At Menil, Niki de Saint Phalle’s revolutionary embrace of violence, joy and women’s empowerment – Sightlines


If you’ve ever visited the Center Pompidou in Paris, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Niki de Saint Phalle’s colorful Stravinsky fountain next to the museum. The Outdoor Kinetic Artwork was created in 1983 by Saint Phalle and her 20-year-old husband, artist Jean Tinguely, who contributed to the mechanical parts of the sculpture.

Long recognized in France, recent exhibitions at MoMA PS1 and Salon 94 in New York City mean that Saint Phalle’s work is receiving expected attention in the United States. MoMA PS1’s exhibit focused on later work including architecture and sculptural environments, but many would agree that his most groundbreaking work dates from the 1960s, which is the subject of an exhibit currently on display at the Menil. Houston Collection.

“Niki de Saint Phalle in the 60s” is divided into two basic sections, the series “Filming paintings” or “Tir”, which came first, followed by “Nanas” – with many assemblages and collages of images throughout. The “Tirs” (tir, which means to shoot or shot in French) and the “Nanas” (French slang for young girl / woman / large) are of a revolutionary feminism, although they express the empowerment of women. in very different ways.

Nike de Saint Phalle’s “Nanas” sculptures were resolutely feminist and expressed the emancipation of women. Photo by Paul Hester, courtesy of Menil Collection

Partly performance, the shooting paintings evolved following an incident when Saint Phalle asked visitors to the gallery to throw darts on “Hors-d’oeuvre, ou Portrait de mon amant” (1960), a painted assembly combining a man’s shirt and a target in place of a face representing the attributes of ancient flames. Over the next several years, more than 25 shooting events took place, with Saint Phalle supplying a .22 caliber rifle to spectators willing to participate, including American artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg at one point. Bags filled with paint of different colors encased in layers of plaster against a slatted backing exploded on contact, releasing the pigment, which dripped, splashed and spattered the surface of the artwork.

While the “Shoots” garnered their fair share of the tabloid press, they were quite personal to the artist. Victim of aggression in his childhood, the works of Saint Phalle not only emphasize chance, but also respond in moments of provocative violence, which are an integral part of the finished work. They did not only deal with violence against women before Me too, but also with the broader threat of war.

Although a little late, Saint Phalle was one of the few female artists associated with the Nouveau Réalisme group in France (Nouveau Réalisme). Her goals were in sync with those of the group in that she questioned the focus over the previous decade on hyper masculinity, embodied by the archetypal, emotional and heroic action-painter. The New Realists provided foils for postwar American Abstract Expressionism and the more diverse European version of abstract art, Informalism (Art Informel).

In their critique of consumer culture through materials conveying urban decadence, the New Realists were drawn to assemblage, collage and take off and Saint Phalle was no exception. His painted assemblages repeatedly include found objects such as dolls, shoes, sculptures of sacred figures, toy guns, musical instruments and plastic skulls. In “Cathedral” and “Reims”, splashes of black and blue paint, wire mesh, fabric and other supports on plywood combine to represent Gothic cathedrals.

Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle, Pirodactyl over New York, 1962. Paint, plaster, and objects on two wood panels, 98 3/8 × 122 × 11 3/4 in. (249.9 × 309.9 × 29.8 cm). Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved
Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle, Reims, 1962. Paint, plaster, wire, wire mesh, fabric and objects on plywood, 74 1/2 × 48 × 11 7/8 in. (189.2 × 121.9 × 30.2 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. Photo: Paul Hester

After a few years of successfully parodying patriarchal art stars (think Georges Mathieu and Jackson Pollock) in film sets, Saint Phalle changed his approach, worrying aloud that shooting a gun was a drug she had become addicted to.

She turned her attention to the female body, exhibiting her first papier-mâché “Nanas” in 1965. Like updated fertility figures, these ultra-curvy and brilliantly decorated women dance, jump and jump boldly. Qualified by some as playful and others as imposing, they tend to extend their limbs outwards, in an eternal exercise to enlarge physically.

Le Menil presents a room of large and small “Nanas” as well as serigraphs and works on paper from the same period. “Portrait of Pregnant Clarice Rivers” (1964-1965) is not a sculptural Nana, but a collage, colored pencil, pastel and ink on paper that stands out. Pregnant friend, Clarice Rivers (wife of Larry Rivers) indeed influenced the development of the emblematic fertile goddess of Saint Phalle. Here, the subject and the mother-to-be are seen from the side. Her entire body and some type of hairstyle are intricately covered, as if fully tattooed, with abstract patterns, text, and representative images (e.g. ballerina, pin-up, kitten, and bird, as well as butterflies, roses and crustaceans – oddly located in utero.) Rivers’ face, hand-drawn in graphite, turns to the viewer, contrasting in his nudity.

A “Madame” or “Green Nana with a black bag” dressed in 1968 is on display. Monumental in size, this matriarch has a stocky body and a tiny head (like many prehistoric sculptures of women). She commands her space, ready for the world in her green patterned dress, tight purse, and awkward black heels.

Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle and Larry Rivers, “Portrait of Pregnant Clarice Rivers”, 1964-1965. Collage, colored pencils, pastel, graphite and ink on paper, 61 13/16 × 44 1/16 in. (157 × 112 cm). Collection Isabelle and David Lévy, Brussels. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. © Estate of Larry Rivers / VAGA at the Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Madame ou Nana verte avec sac noir”, 1968. Painted polyester, 101 9/16 × 60 5/8 × 25 9/16 in. (258 × 154 × 65 cm). Private collection, Courtesy of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, Paris. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. Photo: André Morain

The Menil exhibition also features archival images and a model of the artist’s greatest figure, the ‘Hon – in katedral [She – a Cathedral]. “The artists Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt contributed to this temporary installation located at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1967. The work depicts a giant pregnant woman lying on her back with her knees bent and her legs open to reveal a doorway where it would be. her vagina. 80 feet long and 20 feet high, the construction could accommodate 150 people inside. The interior was designed to give the impression of an amusement park and the whole attracted a lot of people. international attention, effectively but intelligently asserting the power of women.

The last gallery includes books, magazines, posters, portraits of the artist in his studio, and photos of the artist with his friends François and John de Ménil during a visit to Houston in 1969. Perhaps that my favorite of the additional documentation is the 12 black and white photos capturing young New Realists (including founding member Pierre Restany) photographing paintings in a Paris alley. They provided insider glimpse at a very specific point in time, where the exploits and ideas of some avant-garde artists anticipated decades of concept art to come.

Menil Niik de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle during a filming session Impasse Ronsin, Paris, 1962. © André Morain Photo courtesy Menil Collectio

“Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” is on view at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston, until January 23, 2022.


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