The Art of Niki de Saint Phalle: Gardens, Guns, and Gila Monsters

A show of the multi-faceted artist arrives just in time for Women’s History Month


When she was in her sixties, the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, looking back on her decades-long career, wrote to a curator, “I wanted the world and the world belonged to MEN. . . . Very early I got the message that MEN HAD POWER AND I WANTED IT. YES, I WOULD STEAL THEIR FIRE FROM THEM. . . .  Men’s roles seem to give them a great deal more freedom, and I WAS RESOLVED THAT FREEDOM WOULD BE MINE.”

“Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life” is an apt title for PS1’s survey of the multimedia artist, who was born in France in 1930, spent much of her childhood in New York, worked as a model, married young, had children and later a nervous breakdown, created her own brand of perfume, bath gels, and jewelry, worked with a spectrum of collaborators, and used a broad range of materials to create the tiniest of objects and the largest of environments.

Saint Phalle was not exaggerating when she spoke of “power” in terms as grand as “the world.” From 1979 until her death, in 2002, she worked at the scale of land art, collaborating with teams of artists and craftspeople on Tarot Garden, a sprawling landscape of sculpture and playful architecture in the Tuscan countryside. The High Priestess, the Magician, the Empress, and other denizens of the tarot realm join fanciful sculptures of sorcerers, dragons, and fairy-tale beings conjured from colorful mosaics, mirror tiles, lush plantings, concrete walkways scribed with texts, and other tactile concoctions.

Before embarking on this magnum opus, Saint Phalle had cast a wide net through the turbulent social and cultural streams of the 1960s, at one point using firearms to blast away at plaster reliefs studded with pots of paint, photos of such world leaders as John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the occasional crucifix, and other provocative objects. Saint Phalle’s DIY instructions for a 1964 version of one of her Tirs (Shooting Paintings) performances read, “Shoot the color pouches which are embedded in the plaster until they have ‘bled’ (or until you like the picture).”

But even as she surveyed a world of mayhem — America’s savage war in Vietnam, violent struggles in Africa to throw off Europe’s colonial yoke — Saint Phalle’s Tirs happenings channeled her own contradictions: “WHO was the painting? Daddy? All Men? Small Men? Tall Men? . . . Or was the painting ME? . . . I was shooting at MYSELF, society with its injustice . . . I was shooting at my own violence and the VIOLENCE of the times.”

Saint Phalle’s method of making the personal monumental often evinced a voluptuous tenderness, such as in Hon (1966), a gargantuan edifice representing a supine woman with bulging belly, which visitors entered through her vagina. Constructed from wood, rebar, chicken wire, tar, fabric, and glue, and gaily painted in vibrant stripes, the Brobdingnagian mother-to-be contained a gallery of small paintings, a 12-seat cinema, a milk bar in the right breast, a faux planetarium constructed of ping pong balls in the left (referred to as “the Milky Way”), and other amusements. When an interviewer once asked Saint Phalle, “Did you not imagine her chewing up and digesting the public?” the artist replied, “I think she did. When they came out they were different from when they went in.” The 82-foot-long, 30-foot-wide symbol of female occupation of a major cultural institution (the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm) took 40 days to fabricate, was on display for three months, and was immediately torn down when the show closed.

Saint Phalle combined Warholian promotion (some of her projects were financed by the sale of her signature perfume) with the audacious scope of land art. The exhibition is chockablock with color photos of her titanic site-specific gardens and environments, as well as stand-alone paintings, sculptures, assemblages, collages, and drawings. A three-and-a-half-foot-long maquette for a whimsical gila monster can be seen in all its final 39-foot-long glory in a video and in catalog photos that document Saint Phalle (in a heavy-duty respirator mask) and collaborators working on the steel framework and embedding vibrant tiles, mirrors, and other ornamentation into its concrete skin.

In 1988, the artist wrote, “Every thought every emotion I feel and think is made visible and becomes a color a texture a subject a form. I have no secret closet or attic to hide in. Luckily for me most people cannot see what they are looking at.” As in childbirth, Saint Phalle brought joy out of pain.   ❖

What:Niki de Saint Phalle — Structures for Life
When: March 11 – September 6, 2021
Where: MoMA PS1
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City

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