The Niki de Saint Phalle de Menil exhibition highlights a career in resistance
Niki de Saint Phalle posing with her Nanas at the Galerie Alexandre Iolas, Paris, 1965.
Photo: André Morain
A coterie of Nanas by Niki de Saint Phalle sits on a platform in various poses, while one swings from above. The Nanas were born in the mid-1960s at a time when Sainte Phalle put down his rifle and took a different tact in artistic creation in response to patriarchal constructions. With her Nanas – sculptural pieces in mixed media – she trumpeted the feminine form. Her Nanas are voluptuous, their legs often covered with hearts and wide apart.
The pendant Nana, “Samuela II” of 1965, particularly caught my attention. The character’s position resembles that of Atlas: one knee bent to the ground, the other moving forward helping the outstretched arms to lift an invisible burden. But move 45 degrees to the left and the shadow of “Samuela II” becomes visible. He seems lifted up in a sort of euphoric dance.
Juxtapositions of burden and celebration, rage and joy, unfold throughout “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s”, an exhibition from the Menil collection that serves as fascinating documentation for an artist circling a few themes on a decade with surprisingly different results. Saint Phalle was born in France in 1930 and raised in New York City, although she shared much of her life on both sides of the Atlantic. She worked as a model and she was a self-taught artist. She rebelled against religious education, and found herself a wife at 18 and a mother soon after. His was largely a self-taught path to artistic creation. But once in the wake of creation, she quickly set out to become her own vessel by cutting her own path, which is where Menil’s exhibition picks up the story.
Saint Phalle’s works fall under the category of resistance here, but from the violence of the first works of the decade to the celebration of the last, his approach evolves dramatically in this period. Organized by Michelle White, Senior Curator at the Menil Collection, and Jill Dawsey, Curator at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” opens with works as subtle as ax wounds . The first pieces – representations of cathedrals – are his grievances against the Catholicism of his upbringing. Then the course of the show leads to another room where “Tir Séance, June 26, 1961” is profiled.
Composed of plaster, metal, acrylic and other objects on wood, this “Tir Séance” is not a gentle introduction to his works Tir, their name is a French term for “tir” or “bombarder”. But it may be for the best. The room stands almost 11 feet tall and is packed with points of attraction. It is one of those that Saint Phalle decorated, for lack of a better word, with a .22 caliber rifle, which not only left wounds in the works, but also broke pre-placed containers containing paint. The metal frame and bursts of color give “Tir Séance” an austere gravity. But those elements almost sound like a challenge: turn away, if you want to, but there are more complex rewards if you bend over. As I approached the work and then stepped back, I saw other elements – materials found grafted into the work – which hardly felt at random. A few circular twists of wire take on the maternal metaphor of the nest. On the other side of the room was an autoharp, an archaic piece of musical machinery that has no inherent female involvement, although so many of its best-known practitioners in American folk music are female.
And a basin in the room with a crooked tube protruding from the bottom could have had other implications. But in that context, I thought of a now famous and brilliant dialogue piece from television’s “Fleabag”, in which a character played by Kristin Scott Thomas discusses the pain. “Women are born with built-in pain,” she says. “It’s our physical destiny – menstrual pain, sore breasts, childbirth.” The rest of the passage is worth including, but it’s better to just watch the stage (or the show).
But after this session with “Séance”, this dialogue stuck in my head. The first part of the exhibition shows Saint Phalle struggling vigorously against patriarchy. She was not isolated: Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were peers, friends and collaborators. But she was the only woman welcomed into the New Realists in Paris. An environment of such otherness will inevitably provoke acute reflection.
Thus, the first works are full of bullet holes and monsters, the presentation of femininity at the time by Saint Phalle. Small touches – plastic planes and bombs strapped to webs – speak of the anxiety of the atomic age, but his work brings the anxieties of age closer together. The Angry Woman – a pterodactyl here, a T-Rex there – are presented as great threats with great vulnerabilities. The dinosaur from “Gorgo in New York” is imposing at first glance. Look longer, and the roller skates under his feet become evident, a touch of humor with greater resonance.
When: Until January 23, 2022
Or: Ménil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross
Details: free; visit menil.org for a timed entry
Superficially, the passage of the Nanas Shot pieces is akin to watching Dorothy emerge in Oz, where the presentation shifts from black and white to color. There’s a bit of a transitional period where Saint Phalle’s sculptures revolve around the grotesque, including a dejected bride and a piece by Marilyn Monroe, both of which look like faded pieces of once-resplendent Mardi Gras floats: characters worn out by expectations.
But the Nanas are giving the exhibition a boost. The series was born because of a friend of Saint Phalle who was pregnant in the mid-60s. The Girls come in various poses, and they do not cross their legs in public. They surround the gallery around “Madame ou Nana verte au sac noir”, 1968, the green sun of a room around which the other works in the room revolve. It’s a marvel, with a pronounced chest and hips, but also dramatically square shoulders contrasting with her tiny hands and small purse. She can carry whatever burden is on her.
Throughout the exhibition, the themes are consistent, but Saint Phalle’s responses evolve so strongly. Its response to patriarchal constructions and actions was initially a violent rebellion. As she was in her thirties, she turned in on herself and used the celebration as her weapon rather than a gun as an outward expression. It turns out to be a more remarkable tool.
Saint Phalle had a long relationship with Dominique and John de Menil, who were the first collectors of his work. Their interest in his work and their correspondence with Saint Phalle populate the last room of the exhibition, which is full of pieces that speak of process and thought. And if anyone thinks the gun is more powerful than the body, they should think about “Hon”, a monumental sculpture she created for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. A temporary sculpture, it no longer exists , but a study for her is included in Ménil’s exhibition.
A giant photograph of the room is also included, a black and white image that Saint Phalle painted, rendering its vivid colors. A female form 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, “Hon” greeted guests via her vulva, where they could walk around and consider what’s going on inside our ships. The interior of “Hon” was painted black, contrasting with the bright colors on the outside, a decision by the artist to provoke a reflection on the joy and the glow, but also on the pain and the things kept. inside.