Niki De Saint Phalle in the 1960’s at MCASD  – Art and Cake

Niki De Saint Phalle, Niki De Saint Phalle in the 1960’s, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Photo Credit: Gary Brewer.

Niki De Saint Phalle in the 1960’s  

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego
Through July 17, 2022

That is the first free woman I have ever seen in real life. I want to be just like her.

Gloria Steinem, after seeing Saint Phalle walking down Fifty-seventh Street.

Written by Gary Brewer
The Niki De Saint Phalle exhibition was a revelation.

Her work from the 1960’s was a powerful period of transformation and empowerment. The show begins with early assemblage pieces whose funky free flowing excess of found objects was embedded in the zeitgeist of the times; other artists such as Kienholz, Rauschenberg, and the early works of Carolee Schneemann, were also experimenting with found materials transforming the pedestrian world into metaphors that touched upon a range of subjects.

She began her Tir works during this period- signature performative pieces where she filled balloons with paint, laying them onto panels and pouring plaster onto the surface- affixing them to the panel. She then placed them at a distance and shot the pieces with a rifle or a pistol, causing the paint to explode and drip down the face of the paintings. Rich, complex surfaces emerged, the action blending humor, aggression, anger and pure invention in works that are still surprisingly fresh and powerful.

She began her career at seventeen as a successful fashion model, appearing on the cover of Vogue, Elle and Life magazines. Her beauty added another layer to the performance/action pieces that were enacted and filmed throughout Europe and America. Three of her actions took place in Los Angeles. The powerful fusion of her feminine allure and the violence of the gun are in a sense a statement about transcending the male gaze and asserting a primordial female power.

In Grand Tir, Séance De La Gallerie J, 56×30, the rumpled topography of the plaster surface is pockmarked with bullet holes. The paint bleeds and blends together in vertical pours. It has pathos and humor; the object is an artifact of the performance and a tragic-comic metaphor of death, destruction and rebirth. One can feel in this piece the exuberant experimental approach of this era, an approach to making art that she shared with friends Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and her husband at the time, Jean Tinguely.  

In the large piece, Tir, Séance, 126 x 82 inches, her power is fully expressed. A monumental piece, whose physicality asserts a sculptural presence; it is image, object and action fused into a towering work. The height allows the drips to travel farther, giving the record of gravity and time, space to speak eloquently about the act that brought this work into being. It is adorned with a sink, a hatchet, a lantern, an autoharp, the front left panel of a car, and various pipes and other marginalia from the world of human necessities. Combined, they seek to transform our world of sundry objects into revelations about what is possible through will, imagination and desire.

This theme of transformation is more directly addressed in her Nana’s, the large full figures of women that she began in 1964. These early female figures were first inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarice Rivers, (Larry River’s wife). She collaborated with Larry Rivers on the piece, Portrait de Clarice Rivers Enceinte, 61 x 44.  A combination of collage and drawing, River’s hand can be clearly seen in the drawing of his wife’s face. The collage has a psychedelic feeling to it, filling in the silhouette of her pregnant friend with myriad colorful images cutout from magazines. It marks the beginning of a spiritual quest, her search for a powerful female archetype, an image that transcends time and space, culture and social mores.

The early incarnations of her Nanas have a primordial force. The Venus of Willendorf and other ancient representations of the goddess come to mind in these funky, irreverent, boisterous works. The 1960’s shine through in the early sculptures: Pop Art, psychedelic art, and collage animate her female archetypes.

Crucifixtion, 92 x 57, is a powerful, dark, and mythic image that has the sheer power to capture the imagination and generate complex ideas and feelings. She is a large monstrous figure of a woman in garter belts, stockings and a large bushy triangle of pubic hair. She is adorned with a massive clustering of small baby dolls; her head is seemingly just barely coming to the surface from this sea of babies. It is a strangely disquieting piece, possibly a representation of the pain of giving birth (de Phalle was a mother with two children) or a critique of the social expectations that see motherhood as the most important role that a woman can play.

Madam, or Green Nana with Black Bag, 101 x 60 x 25, is a monumental sculpture: comedic and playful. A giantess is adorned in the Piccadilly Circus fashion of the swinging sixties. A bold green and black pattern of a psychedelic culture, give this deity a hip, playful personality, but clearly an image of a woman empowered- creating her own space to occupy. It was a centerpiece in a room filled with different incarnations of the female psyche, and clearly was a crowd pleaser. It was a precursor to her future works where scale and an upbeat joyous countenance would be a major emotional theme.   

Before this exhibition I had only seen her later works in person. Several large, fanciful outdoor sculptures covered in a mosaic of broken bits of colorful ceramic tile permanently displayed in San Diego’s Balboa Park and also several of her colorful female figures that I have come upon in various museums. And though I found them lovely and a perfect fit for public works with their warmth and exuberance, they did not affect me on the deeper levels that one hopes to experience in the work of powerful art. These early works are filled with urgency, and a painful yearning to break through the cultural constraints that ordain who and what a woman should be. Her early trauma as a victim of incest and later struggles with her mental health can be felt in the desire she expresses to destroy and recreate a mythic female archetype in her sculptures.

After seeing her early work and learning about the trauma she experienced as a child, I felt that her later sculptures and installations, the childlike innocence and bold colorful designs, were a way for her to recapture some fragment of her lost innocence. The childhood that was shattered and denied to her was somehow redeemed in the joyful exuberance of the works she spent the last decades of her life creating.

Saint Phalle said of her work. “Painting calmed the chaos that was stirring my soul and provided an organic structure to my life over which I had control. It was a way of domesticating these dragons that have always appeared in my work and throughout my life. It helped me feel responsible for my destiny. Without it, I prefer not to think about what could have happened to me.”

She suffered from emphysema possibly caused by the fiberglass and toxic materials she used in her work. She moved to La Jolla in 1994 and worked there until her death in 2002. It is fitting that the newly expanded La Jolla museum would host this important exhibition of this seminal period in Saint Phalle’s work.