Niki de Saint Phalle
(1930 - 2002)
Niki de Saint Phalle was active/lived in California, New York / France. Niki de Saint Phalle is known for "nana" female figure sculptures, paintings, assemblages.
Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle was born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle
at Neuilly-sur-Seine, and was the second of five children of Jeanne
Jacqueline, nee Harper and Andre Marie de Saint Phalle, a banker. In
the early 1930s, her father lost all the family money in the stock
market crash of 1929, and Niki and her elder brother were separated
from their parents and sent to live with paternal grandparents in the
Nievre area of France for the next three years. In 1933, the
family reunited in Greenwich, Connecticut, and spent summers in France
with American maternal grandfather Donald Harper at his chateau .
1937 the family moved to New York City and lived there for 10
years. Niki started school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart,
and at this age she was much influenced by comic books and visits to
the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She went to a number of schools,
and at the Brearley School, she became interested in literature,
especially the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and the Greek
tragedies. She discovered Russian authors and passionately read
all the Dostoevsky novels. She was also interested in acting in
the school's plays and poetry. She was later dismissed from
Brearley for painting the fig leaves red on the school's statuary.
She eventually graduated from Old Field School, a private all girl
school in Maryland, and from the late 40s to mid 50s, worked as fashion
model for Vogue, Life, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, and other French and American magazines.
age eighteen, she eloped with Harry Mathews and moved to Cambridge,
Massachusetts. She began to paint, experimenting with different
media and style while her husband studied music at Harvard
University. Their first child, Laura, was born April 1951.
1952, she and her husband moved to Paris where Niki studied theater and
acting, and her husband continued his studies in music. He later
became a writer, and founder of the literary magazine Locus Solus. They shared the upbringing of their daughter, and traveled through
France, Italy, and Spain visiting museums and cathedrals.
was hospitalized in Nice in 1953 with a nervous breakdown. She
re-evaluated the direction of her life, painted to help her recovery,
and communicated through her art.
In 1954, she was introduced
to Hugh Weiss, the American painter, who was a friend, mentor and
encouraged her to continue in her self-taught painting style.
Niki and her husband moved to Deya, Majorca, Spain where son Philip was
born in May 1955.
They returned to France, and in Paris she
had her first meeting with sculptor Jean Tinguely and his wife Eva
Aeppli. In 1956, she held her first solo exhibition of paintings,
which was in St. Gall, Switzerland. During this time she painted
and explored various collage elements. Three years later she
viewed a contemporary art exhibition at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la
Ville de Paris including work by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning,
Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
Niki and Harry Mathews
eventually separated, and the children lived with their father. While apart from her family, she immersed herself in her work,
setting up a studio, and creating assemblages* that took on an angry
aspect in a new series called 'target' paintings, which actually had
darts thrown at them.
At the end of 1960 she lived and shared
a studio with Jean Tinguely; eventually they collaborated and assisted
each other on projects throughout their relationship. Constantin
Brancusi was a neighbor, and through Tinguely she met Pontus Hulten,
then director of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Hulten included
her work in major exhibitions organized at the time.
served as an ambassador figure between the avant-garde* in France and
the United States, due to her bi-cultural background and the direction
in her own art.
In 1961, she developed her 'target' paintings
into a series of 'shooting' paintings or "tirs". It is through acts
of destruction that these works were created---the assemblages were
shot with a pistol, rifle or cannon by herself or others, producing
spontaneous effects and the dispersion of colors. As they
evolved, the "tirs" became larger, more elaborate in concept and included
elements of spectacle and performance.
Pierre Restany, founder
of the Nouveau Realistes*, attended her first public "tir", and invited
her to become a member of his movement. She became involved in
the ideas, festivals and activities of the group, which included Pierre
Arman, Baldaccini Cesar, Javacheff Christo, Gerard Deschamps, Francois
Dufrene, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Mimmo Rotella,
Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely and Jacques Villegle.
Niki had her first solo exhibition in Paris at Galerie J with assemblages, tirs, and a public shooting area.
and Tinguely were introduced to Salvador Dali by Marcel Duchamp, and
Niki traveled to Spain with Tinguely for a celebration honoring
Dali. There they made a life-size exploding bull with plaster,
paper and fireworks for the arena at Figueras.
The couple then
moved to an old country inn outside of Paris to live and work, and she
began working with figurative reliefs, confrontational depictions of
women, some giving birth or vivi-sectioned. Inspired by the
pregnancy of her friend Clarisse Rivers, she began considering
archetypal female figures in relation to her thinking on the position
of women in society. From this idea, she created freely posed
forms, made of papier-mache, yarn and cloth and called them 'Nanas',
which were exhibited at the Alexander Lolas Gallery, Paris, September
In 1966, Niki collaborated with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultlvedt on a large scale sculpture installation*, hon-en katedral
for Moderna Museet, Stockholm. The outer form of "hon" is a
giant, reclining 'Nana', whose internal environment is entered from
between her legs.
Tinguely and Niki received a commission from
the French Government to make a sculpture for "Expo '67" in Montreal,
Canada. Their collaboration, Le Paradis Fantastique, a
combination of their distinct styles, is installed on the roof of the
French Pavilion. After "Expo'67", attempts failed to find a
permanent home for the sculpture in either France or the United States,
and the piece was saved from destruction through the efforts of Pontus
Hulten, and eventually acquired and installed at Moderna Museet.
Les Nanas au Pouvoir,
Niki de Saint Phalle's first retrospective exhibition, was organized at
the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. She created a number of new
pieces for the show that emphasized a direction toward architectural
and functional design.
Niki was also involved in writing during
this period and some of her work was adapted into a play with Rainer
Von Diez, ICH. She also designed decors, costumes, and the
posters for this play, which was presented at the Staatstheater Kassel,
Germany, 1968, and created 'Nana' inflatables, plastic multiples
produced and distributed in the United States.
permanent architectural project was privately commissioned in 1969 for
a summer residence in the South of France and was completed in
1971. She continued to be involved in 'fantastic' architectural
projects requiring her total commitment in all stages of planning and
execution. Sculpture Black Venus was acquired by the
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and exhibited in the museum's
show, "Contemporary American Sculpture, Selection II", April 69.
She traveled to India and Egypt, which broadened the context of visual
associations used in her work.
Niki and Jean Tinguely were
married in 1971 and traveled to Morocco. In 1972, she began
productive association with art fabricator, Haligon, France, for her
large-scale sculptures and work in editions. She also designed
jewelry for GEM Montebello Laboratory, Milan.
One of the films she wrote, Daddy,
she also acted in, produced and directed with Peter Whitehead. The film is a surreal*, psychological exploration of a relationship
between a father and a tri-part character of the daughter as child,
adolescent and adult.
In 1974, she built three large-scale
'Nanas' for a permanent site, near the town hall in Hanover,
Germany. The city names them Sophie, Charlotte and Caroline in
honor of three historically distinguished women from Hanover. She
later exhibited maquettes of realized and unrealized architectural
projects, created an artist book and invitations to accompany the show.
Niki was hospitalized with a serious lung ailment, and it is
believed that through her work she was exposed to toxic fumes produced
by polyester. This and other materials used cause severe damage
to her lungs that resulted in recurrent health problems. To help
recover, she lived in the Swiss mountains, where she read Gaston
Bachelar, Rainer Maria Rilke and Konstandinos Kavafy. She met a
friend she had known in New York in the 1950's, Marella Caracciolo
Agnelli, to whom she confided her ultimate dream-to build a sculpture
garden based on her interpretations of symbols from the Tarot. Her friend's brothers, Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo, offered a parcel of
their land in Tuscany, Italy as a site for her dream. The massive
undertaking of the garden consumed her thoughts and energies for the
next twenty years.
In 1975, her eighteen element sculptural tableau Last Night I Had a Dream was installed on the exterior of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, for an arts festival.
was cleared and foundations dug at the site in Tuscany, formally named
"Giardino dei Tarocchi" in 1978-79. The first models were related
to the Tarot figures represented in the Garden. She became
interested in the idea of linear sculpture-drawings in space and makes
the "Skinnys", a series of totem-like pieces that often have colored
lights and elements suspended by string. She began to design
furniture and other functional objects with serpents and figurative
She spent some time living in Malibu, California, and
conceived a series of maquettes based on new ideas for architectural
fantasies. These works were first exhibited at Gimpel &
Weitzenhffer, New York, and then traveled in the United States.
She then had her first solo show in Japan at Gallery Watari, Tokyo.
The symbols of the Tarot guided the creation of the Garden. Construction began on the first architectural sculpture, La Papesse,
representing female creativity and strength. She spent the major
part of the next ten years on site receiving assistance from many
friends and supporters. Jean Tinguely together with Rico Weber
and Seppi Imhof began welding the iron under structures for the first
group of enlarged Tarot Figures; this work involved special engineering
skills for each piece, and was taken over and completed by Dutch
artist, Doc Wilsen.
The Ulm Museum organized the first retrospective devoted to her graphic work. Poet et sa Muse
was permanently installed at the University of Ulm, and she was honored
with a major retrospective at Musee National d'art Moderne, Centre
George Pompidou, Paris, that traveled to Austria, Germany and Sweden.
of the first shows was organized at experimental space, SPACE NIKI,
Tokyo. Established by Yoko Masuda, SPACE NIKI became a collection of
work in all media, films and related material that further
understanding of the artist and her work.
In 1982, she created
a fragrance with her name for the Jaqueline Cochran Company, New
York. She was instrumental in the design of the distinctive blue
and gold bottles and packaging with logo of entwined serpents. The money from the perfume went to help finance the Garden. She
collaborated with Tinguely to create a foundation for the City of Paris
on a site beside the Centre George Pompidou. They combined their
sculptural elements in a fluid, moving setting, producing a joyous
spontaneity-an apt homage to Igor Stravinsky for whom the fountain is
She created a permanent sculpture Sun God for
the University of California at San Diego as part of the Stuart
Collection. She also designed print for a project to support an
alternative art space, the Temporary Contemporary, Los Angeles.
The work, in the form of a picto-graphic letter, expressed her early
awareness and concern for those afflicted by AIDS. She continued
to be involved in efforts to reverse the effects of ignorance and bias
which allow this fatal virus to spread.
Niki de Saint Phalle
began to suffer from debilitating attacks of rheumatoid arthritis. She
continued to exhibit at the "Skinnys" at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer,
New York and at Gimpel Fils, London. She eventually moved into
the "Empress", the Sphinx structure at the Tarot Garden. This was
her home and studio for the next seven years during the period of
intense work of completing the Garden. Works based on her Tarot
figures, accompanied by an artist book, are exhibited at Gimpel Fils,
London and at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer, New York.
In collaboration with Dr. Silvio Barandun, she wrote and illustrated the book AIDS: You Can't Catch it Holding Hands. This informative text, presented in a positive and compassionate
format, is published in seven languages. She received a
commission from Mrs. Helen Schneider to create a fountain, Snake Tree,
for the Schneider Children's Hospital, Long Island, New York. Two
major retrospectives are held at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturtiftung,
Munich, and Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Long Island, New York.
Working with Tinguely in 1989, they created Fontaine Chateau Chinon,
commissioned by the French President, Francois Mitterand. Alexandre Iolas, her long-time friend, died. Niki began to be
represented in Paris by JGM Gallery and Gallery de France, and these
galleries organized a number of exhibits that focused on different
periods in her career.
She started to use bronze in a series of
sculpture derived from ancient Egyptian deities. The experience
of the Tarot Garden carries over in her use of materials, particularly
brilliantly colored or mirrored mosaics.
In 1991, she created a maturate for Le Temple Ideal,
a place for worship for all religions. This architecture was
originally conceived in the early 1970's as a hopeful alternative to
the religious intolerance she observed while working in
Jerusalem. She received a commission from the city of Nimes,
France, to build this architectural sculpture, however because of
politics, this project is never realized. Jean Tinguely died in
Switzerland in August, and in his honor, she made her first kinetic*
The Kunst und
Ausstellunghalle, Bonn organized a large retrospective in 1992-93. She
exhibited in McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, the Musee d'art Moderne de
la Ville de Paris and the Musee D'Art et d'Histoire, Fribourg. She
installed the fountain Oiseau Amoureux in Duisburg, Germany, and created a sculpture for Olympic Museum Les Footballeurs.
In 1994, she moved to California, where she spent the last years of her life. She worked on a series of silk screens, California Diary,
for Kornfeld editions. She received the Caran d'Ache. Peter
Schamoni produced a long feature film about Niki entitled Who is the Monster, You or Me?, and she also held an exhibit at the Kornfeld Gallery in Bern, Switzerland.
Garden first opened to the public in July of 1996-1998. She had
been working with Mario Botta on a project to build a sculpture park
for children, representing the arrival of Noah and the Arch to the
promised land. The official opening of the Tarot Garden to the
Public was May 15, 1998.
Niki de Saint Phalle died in 2002 in San Diego, California.
Website of the artist
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