You don’t need to know much about the life of artist Niki de Saint Phalle in order to sense traces of it throughout the breadth of her oeuvre. I’m looking through the new monograph, Niki de Saint Phalle (Museo Guggenheim Bilbao & La Fábrica, 2015), thinking of her memory and its constant influence — a cultural memory of women, bodies, the Judeo-Christian religious right, and what a work of art can be. All this seems to me to have conceptual impact on her paintings and sculptures, in a general sense and in the specific — you see it ranging from part to part. But a lot of it also looks ugly if you compare it aesthetically to that of her Modernist friends and the canonized pioneers of the 20th century. This is one reason her work is to me so exciting, in a world where appearances rule. A lot of what she made gives a sense of repulsion, and I like that.
The book is expansive, taking us from her beginnings with writer Harry Mathews, to happenings and the theater, to the end of her creatively fruitful life in 2002. It contains a marvelously detailed timeline, giving a sense of why a lot of her art looks the way it does — with a palpable rage, always a contemptuousness flirting with a kind of heartbreaking and joyous beauty.
She made interesting, weird stuff while a lot of her male contemporaries seemed to care more about career. When asked by Maurice Rheims if she considered herself a Pop artist, she replied, hilariously: “I don’t regard myself as having anything at all to do with Pop art. To begin with, as far as I’m concerned they’re Madison Avenue sellouts, poor publicity-drunk wretches who sit there and wait for Picasso to come out of their navels. As a poet, I have nothing to do with these pathetic people.”
Each thing eventually begins to look not like a solitary object but a fragment of her life’s work in total, something of a serial body of work. Various objects like shoes and other items of clothing, tools like hatchets and pipes, appear frequently. The things she made tastefully lend an impression of personal history or identity. There’s also an imaginative adventuring from or transformation of that specific identity. It’s refreshing, because since Modernism, artists of all kinds have done anything they can to remove the personal, and art in turn takes on the cold aspect of that remove. Les Trois Grâces (1995–2003), from her Nanas series, is a good example of the kind of exuberance that comes from the transformations that I think her creations both underwent and caused. Nanas are biomorphic sculptures of delightfully rotund dancing ladies, larger than life and composed of joie de vivre.
Three mosaic-tiled figures — made from black and white mosaic tiles and mirrored glass — in multihued swimsuits, are caught in three different positions of dance. The imaginative composition of the sculptures is a signature of de Saint Phalle. They don’t look “good” or conventionally sexy, but in their freewheeling, curvaceous absurdity they recall a Renaissance view of the female body to remind that roundness is quite lovely and that the prior view of perfection in said form isn’t real. The Nanas are celebratory, but they certainly don’t represent the celebrated paper-thin girl figure, and the artist knows this. Flipping the pages of Niki de Saint Phalle, female figures and various otherworldly forms congregate — forms which subvert the proposed feminine ideal (still coming after the physiognomy of ancient Venus statues of all things) that’s been around since what seems like forever.
Wonderful quotations are peppered throughout this book, in a script-like white typeface on cobalt pages, which mimics the charm of her handwriting, a recurring element in her work. In a viciously funny interview, called “Art and Guys,” Rheims asks her why, if she’s so anti-men, does she wear clothing only to attract them even more. She replies, “I have no grudge against men. Basically, I just think they’re rather pathetic types who are only good enough to decorate my bed and polish my boots. But for other things, I have no need of them.”
The many interesting textual examples we see throughout don’t undermine the rest of de Saint Phalle’s work. I mention this because contemporary artist statements tend to have the inverse of the intended effect. Looking at the more conceptual of our era’s art, there’s often an attempt to augment what we see, to make better sense of it through explanation; in the case of Niki de Saint Phalle, the text adds context and insight while confirming what we can already see at a glance.
De Saint Phalle’s later work is full of other femininities like necklaces, pendants, brooches, perfume bottles, and (you guessed it) more Nanas. Come to think of what I’d said of the serial aspect of her work, some of her late sculptures even take on their Nana form while replicating memorable celebrity figures like Louis Armstrong. In addition to these, though, are her very mystical totems, tarot cards, and whole sculptural gardens with which the artist and her viewers get to approach the present with a playful and imaginative advance.
Talking de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden (1978-1998) in Tuscany Italy, inspired by Antonio Gaudí’s Park Güell in Spain and based on the 22 major arcana of the Tarot card pack, de Saint Phalle describes “a place far from the crowd and the pressure of time,” showing how through the reimagining and exploration of figures and spaces, one is able to re-approach time. One of the figures in the Tarot Garden, the Hermit, is the representation of triumph. The figure “resembles an Amazon — very sexy and feminine, but strong. There’s no doubt she’s in control of the situation.” It’s an allusion to a continuous battle for the composure of her mind. Another representational figure arises in her sculptural works, the female hero archetype. But it’s the photograph of the artist herself poised with a rifle at the camera, Niki de Saint Phalle Taking Aim (1972), featured on this book’s cover, that seems heroic, especially considering that there’s paint inside the chamber. In the ‘60s, de Saint Phalle saw the television as a framework for artistic experimentation. She once used a TV news spot to shoot paint onto canvases with a rifle. What moxie. These performances were reactions to Modernist painters’ machismo, and are good examples of her ingenuity.
De Saint Phalle seems to come after, formally anyway, the stranger works from the milieus of Pop Art and Surrealism, and, like almost anyone making art in his wake, the paintings of Henri Matisse. That said, Matisse’s paintings are more stylized than much of de Saint Phalle’s art, and because of this I might even more readily liken her sculptural works and collages to someone like Alberto Giacometti, whose creations also seem more like physical embodiments of utterances from within, as opposed to aesthetically, or retinally, beautified stylings.
De Saint Phalle didn’t wait around for big things. In a 1985 TV interview, she said “I had this dream of building a huge sculpture garden; but there are no great patrons anymore. So I thought: ‘Why don’t I become my own patron?’” She then designed a perfume line that would be mass-produced and sold in order to finance her sculpture garden. The perfume bottle is a blue crystalline rectangle topped with a gold lid, upon which two entangled snakes face (perhaps to kiss); one is green, blue, yellow, red, and white, while the other snake is the same gold as the bottle’s lid.
De Saint Phalle defied conventions (and anything else in her way), in keeping with the Dada movement that preceded her. But she went beyond Dada in her ability to transcend the banal and the juvenile. Her buoyant figures and architectural forms are abstract but also go beyond, say, the proto-process abstract Nudes made by Matisse in the ‘50s, in both their expression and abstractions. They remind that exuberant figures and vibrant colors don’t preclude the occurrences of emotion or even despair. My absorption in her work’s visual dynamics was broken only by the realization that, having such optically vexing (read: pretty/ugly) aspects, she may have been one of our greatest masters of blending the conceptual with the physical.
Bloum Cardenas, Camille Morineau, Catherine Francblin, et al. Niki de Saint Phalle (Bilbao, ES: La Fábrica/Guggenheim Bilbao). ISBN: 9788415691983. 368 pages, $65print