MoMA PS1’s “Structures for Life” is the first major US exhibition of the Nouveau Réaliste artist Niki de Saint Phalle. French-born and American-raised, Saint Phalle is something of an “outsider artist”—entirely self-taught, Saint Phalle is known for her unconventional, characteristically whimsical, and at times childish sculptures, public artworks, artefacts, and drawings. MoMA PS1’s sprawling, impressive exhibition features over two hundred of Saint Phalle’s works, allowing us to appreciate her career-wide trajectory. These include Saint Phalle’s early “Tirs” shooting paintings to video art works documenting Saint Phalle’s performances, to later “monumental” installations and sculptures, as well as dozens of unrealized model sculptures and variegated artefacts (lamps, jewelry, hand-painted books, etc.).

Saint Phalle entered onto the international art scene in 1961 with her “Tirs” shooting paintings. These were often broadcast on French television, with Saint Phalle seen, rifle in hand, shooting at a series of plaster reliefs. The reliefs concealed pouches and canisters of paint, such that the bullets, upon contact, would release the pigment streams. These “Tirs” paintings take various forms, including some mostly blank, white surfaces with a few streaks and many un-popped packets, to thickly encrusted, bleeding, layered assemblages. Notably, Saint Phalle not only buried bags of paint under the white plaster surface, but other materials, including eggs and spaghetti. Using the .22 long rifle that she borrowed from a local fairground shooting-stand attendant, the “Tirs”-paintings were live performances, attended by those in the know. Although sources vary as to the exact date of the earliest Tirs-painting, many accounts refer to shootings held on 12 and 26 February 1961 outside Saint-Phalle’s and Tinguely’s Paris studio at 11 Impasse Ronsin.[1]

This resulted in streak-paintings—not much Pollock-like, as Saint Phalle’s canvases are not teeming with drips but more so composed of thick maroon, rose, and flaxen vertical streaks, not a splash in sight. The paintings serve as indices of the actual process and the performance therein, with the “shooting” meant to capture Saint Phalle’s “shooting against the patriarchy,” including the male-dominated art scene of her time. Admittedly, this may not resound with the radical nature that it invoked at the time, lending itself to be interpreted today as a mixture of public-personal practice of cathartic release. However, we would be wise to note that Saint Phalle’s “Tirs” paintings presaged the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s by a number of years. Given how the actual shooting of the canvases was documented by photographers and screened on live French television, it is tempting, and perhaps not incorrect, to categorize the “Tirs” series as an important precursor to 1970s feminist performance art. Indeed, it is a genuine treat to be able to watch some of these recorded performances at the exhibition, appreciating how, between 1961-1964 Saint-Phalle enacted these “Tirs” performances in Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Figueras, Los Angeles and New York.[2]

Several works created at the same time as Saint Phalle’s “shooting period” are prominently displayed, including Autel O.A.S. (1962-92), a towering, sumptuous Bronze altar. During her “Tirs” shooting paintings period, Saint Phalle created a number of such altars, similarly littered with bullet holes. As far as the altar pieces go, Saint Phalle clearly saw patriarchy as dovetailing with institutionalized religion. Autel O.A.S. is encrusted with various creatures suspended in golden mire: bats, rats, crucifixes, and guns. The base of the altar has the acronym “O.A.S.” engraved in it, which stands for both “Oeuvre d’Art Sacrée” (Sacred Artwork), and the Organization Armée Secrete, the far-right dissident paramilitary collective which  attempted to suppress Algeria’s Independence from France during the Algerian War of 1954-1962. The altarpiece’s exuberance and palatial décor clearly represents the Roman Catholic church’s excesses and hypocritical indulgences. The engraved letters also critique the church’s complaisant position towards French colonialism.

After this period, one can track a significant shift in Saint Phalle’s work to an open celebration of the female body, which to some degree parallels (and also presages) developments of 60s, including the sexual revolution and counter-culture development. The towering “Nanas”— totem-esque, cartoonish sculptures of women—and walk-in monuments are some of the most predominant works for display at Structures for Life. This period makes up the late, and arguably less controversial, period of Saint Phalle’s artistic output. In 1965, Saint Phalle had stopped producing the “Tirs” works, turning instead to modes of investigating the female form and feminine subjectivity. Her “Nanas” display bulbous, distended bodies—many of these are reminiscent of the so-called “Venus Figurines,” with swollen stomachs and genitals similarly embellishing fertility. These colossal works were intended to, quite literally, overshadow and outweigh the male subjects and attendants whom Saint Phalle sought to displace. The “Nanas” function as aloof, idolatrous icons that reorient space, such that viewers must navigate around their tree-trunk like distended legs, stalks which serve as blocks. Saint Phalle’s weighty “Nanas”—featuring variegated, motley, chromatic painted stripes of crimson, deep blue, and bright yellow—often have uneven-sized, crossed eyes, oversized hands and feet, and are draped in floral dress. One “Nana” even balances a television on its head, with a male figure displayed on the screen, and others “Nanas” sit bow-legged on the floor.

Anchored and stilted in playful guise, and signaling the possibility of a matriarchal society, Saint Phalle’s “Nanas” are diametrically opposed to the those celebrated Minimalist formal works teeming in America during the 60s. Where cold, hard Minimal works invoke their media by ushering queries regarding their means of construction, viewing the “Nanas” presents one with a form of life: gap-toothed smiles and raised eyebrows promote a deep, almost childish likeness of pleasure. These are objects of play and admiration, not objects of structural analysis. There is a deep, palpable familiarity to how these Nanas are colored and designed, which, perhaps, is attributable to Saint Phalle’s subtle influence on public art and playground designs.[3] Where the experiments of Minimalist sculpture and installation art certainly thread their own merit in reorienting space, Saint Phalle’s work achieves a different function via world-building a fantastic realm. It would be utterly inappropriate to steep these works in philosophical queries about the universal communicability of the aesthetic experience or the inability for our cognitive faculties to come to apprehend a concept, for this would betray the very immediacy and playfulness that Saint Phalle’s works promote.

For instance, according to Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the aesthetic idea is a representation of the imagination that “prompts much thought”, but to which no determinate thought, i.e., concept, can be adequate, so that no language can express it completely and make it completely understandable” (AA 5, 314).[4] For Kant, the aesthetic idea is the “counterpart (pendant) of a rational idea” (AA 5, 314); that is, where the rational idea is a concept for which no representation can be adequate, the aesthetic idea is an imaginative representation that no determinate concept can fully express. Kant’s conception of the aesthetic idea brings to light the limit of logical conceptuality and logical language by positively disclosing what lies beyond it, i.e., by extending or expanding with an act of Erweiterung (“extension”) (AA 5, 315), the domain in which the mind can have free rein. This is perhaps an apt mode to describe certain works of poetry (which is what Kant seems to have in mind in these passages),[5] but not an apt way to describe works such as Saint Phalle’s. Saint Phalle’s works seem, indeed, to rely on what, following Moses Mendelssohn, we might term “mixed sentiments,”[6] which we have in response to these somewhat disfigured, distended, and charmingly grotesque figures—these “Nanas” only become charming due to their oddness.

Indeed, Saint Phalle’s sculptures were intended to be public works in the purest sense of the term: displayed in the public arena (Italian parks, Californian deserts, and outdoor sculpture gardens), they operate at a register easily appreciated and, therein, are “for everyone.” In gazing at these playful figures, Hegel’ claim that art expresses “the absolute” in form of feeling and intuition makes much sense, much like how religion expresses the divine in the element of representation (and philosophy expresses the same internal truth in terms of concepts). The truth internal to these figures is not immediately political but grotesquely, fleshily human. Thus, it is no coincidence that one of Saint Phalle’s tarot-inspired works is titled “The High Priestess of Intuitive Feminine Power.” The nature of both Saint Phalle’s public installations and the stalking otherworldly “Nanas” is not at all to express abstract structure and material relationships but to usher petrified forms of life—fantastical forms that are otherworldly—that mix into ours. There are, indeed, political overtones regarding femininity and matriarchy, but these are secondary. Gargantuan, towering, crowned female figures draped in kaleidoscopic gaieties spring forth, with prodigious, mountain-like breasts. Saint Phalle’s sculptures counter the formal exercises of the Minimalists, which drew upon and questioned the continuity between “nature and art,” or that which is manipulated vs. that which resembles the “natural environment”; the Minimalists achieved this by remodeling familiar fixtures.[7] But the mode of questioning Saint Phalle’s “Nanas” prompt is related to prompt a tension between the public feminine figure and the public idol; and while such displays are undoubtedly much more familiar today, Saint Phalle was a precursor to all such modern motifs.

Saint Phalle’s work was always of a piece with the oppressed peoples of the world. Many of her works are tributes to the plight of the struggle of women against men (with Saint Phalle sensitive to this matter, herself familiar with sexual violence, having been abused by her father as a child). She also made works commemorating the struggles of homosexual men, with many of her artist friends dying from AIDS. In fact, several artefacts from Saint Phalle’s life document correspondence with members of the AIDS activist group “ACT UP.” From 1983 to 1986, Saint Phalle wrote and illustrated “AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands” while working with Swiss immunologist and AIDS specialist Prof. Silvio Barandun. The illustrated pages of the book are narrated as letters to Saint Phalle’s son, Philip, and decorated in her characteristic chromatic, cartoonish style. The drawings deliver straightforward information about how HIV can be transmitted from unprotected sex and needle-sharing. As much of the populous during the 80s were uninformed and prone to prejudices regarding HIV and homosexuality, Saint Phalle’s works sought to remedy this by way of clear messaging. Several of Saint Phalle’s decorated condoms are available for view, painted with skulls, hearts, and splintering mirrors. The pages of Saint Phalle’s book present the multiplicitous horrors of AIDS, including death and illness, not in a mode that makes them “palatable”, per se, but in a manner that makes them aesthetically pleasing. Contrasting form and content, Saint Phalle uses animals, fantastical characters, and concise messages like “Teenagers be careful at parties with drinks and drugs” in child-like lettering. Saint Phalle’s illustrated pages and painted condoms are purposed for messaging and serve to destigmatize (whether these artefacts were successful is an altogether separate question).

Other artefacts that Saint Phalle produced, such as jewelry, lamps, and perfumes (mostly between 1970-80) are also available for view. In particular, the jewelry and perfumes were publicly auctioned so that Saint Phalle could help finance the construction of a massive public sculpture park in Garavicchio, Tuscany, Italy. Saint Phalle was intent to finance her own projects so that she could avoid depending on male patrons—an endeavor she ultimately succeeded at. When Saint Phalle finally began building her Tarot Garden (Il Gardino del Tarocchi) in 1978, which took 20 years to complete and was finally open to 1998, she saw herself as having succeeded at actualizing her life’s work. Photographs and original models from the Tarot Garden are available for view; contra the now-fashionable tendency to invoke occult iconography (often motivated as a superficial means of provocation), Saint Phalle’s use of tarot and occult icons in the sculpture part are reminiscent of Hilma af Klint’s mysticism. The familiar feminine figures from the “Nanas” reappear here, but even larger; although occult icons abound, this is not a mysticism intended to scare or provoke, but further motivate the figure of the fantastical goddess in all her feminine right. This is the common thread through Saint Phalle’s works—making the subject-matter at hand accessible. Self-taught and seemingly more interested in proffering a publicly accessible, and sometimes even informative stance, against injustices—both personal and structural—Saint Phalle’s artwork, throughout its various developmental stages, remains dedicated to accessibility. This is clear from her interest in public art and installation, and also in her pamphlet-like artbooks on safe sex practices. One should not expect a philosophical opus from Saint Phalle—in some sense, these are simple, childish works; and even where Saint Phalle prompts mysticism and the occult, it is with an inviting, toothy grin. This is all fitting, for it is public art for the people, and in a very real sense by someone of the people.

–Ekin Erkan

[1] see: Jill Carrick, “Phallic Victories? Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Tirs” Art History vol. 25, is. 5 (2004): 700-729.

[2] For more on Saint-Phalle’s Tirs performances, see Janice Parente et al., Niki de Saint-Phalle: catalogue raisonné: Tirs, Assemblages, Reliefs, 1949–2000, Lausanne, 2001.

[3] Interestingly, the Cranium and Cranium Cadoo board game’s figures bear a striking resemblance to Saint Phalle’s characters.

[4] For Kant, an idea of reason is a “concept to which no intuition (representation of the imagination) can be adequate,” while an aesthetic, imaginative presentation of an idea of reason “aesthetically enlarges the concept itself in an unbounded way” (KU 49, 5:314-315). For Kant, concepts in the contents of works of art are indeterminate in a way that ordinary concepts of type or function are not.

[5] Where Kant does countenance the arousal of sentiments (Empfindungen), as in the case of music, he designates such media as lower in status than poetry and the pictorial arts.

[6] According to Mendelssohn’s theory, as outlined in Philosophical Writings (1761), we have to be not too close to the object, in which case our awareness of the object will totally dominate our awareness of our representation of it, nor too far from the object, in which case our awareness of our own representation will dominate our awareness of the object—in order to enjoy a mixed sentiment, we have to be able to remain aware of both object and representation. This is the case for Saint Phalle’s sculptures, as they are not immediately aesthetically pleasing.

[7] One might question whether there really is such a thing as a “natural environment” that is unmanipulated, or whether the distinction between nature and that which is putatively outside of nature is a meaningful distinction.

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