Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition in NYC

Salon 94 (3 E. 89th Street, New York) presents its second solo exhibition of French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, with five works of her late career Tableaux Éclatés, the series first exhibited in her retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris in 1993. The exhibition will be on view from April 30 through June 22, 2024.

The dynamic Tableaux Éclatés (“exploding paintings”) are vibrant, mechanized pictures depicting landscapes upon which animals and still lives, as well as her trademark Nanas, dance across beaches, deserts, and seas. Each painting’s composition is animated through an intricate motorized armature activated through a photo sensor: when the artwork recognizes a viewer, internal motors trigger motion of the work’s disparate elements or illuminate the scene with brilliant electric bulbs.

Performing in the Tableaux Éclatés are her iconic 1960s Nanas, emancipated women whose shapely bodies and colorful regalia profess a playful, assertive, and feminist affirmation in opposition to the passive odalisques common throughout Western art. Other Tableau Éclatés are rife with art historical symbols: the skull and flowers in I Woke up Last Night (1994) recall vanitas paintings of European Old Masters which picture the fleeting pleasures of earthly life–though Saint Phalle’s interpretation is novel for its remixing of the still life as moving in perpetuity.  

Following the death of her husband, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely in 1991, and with her own ailments, Saint Phalle also searches for answers about life after death across religions and was taken by the story of the Hindu deity Ganesh, who lived after decapitation and came to represent rebirth in the face of hardship. The spiral–a recurring theme in the artist’s life and perhaps the oldest known symbol of life’s cycles of birth and death–finds eternal rotation in the belly of La Déesse Noire (1993) whose womb is a golden treasure and borrows its form from the tiniest strands of DNA to the immensity of galaxies, as well as the coils of her friend Alexander Calder, and of course the motors of Jean Tinguely.

Saint Phalle’s return to the United States and its diverse landscapes also find form in these works. She visited and depicted the deserts of California and Arizona, using those locales to set fantastical scenes populated by creatures both real and imagined.

In The Treasure of the Borrego Desert (1994), whales, dolphins, and Nanas swim in a vast blue ocean as a luminous sun rises and sets continuously. The central mountain peak and foregrounded marine life rearrange in ways both playful and menacing. This depiction of the fragile harmony of wildlife and humanity points to the artist’s growing awareness of environmental destruction and the vulnerability of all life. She also made a series of prints with this imagery that will be on view in the exhibition.

Indeed, Saint Phalle’s move to La Jolla, California in 1993 came as a result of the artist’s struggle with a debilitating respiratory illness–the Pacific’s ocean air revived her, and she maintained an active practice for the next nine years. In The Treasure of the Borrego Desert, the mountain splits to reveal one of the original Nanas from Saint Phalle’s childhood in New York, The Statue of Liberty: the prototypical symbol of freedom embodied in the figure of a woman.

Shortly after a stay in New York in 1991, and shrouded in mourning, she wrote:

I needed to be alone with my grief…The East River became the RIVER STYX. Sometimes I imagined each boat carrying Jean’s mortal body in a golden coffin taking him to his new mysterious life. I thought also of all the close young friends who have died over the last few years of AIDS. Being in the city, my city, I started to think about the life around me. The vibrant city life, visually exploding, rushing, energies bursting. Other thoughts took hold of me. How the world was fragmenting into racism, religious -isms and hates. Out of this dark journey came light. I had a vision of a painting exploding, then coming together — REJOINED.

— Niki de Saint Phalle and Pontus Hultén, Tableaux éclatés, Paris: La Difference, 1994

Inspired by Tinguely’s own practice of kinetic Méta-reliefs, Saint Phalle took up dynamic movement in her own work. She invented new strategies of animating two-dimensional relief paintings, as she did previously when she aimed her rifle at canvases in her Tirs (“shooting paintings”) of the early 1960s.

She again found a way to go beyond the limits of the medium, making the framework burst and fragment and come back together again through the introduction of unexpected movement: to be rejoined. The Tirs saw the artist’s spectacular creation of a painting by shooting a gun at the canvas, creating composition by exploding containers of concealed paint in happenings which evolved in their performative nature.

Forty years later with the Tableaux Éclatés she revisits performance, this time in the work, allowing Saint Phalle to delightfully reveal dynamic, complicated narratives while metaphorically coming to terms with the immense loss of her partner.

Concurrently, a retrospective of the artist’s work, Rebellion and Joy, is on view at the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri from April 27 – July 21, 2024. That exhibition is organized with the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC), Nice, France which holds one of the largest public collections of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work in the world.

About Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle Born 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, Niki de Saint Phalle moved to the USA in 1933 and spent her childhood and youth in New York City.

In 1952, Saint Phalle moved back to Paris and became immersed in French and ex-patriate artistic communities. In her 1961 exhibition Feu à Volonté (Fire at Will), organized by art critic and cultural philosopher Pierre Restany at Galerie J, Paris, Saint Phalle showed for the first time her iconic “Shooting Paintings”. These works were made by firing a rifle at a primed canvas onto which bags of paint were affixed. As the shooting commenced, the punctured bags would release the colored paint. The resulting accidental-cum automatic composition documents the activity of the various shooters who participated in the happening, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg included among them.

By the mid-1960s Saint Phalle worked less frequently on paintings, choosing instead to begin on a new series titled the Nanas. The title of this body of work draws on a slightly rude slang word for “woman” in French. Presented anew by a woman, the term was reapplied to important figurative sculptures—both fun and stately—depicting large, curvaceous women decorated with bright colors and motifs, often times with limbs joyously—or frustratingly—raised. The largest and most famous of these sculptures is HON (1966), made for the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, in collaboration with artists Jean Tinguely (who would later become her second husband) and Per Olof Ultvedt. The reclining figure took up the entire exhibition hall and could be entered by visitors through a doorway between the large thighs.

Saint Phalle was one of only two women artists (the other being expressionist Joan Mitchell) to show with the influential Virginia Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles. Also in the American West, Saint Phalle assisted Jean Tinguely in his “Study for an End of the World,” No. 2 from 1962, a kinetic sculpture installed in the Nevada desert that was purposefully destroyed by explosion before a live audience. This work is considered to be one of the first Land artworks: at that time, Saint Phalle wrote that she planned to create a large livable sculpture in the middle of the desert.

Her late projects took on a never-more public dimension. In Tuscany, she built the great Tarot Garden sculpture park. The project was entirely self-funded: Saint Phalle sold large numbers of editioned works (and even a perfume bearing her name) in order to finance the project. Later, when invited to create a public sculpture for Jerusalem, she proposed a giant slide for all children to play in. When many of her friends and colleagues became gravely affected by HIV/AIDS, she wrote a book explaining to children what the disease was, what could be done to prevent it and how to help victims.

She died in 2002 in La Jolla, California.

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