Johanna Fateman on the art of Niki de Saint Phalle
“IF TODAY I CONSIDER MYSELF almost the only poet, the only sculptor capable of creating something poetic, it’s precisely because I’m a woman,” the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle announced to Vogue Paris in 1965. “Men with their rockets, their atomic bomb, and all that filth they’ve dumped on us . . . they’ve sterilized themselves.” It was a pivotal year in her career. She had become something of a sensation with her Tirs (Shooting Paintings), a group of works initiated in 1961 for which she fired a rifle at canvases or at low reliefs resembling altars or effigies. They became splattered abstractions when the bags of paint affixed to their surfaces were pierced by bullets. “Only a woman could use those destructive contraptions that man has imagined for a constructive end,” she explained, speaking of her use of guns in a television interview, “and that’s beautiful.”
Now she was introducing a new series: towering, brightly painted sculptures inspired by voluptuous Upper Paleolithic Venus statuettes, the Black Power movement, and the physique of a pregnant friend. With their small heads, ballooning proportions, and tapered limbs, the multiracial super-sexed sculptures evoke both rough-hewn stone artifacts and children’s papier-mâché projects. For better or worse, the Nanas, as they’re called, were to become her signature.
For the artist, a double Scorpio, revolution was not a political project. It was an inexorable, epochal development blazing on the horizon, a pendulum swinging back to settle scores and restore the prehistoric glory of a lost matriarchy. A message of love and joy had begun to temper—and would ultimately outweigh—the taunting rage and symbolic violence of the Tirs. In her sculptures, drawings, paintings, performances, films, writings, playgrounds, habitable structures, and public persona, Saint Phalle presented an oracular—if sometimes fragmented, contradictory, and perplexing—vision of utopia, inventing the iconography, erecting the monuments, and dreaming the fantastic architecture of a new society.
She also made merchandise for the old one: inflatable beach toys, jewelry, and perfume in a cobalt-blue bottle, its gold top adorned with a pair of snakes, entwined and kissing. I periodically uncap a jewellike, talismanic sample size of the vintage fragrance as I write. Launched in 1982, the long-expired potion—or the superstitious futility of inhaling its seductively suffocating fragrance in hope of gleaning fresh insight—somehow captures the conundrum of Saint Phalle’s weird, romantic politics and unwieldy, amazing body of work.
Feminist is not a descriptor she embraced until late in life (she died in 2002 at the age of seventy-one). Mostly, it’s a label that has been bestowed upon her in attempts to contend with her quixotic ambition. Her resistance to the term, though, derived not from a real quarrel with its meaning so much as from some murky combination of misunderstanding, eccentricity, and calculation. Her personal brand of rebellion emerged before the advent of the women’s movement proper, in the pregnant pause between the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949 (when she was an eighteen-year-old fashion model about to marry her first husband, Harry Mathews) and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, by which point Saint Phalle had already taken up arms against the church, the Father, and the picture plane. Her wrath against her family for her abusive, conformist upbringing, and her determination to revolt, in life and art, emerged independently of any movement or schooling. Hospitalized in 1953 after a suicide attempt—the low point of a psychic deterioration instigated by the realities of marriage and motherhood—she became an artist over the course of her six-week stay.
Articulating her position again in the early ’70s, she stated, “I’d like to re-establish matriarchy, with children bearing their mothers’ names and males with the role of strutting cockerels. But I won’t parade behind any banner.” Rejecting collective action with women, she focused on tempestuous alliances with men. Early on, she had found power in her status as an anomaly, rising to fame with her firearms, in her white jumpsuit. She was the only woman in French critic Pierre Restany’s post-Dada Nouveau Réalisme group, which included, most famously, Yves Klein, as well as kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, who would become Saint Phalle’s second husband and lifelong collaborator. And she knew her violent performances and extreme statements were hailed (or humored) in part because of her camera-ready sex appeal. More than a decade before she announced the end of men in that Vogue Paris interview, she had appeared, in 1952, on the magazine’s cover, lips parted, in a mink coat.
She might have joined with any number of the women artists of her day, proclaimed feminists or not, who also explored gender roles and sexual politics, and who likewise radically expanded the field of art through the use of craft, decoration, folk tradition, and performance. But there were few if any connections of substance. Saint Phalle was determined to be an outsider even among outsiders. With her classically art brut psychiatric-patient origin story and her lack of formal training, she maintained and cultivated a distinctive, anti-elitist style, but she was nevertheless very much an insider. However unique her imagery and proclamations might be, echoes of canonical modernists such as Jackson Pollock (her splatters, her scale) and European painters from Paul Gaugin to Jean Dubuffet (her regrettable primitivism) are detectable in her work. And socially, she was affiliated with modernist writers and poets (Mathews was an author) and then with artists in New York (Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns) and in Paris (Tinguely et al.).
By 1963, Saint Phalle had already taken up arms against the church, the Father, and the picture plane.
She was an insider even in her engagement with so-called outsider art. Fascination with the work of the self-taught was hardly unusual among big names of the early and midcentury European avant-garde (Dubuffet, who coined the term art brut, being its most devoted proponent). Like the Surrealists before her, she obsessively admired Le Palais Idéal, 1879–1912, a phantasmagorical palace built with found stones by the rural French postman Ferdinand Cheval over the course of three decades. His captivating feat of “naive” architecture was an obvious influence (along with Gaudí) on her monstrous sculptures and structures, as well as a precursor to the Tarot Garden. A glittering bestiary on an enchanted fourteen acres in Tuscany, the garden, which she broke ground on in 1979, was her magnum opus; she worked on it with Chevalian determination for the rest of her life.
Despite personal connections and aesthetic affinities that place her in the heart of the late-modernist artistic milieu of the ’60s, Saint Phalle’s practice has been largely marginalized in histories of postwar art. That’s sexism, for sure, but it also seems to have suited her to stand apart from patriarchal art history as a woman and, as she boasted, “almost . . . the only sculptor capable of creating something poetic.” Yet Saint Phalle has hardly been ignored. She was and still is famous. Her Nanas and her storybook-style drawings, accompanied by exaggeratedly rounded, girlish cursive, are instantly recognizable and beloved internationally by people far beyond the rarefied art world; her Tarot Garden draws tens of thousands of visitors every year. And her glamour, as well as her remarkable story, will forever win her new fans. Yet “Structures for Life,” her current retrospective at MoMA PS1 in New York, I was shocked to learn, is Saint Phalle’s first major solo museum exhibition in the US.
The survey, curated by Ruba Katrib with Josephine Graf, is a demanding onslaught of objects and information, dense with photo documentation, archival footage, and ephemera. It charts the breadth of Saint Phalle’s fantastic body of work and conveys a sense of what may be its defining tension: the tug of war between the intimate, autobiographical content of her art and her tireless drive to represent that content in symbolic, mythic terms on the grandest scale possible. The presentation is more expository than immersive or transporting, though. Nothing in it actually approaches her famous monumentality—as exemplified, for instance, by L’impératrice (The Empress), 1982–89, the building-size sculpture in which Saint Phalle lived during her extended decampment to the Tarot Garden. (The cavernous, sphinxlike figure houses a functional apartment with a dazzling mirror-shard mosaic interior. Saint Phalle slept in one breast; her kitchen was in the other.) In “Structures,” it is represented by an exquisite maquette—an artwork in its own right—and similar models stand in for other enormous outdoor works. Among them is a plan for Le dragon de Knokke (The Dragon of Knokke), ca. 1973, a privately commissioned, whimsically twisted child’s playhouse in the form of a mythic monster, its long red tongue a slide. (The domicile creature was built in Belgium; Keith Haring, who, with his radiant socially minded Pop imagery, struck Saint Phalle as a kindred spirit, took up residence there for a time.)
The largest sculpture at MoMA PS1 is Clarice Again, 1966–67, a garishly striped polyester-and-polyurethane figure (named for Saint Phalle’s original Nana muse, Clarice Rivers, whose third-trimester body ignited the artist’s imagination). While quite commanding, it measures just under seven feet tall—small for Saint Phalle. Luckily, an opportunity to experience the magical qualities of her huge works was offered by “Joy Revolution,” the spectacular complementary exhibition on view earlier this year at New York’s Salon 94. In the gallery’s palatial space on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the artist grew up, her Guardian Lions, 2000, presided, serenely vigilant, over the main room on the ground floor. The beautiful cats, with their mosaic coats of glossy tile and tumbled stone and their stately Ptolemaic poses, evoked a Sundays-at-the-Met childhood as well as a need for protection.
Among the approximately two hundred pieces in “Structures” are a number of Saint Phalle’s anthropomorphic animal sculptures, as well as many prints and a generous selection of the chic, delightful, sometimes ridiculous multiples and merchandise she sold, including scarves, gilt-and-enamel brooches, and the aforementioned bottles of scent. But if the contents of these vitrines seem lighthearted, the inclusion of early works, or riveting documentation associated with them, reveals the radical contempt that once upon a time simmered on the surface of Saint Phalle’s art.
Autel O.A.S. (Altar O.A.S.), 1962–92, is a bronze altar adorned with rats, bats, and guns as well as crucifixes; its title acronym stands for both the French phrase for “sacred artwork” (oeuvre d’art sacre) and the Organisation Armée Secrète, the right-wing terrorist group opposing Algerian independence. And a bleeding “Tir” from 1964 makes clear that Saint Phalle was taking aim at masculinist values as expressed in both painting and war. Images of the landmark installation Hon—en katedral (She—a Cathedral), 1966, made with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, capture the work’s countercultural whimsy and profane/sacred power. A Nana on her back (an uncharacteristically passive pose for one of Saint Phalle’s figures), Hon contained a cinema, a milk bar, and a goldfish pond among its amenities. With the entrance to this fun palace located between the female giant’s legs, the viewers streaming into her, looking for a good time, could not help but be implicated in the artists’ garish, carnivalesque take on the reclining nude—at once divinely abundant and carelessly despoiled, both devouring and giving birth to eager crowds. In addition to Saint Phalle’s forthright strategies of confrontation, there is a subtler sardonic vulgarity or perversity in many of these projects that provides vital context for the later Nanas, priming viewers to perceive the unsettling qualities of what might otherwise seem to be unthreatening or kitsch celebrations of goddess femininity. Beneath their gaiety lies a strange, cultic objecthood, a borderline grotesqueness; cumulatively, they seem a parliament of idols keeping their own mysterious counsel. And yet they are still vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
The curators’ careful presentation of later artist’s books also gives the lie to the image of Saint Phalle as a naively optimistic one-note creator (or peddler) of ebullient Nanas. There’s a group of drawings associated with the compassionate, grief-inflected, educational-activist publication AIDS, You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands, 1986, and a display of pages from Mon secret, 1994, a letter to her daughter in which she writes candidly about being raped by her father as a child.
Even when Saint Phalle’s art trades in the language of archetypes, icons, and fairy-tale tropes, its autobiographical foundation is apparent. The exiling of her mid- and late-career output from the realm of art discourse to an adjacent, perhaps more visible but less prestigious place in culture bespeaks the common view of her work as primarily or merely therapeutic, and the related tendency to read its purposely childlike look as dumbed down, seems to contribute to her hazy disrepute. Her use of confessional modes and melodramatic methods of encryption bear a gendered stigma, which makes it all the more important to take careful critical stock of her art. Healing practices may also be aesthetic ones—certainly, Saint Phalle made no secret of how her art saved her life. “Since the age of twenty,” She wrote in her memoir, Traces (1999), “I have tried all kinds of psychotherapies. I was longing for an inner unity that I found while working. I wanted to forgive my father for trying to make me his mistress when I was eleven. I found only rage and passionate hate in my heart.”
While it was only in her last decade that she explicitly named the abuse, her 1973 feature film, Daddy, a collaboration with British filmmaker Peter Whitehead, seems to portray it, and its effects, in fictionalized form. A through-the-looking-glass psychoanalytic rape-revenge narrative starring Saint Phalle as a version of herself, Daddy works as both exegesis and exorcism. Its narrative includes a stylized but convincing and alarming act of incest in which roughhousing becomes groping and then gets worse, as well as sequences of blunt symbolic imagery, e.g., Daddy’s corpse as a casket-size white penis (an unsubtle gesture even without the play on the artist’s patrilineal surname, “of the holy phallus”). Lush footage shows the artist firing a gun at a composition of animal trophies and exploding pockets of paint in front of what looks to be a crumbling church; later, she shoots at a grotesque portrait, The Death of the Patriarch, 1972. In the context of Daddy, it seems her Tirs function to curse not only the metaphysical Father but also a particular loved and despised one.
Shot at a fifteenth-century chateau, complete with stone turrets and topiary maze, the film evokes Saint Phalle’s French aristocratic ancestry, which can be traced back to the Crusades. (She lived in a chateau with her grandparents until the age of three and was then raised in New York and Connecticut by her parents, returning to France as an adult.) The medieval setting, incongruously punctuated by Nanas and similar brightly colored works, seems to float free of reality and become part of the larger mythic landscape of her art. The film closes with Saint Phalle’s alternately blank and angry reading of a sad, semi-Oedipal story about a girl and a monster. For her, fairy tales did not represent fantasies of escape, but served to articulate, through allegory, the tragedies and challenges of her life. With this in mind, I can’t help but find her majestic public sculptures and play structures rather melancholic despite their fanciful appearance.
Saint Phalle ultimately declared herself an “ardent feminist” and spoke out about rape and childhood sexual abuse as a part of her activism rather than as (only) a part of psychoanalytic self-discovery. “I thought for a long time that I was an exception, which isolated me still further, but now I’ve been able to speak to other rape victims,” she wrote in the mid-’90s. This discovery or articulation of a common cause came at the tail end of a decades-long, go-it-alone, pie-in-the-sky dream of matriarchy, a heartfelt but haphazard agenda that could appear campy and was in some ways retrograde.
Saint Phalle’s use of confessional modes and melodramatic methods of encryption bear a gendered stigma, which makes it all the more important to take careful critical stock of her art.
Her Nanas were first and foremost symbols of power—expansive, abundant, divine counter-icons to the emaciated, white, Twiggy ideal that was then ascendant in mass media, and a rebuke of male Pop artists’ uncritical repetition of sexist imagery. But with these small-headed figures of overdetermined femaleness and fecundity, her rhapsodic transvaluation of the feminine, Saint Phalle stayed within the realm of gender binaries and extremes. And the distorted proportions of the Nanas risked appearing as caricature. A white radical enamored of the Black Power movement who hoped to represent inclusive, progressive ideals in her art, Saint Phalle recognized that the patriarchy she fought wasn’t race neutral; she saw its white-supremacist character. Yet she struggled, or didn’t struggle enough, to form a critique of the racism and imperialism of her time in visual terms.
At Salon 94, in an Edenic installation upstairs, there was Gwendolyn, 1966/1990, an immensely pregnant, wildly patterned Nana radiating a flower-power gravitas; the black sculpture Black Dancer, 1966–67, a figure skipping or kicking in a short dress; and Le peril jaune (The Yellow Peril), 1969, a Nana painted canary yellow, reaching or leaping for a ball. The latter work’s bright hue is clearly meant to satirize the title’s anti-Asian slur, but it arguably amplifies the insult. And there seems little doubt that just as “yellow” invokes race in the title The Yellow Peril, so does “Black” in Black Dancer and in many other titles Saint Phalle bestowed on Nanas whose “skin” is black. Meanwhile Gwendolyn, presumably white, is given a name, and her race goes unnoted.
The PS1 exhibition doesn’t include any Black Nanas on a larger-than-life scale, and in Salon 94’s illuminating, extensive exhibition notes, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and artist Carrie Mae Weems discuss the fact that museums generally won’t show them. The Whitney, for example, has in its collection Saint Phalle’s sculpture Black Venus, 1965–67, but hasn’t shown it in recent memory. I can see why. Without context, the sculpture might register as a racist caricature—and perhaps it is, unintentionally. Good intentions mingle with blithe exoticism in Saint Phalle’s career, I think it’s fair to say.
Her messiness—her antifeminist feminism, her racist antiracism, her essentialist and appropriative imagery, her obdurate intellectual isolation from contemporaries who were thinking through such issues—is not given in any source I’ve checked as a possible reason for the long delay in mounting a comprehensive retrospective of her work. (It seems very likely to me that it was at least one factor.) Instead, the accepted line seems to be that Saint Phalle was punished as a sellout, that she discredited herself with proto-KAWSian enterprises launched before their time, long before licensing deals and diffusion lines became unremarkable, if not de rigueur, for a certain type of artist-celebrity. In turning her Nanas into tchotchkes and souvenirs, she made her work less palatable to critics, undermining her own radical legacy.
At this moment of belated reconsideration, the organizers of “Structures for Life” took care to integrate Saint Phalle’s entrepreneurial activity into a richer, holistic understanding of her practice. In the catalogue accompanying the retrospective, essayists Anne Dressen and Nick Mauss defend this aspect of her practice in terms of the conceptual and visual interest of the variously scaled and priced gender-specific objects and substances she produced. As they note, Saint Phalle defended her commercial activities very effectively herself—they were a way to make money. “I spend all the money I make from my perfumes and sculptures here on my garden,” she said in 1987 from her sparkling headquarters in The Empress, I assume. “I am my own patron. I live my project day to day . . . my only limits are my strength and my financial means.” Her formidable side hustle, which freed her from reliance on benefactors and institutional support, also estranged her from systems of validation. One of her strengths, always, was that she didn’t care.
“Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life,” is on view at MoMA PS1, New York, through September 6.
Johanna Fateman is a writer, an art critic, and a co-owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is a contributing editor of Artforum.