Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego reopens with Niki de Saint Phalle exhibit

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego reopened its La Jolla flagship building to the public on April 9, 2022 with an exhibition on Niki de Saint Phalle. The reopening of the flagship La Jolla location follows a major four-year renovation by Selldorf Architects. 

Since the Museum’s founding in 1941, MCASD has evolved into a leading visual arts organization with two distinct locations, situated in the coastal community of La Jolla and in the heart of downtown San Diego. This year, both locations will feature solo exhibitions by trailblazing female artists, including the current exhibition of the late Yolanda López (1942-2021) at MCASD Downtown, and the survey of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) inaugurating the expanded La Jolla flagship. Retrospectives of Alexis Smith (b.1949) and Celia Alvarez Muñoz (b. 1937) will follow.

“At this moment, when the museum’s historical collection is highlighted, we have deliberately focused our special exhibitions on the work of trailblazing women artists from the recent past,” Kathryn Kanjo, David C. Copley Director and CEO, said. “Following the critical success of ‘Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist’ at our Jacob’s building downtown, we’re thrilled to inaugurate our expanded La Jolla building by Selldorf Architects with solo exhibitions of Niki de Saint Phalle and Alexis Smith. These presentations and their accompanying catalogues advance new scholarship for these under-examined artists and will be a revelation to today’s audiences.”

Aerial view of the new MCASD. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Photo Credit: Breadtruck Films.
Aerial view of the new MCASD. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Photo Credit: Breadtruck Films.

On April 9, MCASD opened its new galleries with “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s,” the first exhibition to focus on the experimental and prolific work of revolutionary French American artist Niki de Saint Phalle during this pivotal decade. Co-presented by The Menil Collection in Houston, the exhibition explores a transformative ten-year period in Saint Phalle’s work when she embarked on two of her most significant series: the Tirs, or “shooting paintings,” and the exuberant sculptures of women she called Nanas, and brings together major paintings, assemblages, and sculptures from this prolific chapter in the artist’s career, as well as extensive film and photographic documentation from the artist’s archives.

“Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” opens with the artist’s Tirs, which she created using a .22 caliber rifle. Often standing in front of an audience, Saint Phalle and invited participants would shoot at white plaster surfaces that concealed embedded bags of pigment or cans of paint, which would explode upon impact. Saint Phalle explained that her intention was “to make a painting bleed.” Her paradoxical method of creating a work through destruction was intended as commentary on the ingrained violence of the culture, as well as a feminist assault the tradition of modern painting

In 1964, after only a few years of creating the Tirs, Saint Phalle turned to the representation of the female body. Her initial large, figural assemblages confront the traditional and contradictory gender roles that Saint Phalle believed confined and endangered women. These works include goddesses, witches, monsters, a Hollywood starlet, and a larger-than-life bride immobilized by a voluminous dress and veil.  In 1965, Saint Phalle developed the Nanas, the name a playful appropriation of a French slang term for “girl.”

Embracing a radical ethos of joy, Saint Phalle’s increasingly liberated female forms—with outstretched arms and athletic poses–seem to herald the rise of international feminist movements.

“With their rambunctious life force, the Nanas became a vehicle for the artist’s exploration of women’s freedom and mobility in the public realm,” Jill Dawsey, Ph.D., Senior Curator, said. “Saint Phalle continuously experimented with their scale, using her figures to envision how women might, quite literally, take up more space in the world. Her trailblazing work presaged ideas and modes of making that would be elaborated by feminist artists in the 1970s and beyond.”

Yolanda López, Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, from the Guadalupe series, 1978. Oil pastel and paint on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the Yolanda López Legacy Trust.
Yolanda López, Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, from the Guadalupe series, 1978. Oil pastel and paint on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the Yolanda López Legacy Trust.

Simultaneously on view at the MCASD Downtown campus through April 24 will be “Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist,” the first solo museum exhibition for Yolanda López (1942-2021), the pathbreaking artist, activist, and educator whose career in California spanned five decades. López, who passed away in early September, was celebrated for her role in the Chicano art movement and for her iconic Guadalupe series.

“The exhibition takes its title from López’s most beloved work, Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to James Joyce’s coming-of-age novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. López diverts that narrative, with its focus on white, Catholic, male genius, and supplants it with a heroic vision of Chicana womanhood,” Jill Dawsey, Senior Curator, said. “Our show demonstrates how López used portraiture as a strategy for visualizing a larger collective body, offering her own likeness as an emblem of collective empowerment. The artist frequently used herself and her family members as models and, ‘prototypes,’ as she put it, in her conceptual drawing projects of the 1970s, bringing visibility to Chicana women of distinct roles and life stages through strikingly unsentimental, often larger-than-life portraits. 

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