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