Niki and Jean, together again


CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – He made macho sculptures out of wheels, chains and gears. She created plump, brightly patterned earth mothers. Together they were the Bonnie and Clyde of the modern art world.

Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, partners in art and a married couple in life, are together again at the new Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, 402 South Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte.

Charlotteans have fallen in love with the Saint Phalle “Firebird” in the museum’s outdoor courtyard, but there’s more inside. The museum’s second-floor gallery is dedicated to both artists, who met and started working together in the ’50s and were married in 1971. Visitors can see three of Tinguely’s trademark kinetic sculptures along with several two-dimensional works. De Saint Phalle is represented by “nanas” in two and three dimensions, as well as several reliefs and drawings.

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in France in 1930, but after losing their fortune in the stock market crash, her family moved to New York soon after. Niki was interested in art from an early age, although sometimes her enthusiasm got her into trouble. She was expelled from the exclusive Brearley School for painting the fig leaves on the school’s statues red.

Niki eloped with a music student at 18, quickly had two children and found herself living the sort of domestic life she always had despised. In her early 20s, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated with electroshock therapy and drugs. She turned to painting as part of her recovery. Meanwhile, she’d begun modeling, and became acquainted with some of the artists living in Paris while on a modeling assignment. Her family moved back to Paris in the mid-1950s, where Niki continued to paint. She met artist Jean Tinguely, and Jean and his wife both encouraged her artistic efforts. Niki asked Jean to weld an armature for one of her sculptures, the first of their artistic collaborations.

By 1960, both Niki’s and Jean’s first marriages were over. By the end of the year, they were sharing a studio and living together.

Jean Tinguely, who was almost a generation older than Niki, had a style that was markedly different from Niki’s. A member of the group of artists known as the “New Realists,” Jean’s works were masculine, often made of iron, steel and wood. Many of his sculptures had working mechanisms. “Homage to New York,” one of his most famous installations in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was a mechanical sculpture that self-destructed.

In contrast, Niki’s work had a cheerful, lyrical sensibility and a strongly feminist nature. While earlier in her career Niki had experimented with various themes, including a period in which she created paintings by shooting at containers of paint to form designs on the canvas, she ultimately settled into her best-known style with the creation of her voluptuous, brightly painted women, the “nanas.” While not all of Niki’s subsequent work includes a nana, she continued to produce them, in all sizes and many media, for the rest of her life.

Niki and Jean eventually got married, and they were each other’s biggest champions and most frequent collaborators. They worked together to create the giant nana sculpture “Hon” at the modern art museum in Stockholm. Visitors to the museum could enter the giant figure of a woman by walking between her legs; inside was one of Tinguely’s mechanical sculptures. But the couple’s best-known joint effort is the 1983 Igor Stravinsky Fountain outside the Pompidou Center in Paris, a group of 13 sculptures that dance, gyrate or stand majestically on the surface of the water.

Niki and Jean worked together on many projects for 30 years until Jean’s death in 1991; Niki continued stewardship of his works until she died a decade later.

The Bechtler family had a special relationship with Tinguely, according to the museum’s curator, Michael Godfrey.

“They knew him for years and both Andreas’s father, Hans Bechtler, and his uncle, Walter Bechtler, had pieces by Tinguely,” said Godfrey. “Tinguely used a number of found objects in his works. He would gather wheels and cogs, and one of the things he got particularly interested in were antlers, skulls and trophies. Andreas’s father was a hunter, and when Tinguely would come over to visit, Andreas would take him up to the attic to get pieces for his works of art.”

When Andreas Bechtler was looking for more Tinguely pieces for the Queen City museum, to add to those already in the collection, he discovered that a dealer had two sculptures that incorporated some of his father’s hunting trophies. These works, “Water Buffalo” and “L’execution,” are now in the Bechtler Museum’s second-floor gallery.

Tinguely’s relationship with the Bechtler family brought him to Charlotte long before the museum was even in the planning stages. The lobby of the Carillon building on Trade Street houses a monumental work of scupture by Tinguely hanging over the fountain. While Tinguely was visiting Charlotte he made a number of other works, some of which now hang in the Bechtler gallery.

The Bechtlers also knew Saint Phalle. “When the museum came on track and we decided to look to get monumental pieces by either Tinguely or Niki to go outside, we went to Atlanta, where she was having a major exhibition in the Botanical Garden,” said Godfrey. “We saw the ‘Firebird’ and fell in love with it.” The 12-foot, mirrored sculpture was purchased from the Bonnier Gallery in Geneva, which was reluctant to sell it at first, but then decided it would be better to have it on public display.

The museum has relationships with both the Niki de Saint Phalle Museum in Japan and the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel, which was designed by the same architect as the Bechtler, Mario Botta. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art hopes to mount major shows about both artists in the future. Considering that the Bechtler family owns other works by both artists, chances are Charlotteans will be seeing more of both Niki and Jean.

— Jackie Lupo, Charlotte Daily

Photo 1: Niki de Saint Phalle’s mirrored “Firebird” greets visitors to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art on South Tryon Street.

Photo 2: Jean Tinguely’s “L’exécution” (1990) features metal, animal skull, horns and electric motor. (JoAnn Sieburg-Baker, courtesy of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art)