The Fantasias of Niki de Saint Phalle

Another World

The fantasias of Niki de Saint Phalle.

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Niki de Saint Phalle could be iconic even anonymously. In a 2014 interview, Gloria Steinem recalled passing the French American artist on the street in New York City “a long time ago” without knowing who she was. “She was walking on 57th Street and she had on one of those Australian raincoats…it was flowing out behind her,” Steinem said. “She had a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and no purse…. And I thought, ‘That is the first free woman I have ever seen in real life. I want to be just like her.’”

Despite Saint Phalle’s aristocratic lineage and moneyed upbringing, her freedom was hard-won. She fled a family shaped by strict class and gender norms and freighted with sexual abuse. She started a new family with a childhood acquaintance, only to suffer a nervous breakdown, which helped jump-start her artistic career. She became a successful woman in a male-dominated art world and the only female member of the one artistic group to which she belonged—the avant-garde Nouveaux Réalistes, many of whom drew on Marcel Duchamp and incorporated the everyday objects of life in order to better represent it in art. She struggled with relentless health problems and never had enough money to keep up with her creative ambitions.

These challenges are laid out in various forms in What Is Now Known Was Only Once Imagined, a new book about Saint Phalle by the writer Nicole Rudick. The unconventional volume is a selection of prose writings and graphic material by Saint Phalle—drawings, prints, and sketches—compiled to tell the story of her life and work. The subtitle dubs it “an (auto)biography,” which feels right in its hybridity: This is a highly subjective critical endeavor that’s almost frustratingly faithful to its source. Rudick has written a foreword and an afterword, but otherwise her hand is mostly invisible. In this way, the book posits that the best way to understand an artist is not by considering some combination of private and public encounters, but almost solely through their own work and words. “What could be closer to the artist’s voice than the artist’s own voice, closer to her sensibility than that produced by her own hand?” Rudick asks. Coming from a biographer, that question feels both radically and deceptively simple.

Like many artists, Saint Phalle used her work to animate and unpack the challenges and concerns of her life. “I WOULD SHOW EVERYTHING,” she wrote to her mother. “I would show fear, anger, laughter, tenderness in my work.” In fact, she so heavily shaped the public narrative about herself that “her life story…has become inextricable from her art, providing its overdetermined discursive context,” argues the art historian Amelia Jones in the catalog for a recent Saint Phalle exhibition co-organized by the Menil Collection in Houston and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

For Rudick, this is not a problem but a gift. “Her work is a diary, and she made it for all to see,” Rudick writes in her afterword. Building on this premise, What Is Now Known uses the work to reveal the process of its creation. Across disciplines—drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, printmaking, writing—Saint Phalle crafted a mythical world filled with symbolic angels and dragons, snakes and trees, brides, goddesses, and guns. She came to see her life in related terms, as a series of trials that were required to fulfill her ambition. “Today, I believe THESE DIFFICULTIES WERE NECESSARY,” she reflected concerning the Tarot Garden, a massive sculpture park that she worked on for more than two decades. “Every fairy tale contains a long quest before you find the treasure.” To some extent, we all practice this kind of narrativizing of the disparate events of our lives. For Saint Phalle, though, one gets the sense that her calling was the forging of her story as much as it was making art. Ultimately, her most feminist gesture may have been the creation of herself.

Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle was born in Paris in 1930, the second child of an American mother and a French father from a noble family whose business collapsed during the Great Depression. When Niki was a few months old, she was left at her grandparents’ château in France while her family moved to New York City. She rejoined them at age 3 and grew up in the rarefied world of the Upper East Side, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and summering on Long Island and in Connecticut.

This world, however, was stifling. “I felt that my virginity, looks, charm, and a certain social veneer were important to Mother and Father,” she wrote. “Their desire for me was that I should marry a rich and socially acceptable man. I would spend my life proving I had the right to exist.” Saint Phalle, who was expelled from two private schools, was resistant to the mores of her class and her predestined confinement to the domestic sphere. “Very early, I got the message that men had power, and I wanted it,” she recalled.

That message came from observing her parents: her mother, who was stuck at home with “little liberty or privacy” and unleashed her anger on the children, and her father, whose career outside the house and affairs with other women demonstrated his freedom. He took brutal advantage of his power when he raped Saint Phalle when she was 11. According to her writings, she had repressed all memories of the trauma until 1953, when her father sent her a letter of confession that began, “I’m sure you remember when you were eleven and I tried to make you my mistress.” She did not give her own account of the event until 1994, when she published the short book Mon Secret, which takes the form of a letter to her daughter. “I felt expelled from society,” Saint Phalle wrote. “I understood that everything I was taught was false.” She went on: “I learned to live with it and to survive with my secret. This forced solitude created in me the space necessary to write my first poems and to develop my interior life, which would later make me an artist.”

Saint Phalle’s encounter with the worst of male violence set her on her path: She would use art to refashion and expel her suffering and rage, as well as to explore the profound possibilities of joy. Her work, which created a connection to her younger self, gave her a way to continually imagine another world.

At first, Saint Phalle followed the script of a somewhat more conventional life. At 18, she eloped with Harry Mathews, with whom she shared a love of high culture. Mathews was studying music (he’d go on to become a writer), and Saint Phalle had done some modeling and was studying acting. “We both did not want to grow up having a life resembling that of our parents and their friends,” she wrote. “We found another altar to worship: ART.”

The pair moved from New York City to Boston to Paris and then traveled around Europe, mingling in a milieu that included the poets John Ashbery and Robert Graves. Even after having two children, they remained itinerant and bohemian to a fault. For her part, Saint Phalle could not bring herself to become a housewife. She piled dirty clothes under the bed until the family ran out of things to wear, because doing the laundry was “just too boring.” Mathews seems to have been receptive to her complaints, but the problems ran deeper.

While they were living in southern France, she began contemplating suicide. Saint Phalle amassed an arsenal of knives and other sharp objects, again hiding them under the bed. When Mathews discovered the cache, he sent her to a psychiatric clinic in Nice, where she received electroshock treatment. A harrowing drawing in What Is Now Known shows a wide-eyed woman lying like a mummy on a bed surrounded by rats. The sun shines through a barred window floating above her. Handwritten text floats around the page, asking, “Are the rats inside of me? Or will they make a feast of me?” Although undated, the drawing seems to be an early example of her gift for distilling complex, often dark situations into a storybook style.

At the clinic, Saint Phalle started making art, which the doctors saw as therapeutic: They discharged her after six weeks. Saint Phalle later wrote that the breakdown was “good in the long run, because I left the clinic a painter.” She added, “Painting put my soul-stirring chaos at ease and provided an organic structure to my life, which I was ultimately in control of.”

As she asserted that control, Saint Phalle confronted an impossible decision— choosing, like so many women, between domestic and creative life. She embarked, at first, on a one-year reprieve to live alone and make art; it became a permanent arrangement, though she continued to visit the kids, who were raised by Mathews. Saint Phalle accepted her choice but also acknowledged the guilt it produced: “I felt that I had done such a terrible thing in leaving my family that I buried myself 100% in my work for the rest of my life to make up for it.”

By this time, she had also opted to forgo formal art training, a characteristically defiant decision that would leave her vulnerable to critical dismissal her whole career. Encouraged by an early mentor, she started out making figurative oil paintings and assemblages in a flat, colorful style that foreshadowed her later work. But encounters with Abstract Expressionism and the conceptual experiments of Duchamp and Yves Klein rattled her, prompting what she called her “first big artistic crisis.” She resolved it by a method she’d return to in the future: “metamorphosis.”

Although Saint Phalle had wanted to be independent, she quickly found herself in a relationship with a new man. Her response was to start carrying an unloaded gun—“to kill him symbolically”—and make a painting to which she adhered one of his shirts and a dartboard for a head. It was titled Portrait of My Lover. She threw darts at it.

From there it was a short step to the Tirs (French for “shots” or “shootings”), which she began making in 1961. The year before, she had moved into the studio of her new partner, the artist Jean Tinguely, in the Impasse Ronsin, a Parisian alley that was a locus of artistic activity. There, she assembled reliefs by attaching found objects—anything from shoes to a vacuum cleaner—and bags or cans of paint to boards or canvases, which she covered with white plaster. She then propped up the works outside or in a gallery and shot at them, inviting others—fellow artists, friends, members of the public—to do the same. The containers of paint exploded, leaving bursts and drips of color on the surface: an innovative and wry rebuttal to the machismo of Abstract Expressionism, achieved via an early foray into performance art.

The Tirs gave Saint Phalle her first taste of fame and acclaim. News outlets ran stories; celebrities like Jane Fonda and John Houseman showed up to watch her, clad in a sexy white jumpsuit and black boots, shoot at a relief in the Malibu Hills. “Here I was, an attractive girl…screaming against men in my interviews, and shooting with a gun,” she wrote. “This was before the women’s liberation movement and was very scandalous.” A two-page spread in What Is Now Known shows a reproduced list alongside a more polished color drawing of the same, laying out her motivations for the Tirs. One side chronicles what she shot at, including “daddy,” “all men,” and “society”; the other, her reasons for shooting. The only difference between the texts is her removal, in the second, of her original last line: “I shot because it prevented me from going mad.”

Having found a way to expel her rage, Saint Phalle soon turned to joy. In 1965, inspired by a pregnant friend, she began making the Nanas (French slang for “girls” or “broads”). These sculptures, which she would continue creating for nearly the rest of her life, are rotund women with large bodies, small heads, and mostly no faces who leap, dance, and tumble. They are jubilant; Saint Phalle called them “the symbol of a happy liberated woman.”

Colorful, archetypal figures of women, the Nanas appear harmless and playful, yet their happiness constitutes a radical shift: a transmutation of Saint Phalle’s anger and a reenvisioning of the ways that women could exist in public—by being independent and celebratory, large and loud. The provocativeness of the sculptures was demonstrated in 1974, when three outdoor Nanas were installed in Hanover, Germany, and caused protests among the residents. According to the curator Jill Dawsey, the “conflict…culminated in a literal tug-of-war on the quay involving one thousand participants. The pro-Nana camp prevailed.”

Part of Saint Phalle’s goal with the Nanas was to transform the built world, to “reimagine [it] as one that was hospitable,” Dawsey writes. Saint Phalle had been inspired by her encounters with fantastical works of architecture, including Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell, which features colorful tile mosaics and curving, naturalist structures on a hilltop in Barcelona. In one drawing, Saint Phalle mapped out a “Plan for Nana Town,” a village constructed solely out of Nana figures; it includes a “Nana empire state building” entered through the heels of a woman’s shoes. Saint Phalle, whose physical autonomy had been violated at a young age, wanted to reclaim space with and for women’s bodies by imagining a place in which her fellow women contained and provided everything.

Saint Phalle never built the town, but in 1966 she did make a Nana the size of a building. By this time, she was enmeshed in an intense and complicated relationship with Tinguely that would last three decades. The pair were never monogamous and didn’t marry until their romance had already fizzled, but they remained devoted collaborators. “Jean is a great catalyst,” Saint Phalle wrote. “Always provocative, he knows how to goad me into surpassing myself.”

At the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and the artist Per Olof Ultvedt created Hon—en Katedral (She—a Cathedral), an 82-foot-long reclining Nana that was a building unto itself. Visitors—more than 70,000 of them in three months—entered the sculpture through its vulva; in a comical and surreal sight, well-dressed museum patrons lined up between the huge, brightly painted spread legs. Inside, they encountered a milk bar (in one breast), a theater, a gallery of fake paintings, and more. In a collage reproduced in What Is Now Known that shows Nanas prancing around the names of some of her artistic forebears (including Gaudí), Saint Phalle calls Hon “a first small attempt to beat these guys.”

Her next attempt was even more monumental. In the mid-’70s, she began work on the Tarot Garden, which sits on a 14-acre site given to her by two aristocratic Italian brothers. There, Saint Phalle and a bevy of collaborators constructed 22 sculptures corresponding to the major arcana of the tarot. Made of steel, cement, ceramic, and glass, they are simultaneously creepy and enchanting, rising from the tree-filled landscape like a cast of monsters from a children’s movie. Saint Phalle envisioned the park as “a place to dream in.” It opened to the public in 1998, 20 years after its foundation was laid and four years before her death.

Creating such a place was neither easy nor cheap. The garden cost roughly $5 million, a portion of which came from past and present lovers. Saint Phalle herself raised a third of the money by making and selling commercial products like jewelry, vases, and perfume. The art establishment looked down on such endeavors, but they proved to be a savvy business strategy and a boon to her wider reputation. More important, they allowed Saint Phalle to be the “master of my own ship” when it came to the garden: “I could work at my pace, in my way, which wasn’t always logical…. This was complete freedom.”

One of the tragic ironies of Saint Phalle’s story is that the zeal of her practice exacerbated the health problems that plagued her all her life. In 1974, she was hospitalized for a lung abscess brought on by the liquid polyester she used to make the Nanas. In 1981, soon after starting the Tarot Garden, she began suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Refusing to see a doctor, she moved into the Empress sculpture, where she made a bedroom in one of the breasts and lived alone, deteriorating for two years. Finally, when she could no longer sculpt or even walk, she ended up in the hospital, but after receiving treatment and medication returned to the Empress, where she nearly lost her grip on reality. “In the magic space, I lost all notion of time, and the limitations of normal life were abolished,” she wrote. In her delirium, she would sometimes see “thousands of shiny, little black devils with horrible wings…coming out of all my orifices.”

In 1989, Ricardo Menon, Saint Phalle’s assistant for 10 years, died of AIDS. In 1991, Tinguely died of heart failure. Saint Phalle was depressed and carrying around an oxygen tank for her asthmatic bronchitis. “To breathe or not to breathe had become the question,” she wrote. What saved her was a move to La Jolla, a picturesque seaside neighborhood in San Diego, Calif. (She died there in 2002.) What Is Now Known includes prints from her “Californian Diary” series that show a newfound sense of fluidity. They feel dreamlike, with intricate patterns and handwriting. A few begin with the phrase “Dear Diary,” which to me marked a noticeable shift. The book until this point is filled with letters addressed to other people; now Saint Phalle was writing to herself.

I’ve told Saint Phalle’s story in a fairly conventional way here, but What Is Now Known is not as straightforward. It does provide a biographical sketch, but Rudick sometimes orders her material according to the chronology of the events it describes and other times according to when the material itself was made. For instance, the excerpt from Mon Secret appears near the end, when Saint Phalle spoke publicly about the abuse for the first time. This means that for much of the book, our knowledge of her childhood is incomplete, but also that, as readers, we inhabit her consciousness—we grow and process with her.

This is the greatest strength of What Is Now Known: It offers an intimate emotional portrait—an experiential biography, you might say—of Saint Phalle. That comes at the expense not only of biographical detail (though this can be pieced together from the afterword and other sources) but also, arguably, of the sort of multifaceted complexity that comes from taking a broader view. Saint Phalle knew herself best, but she did not exist in a vacuum, and as a critic, I wonder about the limits of analyzing someone’s art entirely from within their own subjectivity. As Amelia Jones asks in her catalog essay, “How can we ‘know’ the significance of the link between [her] life and the objects and remnants that survive today as her work, no matter how directly [she] seems to have associated them with each other?”

On the other hand, you will find gaps in the recounting of anyone’s life (there are plenty in my version here), and all biographers must make choices regarding those disjunctures. Rudick grapples with this in her introduction, when she asks “where…the borders of a person’s life lie” and writes about seeking “a bigger picture of Saint Phalle’s inner world.” And her book makes a compelling case: This Saint Phalle feels different—more outré, more contemplative, and more mortal—than the one I encountered at her survey exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York City last year. I think I understand her better.

The most misinterpreted aspect of Saint Phalle’s art is that it is childlike. This quality has been used to dismiss her work as naive, especially because she never had any formal training. What Is Now Known makes it clear that this quality was, like so much else in her life, an intentional choice. Forgoing a traditional art education gave Saint Phalle a unique, unaffected style, and using fairy tales and myths as a framework gave her a way to assert her agency as an artist and a woman. Saint Phalle recognized that without evil, there is no good; without chaos, there’s no need for order. Over time, she learned not to romanticize her suffering but instead to accept it as fuel.

That isn’t to say she idealized balance or perfection (she once called the right angle “an assassin”). In lieu of symmetry, she embraced duality. Several images in the book contain opposing halves combined into a whole, including the cover, which reproduces a lithograph of the tree of life. One side, rendered in color, contains love, nature, beauty, art; the other, in black and white, holds tragedy, injustice, sadness, death. The two grow from the same base, and nestled between them is a woman—her features are indistinct, but it’s hard not to imagine that this is Saint Phalle. “I always felt that the Garden of Eden was right next to Hell,” she observed late in life. “Just a step away”—and maybe both equally impossible to reach.

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