Sculptures by ‘Firebird’ creator to sprout uptown in spring


In March, Bechtler Museum unveils major exhibit by “Firebird” creator Niki de Saint Phalle on The Green.

Niki de Saint Phalle was a prodigious artist whose curiosity led her to dig into cultures from all over the world and create huge and colorful works reflecting what she learned.

Her popular “Firebird” in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art uptown is one of the thousands of pieces she produced. Soon, it will have company.

From March through October, five large sculptures by the French-born artist will fill The Green, the Wells Fargo-owned park across South Tryon Street from the Bechtler. Most prominent among them: “La Cabeza,” a representation of a skull in green, yellow and red that weighs six tons and is large enough for people to crawl inside.

For “Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology,” the largest outdoor sculpture exhibit the city has seen, the Bechtler also will show about 60 additional works in its fourth-floor gallery.

“The interest and affection demonstrated for the ‘Firebird’ strongly suggests there will be a large and strong audience for the exhibit,” said John Boyer, president of the Bechtler.

Let the art flow

An internationally known artist, Saint Phalle was born in France, educated in the United States and lived in San Diego for the last decades of her life. Her work is well-represented at the Bechtler.

An exhibit of her work, Boyer said, is part of the museum’s mission to interpret its collection. Future shows likely will look at other artists in the museum’s holdings such as Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miro.

Andreas Bechtler, the retired Charlotte businessman whose gift of his family’s 20th- century art helped found the museum, knew Saint Phalle. He also was close to Jean Tinguely, an artist with works in the collection who was married to her.

The sculptures will be on loan from the Niki Charitable Art Foundation in California.

Works will be placed so as not to interfere with events on The Green such as Shakespeare in the Park. Two works will be oriented to the Levine Center for the Arts on Tryon, and two works will be situated nearer the convention center on College Street. The fifth work will be in the center.

Bob Bertges, the Wells Fargo vice president who oversaw construction of the cultural campus, said the bank did a structural analysis on where to place the heavy sculptures over the parking beneath The Green.

“The opportunity here was one more way to let the art flow out into the community,” said Bertges, “and it’s totally cool.”

Security would not be enhanced, he said, adding the area is “well patrolled.”

Reinterpreting myths

A fashion model in her youth, Saint Phalle became a self-taught experimental artist whose work reflected her energy and curiosity. She once made paintings by firing a rifle at bags of paint attached to a canvas. She was an early exponent of Pop Art and the use of feminist themes.

She also had “a voracious appetite for the cultures, religions, myths and legends from around the globe and looked for ways to absorb and reinterpret them,” said Boyer.

The sculptures draw on Egyptian, Greek and pre-Colombian stories. The works in the museum will include paintings, prints and sculpture, most from her foundation’s collection.

The artist also sought to create a new mythology with a series on Black Heroes. Her “Miles Davis” (1999), a depiction of the famous jazz musician with a multicolored coat and gold-like trumpet, will face College Street. The other works for The Green are “Star Fountain” (1999), “Cat” (1999) and “Golf Player” (2001).

Saint Phalle liked her work outdoors, creating sculpture gardens in Tuscany in Italy, Jerusalem and San Diego. She liked the idea of interaction.

During a well-attended 2008 exhibit of Saint Phalle’s work at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, children especially loved “La Cabeza,” said Lynn Kerkemeyer, the garden’s exhibits manager.

“The kids couldn’t keep off of it,” she said.

When Andreas Becthler bought the 18-foot tall “Firebird,” which is covered with mirrored glass, he wanted not just an iconic piece, but also one people would enjoy.

For Saint Phalle, who died in 2002 in California at age 71, joy was always part of her art.

She said on her foundation’s web site, “In this world of so much pain, if a sculpture of mine can give a moment of joy, a moment of life to a passer-by, I feel rewarded.”

— Richard Maschal, The Charlotte Observer