Monday, March 13, 2017

Born 1933: Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono is a very important living conceptual artist, whose life is in its final stage at this writing. Conceptual art puts ideas first, so it may take any form. Yoko has made sculptural installations and movies, she has recorded a lot of rock and roll music, and she has staged events for performance art. This post considers only those works that employ visual arts. It is based primarily on the retrospective exhibit of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2015.

Yoko's work took so many forms that it is difficult to characterize, but iconoclasm seems to be her basic theme: break up all the old ideas, focus on new values. She was inspired by Dada, sort of an anti-art movement, in which creative people strove to find novel and unexpected ways to express their ideas.

Yoko was born in Tokyo to conservative aristocrats. Her Buddhist mother was a painter. Her Christian father gave up a career as a classical pianist and became a successful banker. It seems that both her parents were self-involved and failed to give Yoko much in the way of affection and encouragement. It appears that she did get a strong musical education, however.

When Yoko was young, her father's position shuttled the family between the U.S. and Japan. They were in Tokyo when it was fire-bombed, World War II caused her family separation and suffering.

Yoko was able to return to school after the war. Yoko's education was in philosophy, not art. When she was 18, in 1951, she became the first female student to enroll in the philosophy department at a university in Tokyo, but dropped out after 2 semesters. She then joined her family in New York, and attended Sarah Lawrence college, planning to be a writer.

Around 1955 Yoko became involved with the avant-garde scene in Greenwich Village. She married a music student, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and the couple began hosting a concert series in their loft. Yoko's first public works were performance pieces at those concerts: In one, she took eggs and Jell-O out of her fridge and smeared them onto a canvas, and when she was done she lit a match and set it on fire.

In the 1960s, Yoko was a groundbreaking and influential artist, working in London, Tokyo and New York. She hung out with the members of Fluxus, a tribe of cultural radicals who wanted to destroy the old values, in the European tradition of Dada. She became known as the "High Priestess of the Happening." She was always at the cutting edge of emerging trends in visual art and performance.

Yoko and Toshi moved to Tokyo, but in 1962, they filed for divorce. Yoko was suffering from clinical depression and was briefly placed in a mental institution. Tony Cox, an artist and filmmaker, sought Yoko out in Tokyo having seen some of her work in an anthology of avant-garde art, and helped her get out of the institution. Yoko and Tony married and their only child, Kyoko, was born in 1963. Yoko found the process of giving birth and dealing with an infant traumatic, and Tony became the househusband, as agreed before the marriage.

Yoko and Tony soon returned to New York, with Kyoko. Yoko and Tony were divorced in 1969. In 1971, Tony took Kyoko with him when he joined a religious cult, and the two were not seen until 1977, when they left the cult.

Yoko resumed making conceptual art and staging happenings in New York and London.

Yoko's most famous work was a performance from 1964 called "Cut Piece," in which she sat impassively while members of the audience snipped off pieces of the suit she was wearing.

In another film from 1964, called Bottoms, Yoko directed hundreds of people to walk on a treadmill as she filmed their bare asses.

Another landmark project from 1964 was a book called Grapefruit.  It consists of instructions for future works of art, many of which she later realized. The instructions sound like poetry.

In 1966, Yoko met John Lennon, of the Beatles, when he came into a preview of her show in London.  She was 33, and twice-divorced; he was 26, and married. Coming from totally different worlds, the two seemed to hit each other with gale force. They were constantly in the news. They made a sort of performance out of their lives by staging kinky events that gained them huge publicity. For instance, when they married in 1969, they spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam campaigning for peace with a week-long Bed-In.

Yoko and John settled in southeast England, and they collaborated on several albums of music. In 1968 they made Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, an album of experimental music using sounds as well as instruments. They also contributed tracks to a few Beatles albums.

In 1969 Yoko and John created their own band, called the Plastic Ono Band. The couple both appeared nude on the cover of their first album, an image that is still shocking. The Plastic Ono Band performed both rock standards and Yoko's avant-garde works consisting mainly of feedback along with singing and screaming. Yoko and John were very involved in the music scene for a few years, but Yoko was still making conceptual art.

In 1971 Yoko created an imaginary exhibit for herself at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, without the museum's permission, called "Yoko Ono — One Woman Show." She distributed publicity  saying (falsely) that she had released an army of flies around the museum. She retouched a photo of the museum's sign by adding a letter f so that it became "Museum of Modern (f)Art."

Announcement for Yoko's conceptual exhibit

Yoko and John's relationship was  tumultuous, and they were in the news all through the 1970s. In 1973 they separated flamboyantly, though they continued daily phone calls. A year later they reunited with fanfare. In 1975 Yoko gave birth to their son Sean. John already had a son, named Julian, by his first wife. The family maintained a low profile for the next 5 years. John became a househusband to care for Sean.

In 1980, Yoko and John were returning home after a recording date, when John was shot dead in front of their apartment building.

Yoko went into seclusion for several years after his death but she gradually resumed creating conceptual art. Eventually she got together another band and started making recordings.

Yoko is also very prominent at major Peace Demonstrations, and stages her own events in support of Peace. Lastly, she promotes Lennon's legacy.

Yoko in 2015, during installation of "One Woman Show"

In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art finally made the solo exhibit that Yoko had imagined for herself a reality, with "One Woman Show, 1960-to 1971," covering her work from age 27 to age 38. I had the good fortune to see that show with my husband Dan.

Announcement for Yoko's 2015 show at MoMA

My photos from Yoko's "One-Woman Show, 1960-1971" in 2015

In the work below, Yoko radically questioned the division between art and the everyday, by presenting a scrap of canvas tacked to the floor as a work of art, and inviting viewers to walk right over it.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
Painting to be Stepped On, 1961

Painting in Three Stanzas, 1961
Sumi ink on canvas, vine, wood, thumbtacks, cotton cord

Three instruction cards like the one below were shown with the above painting.

Instructions for Painting in Three Stanzas
Handwritten by Toshi Ichiyanagi

In the film Cut Piece—a still shot is below—Yoko confronted issues of gender, class, and cultural identity by asking viewers to cut away pieces of her clothing as she sat quietly on stage. This work is sometimes considered her masterpiece in performance art. She has performed it many times, and permits others to perform it as well.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
iPad shot of film "Cut Piece," 1964

She placed very high value on the sky as something eternal and shared by all, so she created a machine to sell the sky, or at least cards with the word 'sky' in her own handwriting. While the sky seems to be available to all, in fact it is in short supply in a city of skyscrapers.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
Sky Machine, 1961/1966

In the Dada art movement, there was a sort of tradition of isolating some commonplace object and calling it art. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp famously presented a urinal as a sculpture. He later presented a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack as art. In this spirit, Ono declared an apple, and the organic process of ripening and rotting, to be a work of art.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933

In a challenge to games of warlike competition, she created an all-white chessboard. She might have been saying, "If there are no differences between you, there's nothing to fight over." People do try to play chess with this set, or one like it, but it requires cooperation to remember which person made which move, and eventually the players must give up.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
White Chess Set, 1966

When she was left suddenly by a lover, she created a room in which all the objects had been sawn in half. She felt like half her life or half of herself had been cut off. She said, "We're all just halves, anyway."

Yoko Ono, b. 1933

For the 2015 show, she created a new site-specific installation. It consisted of a slightly wobbly spiral staircase to a platform beneath a skylight with a view of the sky, or at least the skyline.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
To See the Sky, 2015

Skyline of New York City
from viewing platform of To See the Sky, 2015


In 2017, the music publishing industry acknowledged Yoko Ono as a co-writer of the lyric for John Lennon's hit song "Imagine." They sited an interview in which Lennon admits that the concept came from Yoko.

“Actually, that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it, the lyric, and the concept, came from Yoko. Those days, I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of ‘Grapefruit,’ her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about ‘Imagine this’ and ‘Imagine that.’”

Yoko Songwriter

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born 1939: Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago contributed several important innovations to the story of art in the second half of the 20th century.

Most importantly, Judy promoted the idea of Feminist Art, which boldly asserts women's issues, women's bodies, and women's values. She frequently used explicit feminist and sexual imagery in her work, however the images were abstracted and streamlined into an attractive design in gorgeous colors. Her insistence on depicting female sex organs, and other centered designs, caused a great deal of her work to be rejected without further consideration, but these designs were her way of asserting a female-dominated world view in contrast to the prevailing male-dominated society.

Judy's second important contribution was collaborative or community art. She created projects in which she employed the talents of many artisans, and gave them all credit, while maintaining her identity as creator of the whole.

Third, Judy created projects that promoted all sorts of crafts normally associated with women—and under-valued because of that—such as embroidery and ceramic.

On top of all this, Judy originated Feminist Art Education. She noticed that women artists had been overlooked and underrated in the story of art, and she devised a curriculum centered around women's achievements in the arts, and developed a program for college students in California. Although Feminist art studies impacted the story of art in the long run, and eventually led to many women artists being re-discovered, her programs have been abandoned.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Judy is her capacity for growth, which enables her to admit when she was wrong. After some years of promoting bold and assertive Feminism, Judy realized, she said later, that she and her friends were operating on a wrong premise.

"When I was young in the 70s, we cast the dialogue entirely around gender. We assumed all women were our friends and all men were our enemies. That was a completely erroneous assumption. It has to do with values, not gender. Some of the best feminists are men."

Background: Judy Cohen was born to a Jewish family in Chicago, one of two children. Although her father Arthur came from a long line of rabbis, he rejected the practice. He worked for the Post Office. Judy credits him with giving her strong support in her pursuit of art and identity. Arthur became a union activist and a Communist; he was hounded out of his job and died in 1953, when Judy was 13.

Judy's mother, May, worked as a medical secretary. She loved the arts and instilled a passion for them in her children.

Judy changed her name from Cohen to Chicago, the town of her birth, in the late 1960s when she turned to feminist content in her art.

Training: Judy had all the proper academic training, West Coast style. She took her first art classes at the age of 5 at the Art Institute in her Chicago, but for college, she went to the University of California in Los Angeles, where she earned both a bachelor's (1962) and a master's (1964).

In the early part of her career, Judy wanted to be like the guys. She cropped her hair, wore boots, and adopted tinted glasses to look tough. She also learned skills that seemed cool to the guys in Los Angeles, namely auto painting and boat building.

Private life: While studying at UCLA, she fell in love with Jerry Gerowitz and married him in 1961. In 1963, Jerry lost his life in a car accident, which left her devastated.

In 1965, she married sculptor Lloyd Hamrol. During the 1970s, Judy became the spearhead of the Feminist movement in art and created projects involving the cooperation of many women. During that period Lloyd was having a series of short affairs with female students, which he later confessed. The irony of her position struck her very hard, and the couple were divorced in 1979.

In 1985, Judy married photographer Donald Woodman, with whom she collaborates on artistic and teaching opportunities. They live in New Mexico, with five cats.


1965-1973: Minimalism

Judy's earliest work was Minimalism: content-free sculptures that featured rigid geometry and refined finishes.

Exploring color through a limited number of geometric phase. Pursuit of the experiential nature of color, transformation, and visual perception.

Judy was part of the "Finish Fetish" movement that favored refined finishes that did not show the human touch. She  pioneered the use of a spray gun for fine arts, both on car hoods and on canvases.

1970-1974: Early Feminist

In the early 1970’s, Judy Chicago concentrated on fusing her abstract iconography with a new-found determination to openly express her experiences as a woman, something that had been impossible when she was in college. During this period, she expanded the central-core imagery that has become emblematic of her work. She created centered, vibrant designs that could as easily be interpreted as mandalas as sex organs.

1974-1979: The Dinner Party

Symbolizing the fact that women don't have much place in history, The Dinner Party is an installation that celebrates women’s history by giving each of 39 important women a place at a triangular table. Each woman is represented by a place setting and a plate of Judy's design. A goblet and cutlery of identical, neutral design are also included.

A unique and defiant aspect of the project was that Judy used traditional women’s crafts such as embroidery, needlepoint, and ceramics which were not respected in the male-dominated art world.

Judy innovated a community process in which the huge project was completed by hundreds of volunteers. Judy created all the designs, but skilled artisans realized them. By demonstrating an openly female point of view, Judy helped to initiate a worldwide Feminist Art movement.

One big part of the project was the research it took to select each woman to be honored and to learn enough about her to determine what symbols would express her essence. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor. A large research team worked on the project.

Artistically, the project is characterized by narrative devices, instant readability, and a clear didactic message. This is quite unconventional; the art world tends to prefer ambiguity, irony, and detachment.

In the early 1970s, while she was working on The Dinner Party,  Judy worked to expand educational opportunities for women artists. She developed the country's first art program for women in 1970–71 at California State University, Fresno, and the following year she teamed with artist Miriam Schapiro to establish the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

From 1980 to 1985: the Birth Project

Observing that there wasn't much art about birth, Judy designed a series of birth and creation images for needlework which were executed under her supervision by 150 skilled needle workers around the country.

1982-1987: PowerPlay

While completing the Birth Project, Judy also focused on individual studio work to create, a series  of artworks that explore how the prevailing definitions of power have affected the world in general, and men in particular. Judy said she was tired of using the female body as a repository of emotions; she wondered what feelings the male body might express, and why men act so violently.

1985-93: Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light

Judy and her husband Donald spent 8 years trying to understand the evil and cruelty just beneath the surface of civilization. It is structured as a journey into the darness of the Holocaust and out into the light of hope. This exhibition combined Judy's painting with Donald's photography and additional work in tapestry and glass by selected artisans.

1994-2000: A Stitch in Time

This exhibition consists of a series of painted and needlework images created by Judy and executed by a group of needleworkers. Judy's intention was to address the breakdown of social values. She reinterprets traditional adages and proverbs.


Periodically, Judy produces a fireworks display, generally featuring a butterfly design.

Examples from Internet

Pure Minimalism, 1965-1973

Rainbow Pickett, 1964
Private collection / Internet

Introduction of imagery based on sex organs

Birth Hood, 1965
Sprayed automotive lacquer on car hood
Collection of the artist / Internet

In the painting below an abstract penis is stopped before it can unite with an abstract vagina.

Bigamy Hood, 1965
Sprayed automotive lacquer on 1965 Corvair car hood

Silver Blue Fan, 1971
From Fresno Fan series
Sprayed acrylic on sheet acrylic, 10 ft. wide

Early Feminism, 1970-1974

Heaven is for White Men Only, 1973
New Orleans / Internet

Through the Flower, 1973
Sprayed acrylic on canvas, 5 ft square
Sackler Collection / Internet

Below: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree.

Elizabeth in Honor of Elizabeth
from the Great Ladies series

The Dinner Party, 1970s

Here's a link to the Brooklyn Museum's coverage of this work: The Dinner Party

Entry Way Banners

Banner #3
Modified Aubusson tapestry, 5 ft. tall

Ceremonial table representing 39 females who influenced history

Primordial Goddess
Artemisia Gentileschi place setting
Artemisia Gentileschi plate

Below: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell place setting
Elizabeth Blackwell plate

Below: Judy chose Georgia O'Keeffe as a foremother of the feminist art movement.

Georgia O'Keeffe plate

Heritage Panels, explaining the contributions of the 999 women on the Heritage Floor.

Acknowledgement Panels, identifying Judy's assistants and collaborators.

The Birth Project, 1980-1985

Mother India, 1985
Painting, applique, embroidery on fabric, about 10 ft. tall

Individual studio work, 1980-1985: PowerPlay

The Three Faces of Man, 1985
From PowerPlay / Exhibited at Indiana University
Photo by Dan L. Smith, from slide

The Holocaust Project, 1992

 "Shabbat" means day of rest and remembrance.

Rainbow Shabbat, 1992

Resolutions: A Stitch in Time, 1994-2000

Home Sweet Home, 2000
From Family
Sprayed acrylic, oil paint, and embroidery on linen
2 ft. tall banner


A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014
fireworks, flares, and LED lights
Prospect Park, Brooklyn /

Saturday, January 14, 2017

1930-2002: Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle was an artist whose huge talent manifested itself in just about every art form: sculpture, painting, performance art, conceptual art, and sculpture gardens.

Her most significant work was sculptures—from a small size for galleries to a huge size that can be entered and explored—as well as, environments that showcase sculpture.

Her art was unified by an overwhelming desire to express women's values and to defy the standards of patriarchal society. Niki invented new forms, new processes, and new themes for art.

Since the male-dominated contemporary art world loved high seriousness, subtle conceptualism and formal use of color, Niki created art that was exuberant, cheerful, over-the-top, fantastical, superstitious, wildly colorful…and irresistible.

BackgroundNiki was born in a town near Paris to a French banker of aristocratic heritage, and an American-French mother who had been brought up in an elegant château in France. Niki was the second of 5 children.

Not long after Niki's birth, the family fortune was hit hard by the Depression, and her father decided to take the family to New York City. There he worked as branch manager of the family bank. The Saint Phalle's settled on the Upper East Side and the family lived well, if not as grandly as their ancestors. This was Niki's good fortune.

On the down side, Niki's parents created a repressive atmosphere. Although Niki's mother was refined and elegant, her temper was erratic, and she abused Niki's younger siblings, two of whom committed suicide in adulthood. Even worse, her father sexually abused her for several years beginning when she was 11 years old, according to a biography that she wrote when she was 62. This abuse was the source of a huge rage.

The Saint Phalles were a strict Catholic family and they endeavored to give Niki a Catholic education; however, as a teenager she noticed that the school's plaster casts of classical sculptures all sported fig leaves; she turned this into comedy by painting the fig leaves red. She was soon transferred to an advanced girls' prep school in Maryland where she was inculcated with the idea that women can accomplish great things. She graduated in 1947, when she was 17.

Private life and Training: After graduation, Niki set out to establish her independence from her family by starting a career as a model, marrying a rich boy, and teaching herself to paint and use other art media.

A beautiful and stylish girl, Niki was "discovered" at the age of 17 and became a professional fashion model.

At the age of 18, in 1948, Niki eloped with Harry Mathews, also 18, a childhood friend who later became an author of fiction and poetry. Niki's parents accepted the marriage because Harry came from a very wealthy and prominent New York family. However, his protestant family did like the fact that the Saint Phalles were Catholic, and they virtually cut Harry off financially.

Niki and Harry settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harry studied at Harvard; presumably his family's attitude had softened sufficiently that they paid his way.

When Niki was 19 she appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

When she was 21, Niki gave birth to her first child, named Laura. Soon after, she was featured on the cover of Vogue, to name just a few examples of her work in this field.

This was 1952, the year Harry graduated from Harvard with a degree in music and the young family moved to Europe; it appears that Harry inherited money of his own around this time. For the next decade, Niki and Harry lived as itinerant bohemians in Europe, bouncing among picturesque places and prominent groups of creative friends.

Several years later Niki and Harry had a second child, named Philip.

Although Niki never had formal training, her extensive exposure to the art treasures of Europe, as well as her forays into advanced literature, served to educate her artistic sensibility and develop her value system. Meanwhile, she practiced various art techniques and learned from the artists she met.

Niki's emotional life was a roller-coaster during he 20s. She loved her children, but she resented the duties of motherhood. Being a mother reminded her of her own painful childhood, and she resented the fact that Harry did not assume equal responsibility for the children. 

Harry complicated the problem by having an affair with the wife of a lord, and Niki retaliated by having an affair with the lord, himself. When Harry's mistress came to their home, Niki attacked her, then attempted to commit suicide. Harry took her to a mental clinic, where she underwent 10 rounds of electroshock therapy. Freed of domestic duties, Niki became consumed with making art. Within 6 weeks she was well enough to leave.

After Niki left the asylum, she and Harry moved to Majorca, where they entertained an accomplished set of friends while he worked on a novel. Their second child, a son named Philip, was born there in 1955. Both children suffered from neglect by Niki and Harry, who were ignorant and careless about child rearing.

When they moved back to Paris in 1960, Niki left her family and set up her own studio in the artistic community of Montparnasse in Paris. Laura was 9 and Philip was 5. Although she left the children in Harry's care, Niki did not abandon them outright. Apparently she took an interest in their upbringing and continued a lifelong, if sometimes fraught, relationship with them. It is said that Niki never stopped believing that she had done “something unpardonable.” Much later her daughter said, “Really—and it’s something I wish my brother would get—we were loved. The thing is, with love, it’s one thing to love and then it’s another to know how to love, and maybe we take a lifetime to learn.” Harry remained Niki's lifelong friend.

Not long after her separation from Harry, Niki encountered a Swiss metal sculptor 5 years older than she named Jean Tinguely. Jean had been married to another Swiss artist since 1951, but he had a steady stream of girlfriends, and his wife had a live-in teen-age lover. Niki and Jean began to collaborate on projects and then developed a romantic relationship.

In 1962 Niki and Jean came to California, where Niki was impacted by Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in south Los Angeles. They traveled all around California, Nevada and Mexico, participating in exhibits and other art events.

In 1963 Niki and Jean settled in an old country inn outside of Paris. Jean resumed having affairs, and Niki began to compete with him.

After several years, Jean began a relationship with a woman in Switzerland, and began living with her half the time. Niki had her own lovers, male and female, and became friends with Jean's Swiss mistress.

Despite all this promiscuity, Niki and Jean were married in 1971 in order to protect their artistic legacy. Soon after, Jean's mistress became pregnant and he moved to Switzerland full time. Niki and Jean never lived together again, but they continued to collaborate. Jean died in Switzerland in 1991.

Late in the 70s, Niki was hospitalized with a severe lung ailment caused by the synthetic materials she used for her sculptures. While she was recovering at a spa in the Swiss mountains, Niki met some wealthy friends who agreed to support her desire to build a sculpture garden by making some land available in Tuscany, a region of Italy. Niki worked on her garden and lived on the site for the next 10 years.

Tinguely died in Switzerland in 1991.

Niki's health was severely damaged by years of working with polyester, and following her doctor's recommendation that she move to a warmer climate, she moved to La Jolla, California in 1994. She lived here 8 years until her death at the age of 71.


Niki was an exceptionally good looking woman. She discovered in her teens that she could turn men on, and that it gave her a sense of power over them, something she rarely felt. All through her career, Niki capitalized on her feminine charm to promote her career. She was well aware that her good looks won men's attention, even while she was committing symbolic violence toward everything they stood for.

Shooting technique

Early in her career Niki expressed her rage, frustration and hatred. She created her first important series of works from 1960-1963, called "Fire at Will" (Tir à volonté). She created them by shooting bullets at a wall-mounted work containing white plaster humanoid figures and miscellaneous found objects; the figures contained bags of paint that spattered and dripped like blood onto the whole work. She said of them: “In 1961 I shot at Papa, at all men, at important men, fat men, my brother, society, the church, the convent, school, my family, my mother….” Creating the work was a performance, and the other artists in the district came to view it.

Victimized Women in Plaster

Next she made life-size dolls of women of plaster over a wire framework; she might cover these with tiny plastic toys, and integrate the whole with white paint; these women were hidden beneath burdensome roles. The best example of this type is at the Pompidou Center where I have recently photographed it.


Apparently Niki's radical expression of hatred and disdain had a therapeutic effect because in her next projects, Niki found her joy. Her most familiar works depict archetypical female forms called Nanas—oversized figures of rotund, ebullient girls dressed in bold primary colors. They seem to say: break all the rules, be confident, be arrogant, and throw your weight around. (The word nana is French for dame" or "chick.")

Unidentified Nana

Structural Sculptures

In 1966 Niki began to collaborate with Jean Tinguely on a house-sized sculptural installation in the form of a giant reclining nana; the entrance was between the figure's legs. The piece elicited immense public reaction in magazines and newspapers throughout the world. Besides the sensational aspect, the work was unique as a sculpture designed to be entered and experienced from within. Inside, one arm held a 12-seat cinema, a breast offered a milk bar (!), and the brain was a complicated mechanism built by Jean.

hon-en katedral (she-a cathedral), 1966

Environments for Sculpture

The Tarot Garden

In the 1970s Niki began to receive public and private commissions to create "fantastic" architectural projects for gardens and parks. She used polystyrene to sculpt Nanas. Inhaling the fumes gave her lung problems, but it represents a unique use of polystyrene for fine art.

Niki's lung ailment grew severe when she was in her late 40s. While she was recovering at a ritzy spa, she enchanted an Italian family, whose daughter she had met as a model, into helping her realize her dream of creating a fantastical sculpture park, in the manner of Antoni Gaudí's Parc Güell in Barcelona. She got her brothers to donate some land for the garden in Tuscany, along the coast north of Rome, as well as to help finance the expensive project.

Antoni Gaudí
Sculptural work at Park Güell
Barcelona / Internet

Gloria Stuart (1910-2010)
Watts Towers, 1960s
LACMA / Internet

Niki spent the next 15 years, with the help of Tinguely and many assistants, creating a park landscape full of monumental sculptures of the symbols found on Tarot cards for the Tarot Garden. While the figures themselves represent tarot motifs—the tower, the ruler, death—she used mosaic stones in the tradition of old Italian artisans for the colorful glowing and reflective surfaces. In 1996 the garden was first opened to the public and has since become a great tourist attraction in the region. She said she wanted to create "a sort of joyland, where you could have a new king of life that would just be free."

One of the most innovative aspects of the project was that Niki framed it as a community activity. Tinguely welded the armatures that formed the creatures, but Niki hired laborers from the community to help coat the frames with plaster and decorate their surfaces, and invited her celebrated artist friends to help as well. (This community approach was later developed more systematically by Judy Chicago.)

Niki assumed a motherly role toward all her crew. She regularly cooked lunch for them, got them training in such skills as mosaic, and encouraged their individuality. They loved her and loved the project, some of them working on it almost as obsessively as they did.

The Tarot Garden cost more than five million dollars—about eleven million in today’s money. While working on the Tarot Garden, Niki did related types of art and continued to have exhibits. She still had enough pull in the fashion industry to create her own perfume in 1982, which was sold in a sculptural vial of her design. Perfume profits provided a third of the funding for the garden. That same year, she and Tinguely collaborated on a fountain to honor Igor Strivinsky located near the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Queen Califia's Magical Circle

In 1994 Niki moved to La Jolla, California, where she spent the rest of her life. She soon began planning another fantastical sculpture garden, called Queen Califia's Magical Circle. It was begun in 2000 in Kit Carson Park in Escondido. Niki died in 2002, but her granddaughter and her longtime assistants completed the remaining projects, and the garden was opened to the public in 2003.

Drawing much of its imagery from California history, myth, and legend, the Circle includes nine large scale sculptures and a 400' undulating circular wall topped with serpents. Queen Califia, represented by the garden's central sculpture, was an Amazon warrior for whom the state of California was named.

Our Photos of Niki's Work

The Bride, 1963
Pompidou / Jan's photo

Detail of The Bride, 1963
Pompidou / Jan's photo

Tyrannousaurus Rex etranglé par un cobra, c. 1963
LACMA / Jan's photo, 2017

The text on the dinosaur reads, in English:
Dear Virgina thank you for your leter. It came the right day. I was very dpressed and also I have a sore throat so your letter made me feel much better. Vive Virginia! I am glad you like my monsters. I will make you lots of beautiful ones for the show. (Text in speech bubble is unreadable.)

Detail of Stravinsky Fountain, 1983
Fiberglass and steel
Place Stravinsky, near Pompidou Center / Jan's photo

Detail of Stravinsky Fountain, 1983
Fiberglass and steel
Place Stravinsky, near Pompidou Center
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2015

Detail of Stravinsky Fountain, 1983
Fiberglass and steel
Place Stravinsky, near Pompidou Center
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2015

Detail of Stravinsky Fountain, 1983
Fiberglass and steel
Place Stravinsky, near Pompidou Center
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2015

Adam and Eve, 1985-1989
Painted Polyester and Fiberglass
Terrace View Café, Citygarden, St. Louis
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2013

The Poet and His Muse, 1998
Balboa Park / Jan's photo, 2017

Ricardo Cat, 1999
Concrete, ceramic Tile, pebbles
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Ricardo Cat, 1999
Laumeier / Jan's photo

Nikigator, 2001
Balboa Park / Jan's photo, 2017

My Photos of Queen Califia's Magical Circle, 2017

The Magical Circle is surrounded by a low wall topped by serpents, and serpents guard the entrance.

The inner circle is further guarded by a maze of low walls coved by a crazy quilt pattern of black and white tiles. The effect is disorienting. The tops of the principle sculptures loom over the walls.

Queen Califia was a fictional warrior queen who ruled over a kingdom of Black women living on the mythical island of California, as depicted by a Spanish writer around 1500. This is the central piece in the Circle. It is about 24 feet tall.

This is the back of the sculpture. Queen Califia's throne is a 5-legged bird; one of its eggs is between its legs.

It's difficult to get a good look at the Queen herself, as appropriate for a queen. You can see a cracked egg below the bird.

The underside of the bird is a beautiful mosaic.

Queen Califia is surrounded by nine totems that are inspired by various aspects of California history and legend.

The variety of materials that Niki incorporated into the mosaic surfaces is very intriguing.

Niki mixed reflective tile with natural stones.

Everything about the forms is unexpected and irregular.

Huge serpents top the wall. These two seem to be in conversation.

Internet Grabs of Queen Califia's Magical Circle
This photographer was there on a sunny day.

Internet Grabs of Other Works

The Tarot Garden, Tuscany, Italy—1979 to 1989

The Empress

Niki's kitchen in The Empress

Miscellaneous Sculptures

Sun God, 1983
Stuart Collection, UC San Diego / Internet

Sun God, 1983
Stuart Collection, UC San Diego / Internet

The work below is a chamber that viewers can enter. It expresses the fear and mourning associated with AIDS-related deaths.

Skull (Meditation Room), 1990

The Three Graces, 1995
Guggenheim, Bilbao / Internet