Mooneyhan

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art‘s recently-opened exhibition Niki de Saint Phalle: Rebellion and Joy is organized by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Nice, France (MAMAC) in collaboration with Manifesto Expo and the Niki Charitable Art Foundation. It’s on view to 21 July 2024.

“The works on view explore Saint Phalle’s universe, from her early, explosive’ “Shooting Paintings”, to her powerful Nanas, fantastical sculptures of her Tarot Garden, and her pioneering efforts to combat racism, gender inequality, and HIV/AIDS stigma.” (    

Much of the works have been loaned by MAMAC Nice, which holds the largest collection of Niki de Saint Phalle’s art in France. The artist generously donated 190 pieces of her art to the museum from 2000-2002. 

Niki de Saint Phalle created a world of art that encompassed many ideas and emotions, some being polar opposites. She created her own path which began in the galeries of Paris and moved outward to other countries and continents.

Niki de Saint Phalle with Eglise de toutes les religions, 1980. Photographed during the exhibition “Niki de Saint Phalle: Monumental Projects, Maquettes and Photographs”, at the Columbus Museum of Art, OH, USA, 27 May – 22 June 1980. Press photo.

Although Saint Phalle was staunchly supported by many US galeries, she faced challenges in gaining recognition in national museums, possibly due to not fitting into a specific artistic category or being perceived as unconventional. However, despite these difficulties, she has garnered support from galleries and experienced a resurgence of interest in her work in recent years, particularly through exhibitions at MoMA PS1 and Salon94 in New York.

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation has worked diligently to create opportunities for Saint Phalle’s solo exhibitions in American museums to provide crucial platforms for the artist, albeit posthumously, to connect with audiences through her innovative and diverse art. 

Thankfully in modern times, these esteemed museums have welcomed and celebrated the artists’ avant-garde and extraordinary artistic vision, reflecting shifting perspectives within the art world and a growing openness to the unique, monumental, and remarkable artist that is Niki de Saint Phalle.

As quoted in Niki de Saint Phalle in the 60’s. Houston: Menil Collection, 2021:

"No one thinks of me as an American artist, which is really what I am."