Niki De Saint Phalle in the 1960s, co-curated by Michelle White and Jill Dawsey at the Menil Collection in Houston, delivers a gut punch. Her work lingers long after the time spent in the gallery is over. The exhibition, with its focus on the sixties, traces a crucial period in Niki de Saint Phalle’s career — a decade in which her work manifests an interrogation of gender, identity, ambition, and societal constraints. Works such as her tirs (“shooting paintings”) and Nana figures (usually large sculptural figures, although some small ones are also included) inhabit the Menil Collection’s galleries, bringing buoyancy and damage. Included in the exhibition is an archival room, featuring video footage, a model for Hon (perhaps her most well-known work), and ephemera from the period such as the artist’s interactions with Dominique and John de Menil. Saint Phalle, a member of the mostly French Nouveaux Réalistes, uses societal debris — its toys and junk, the stuff that then becomes the debris of expectations, cluttering the mind and society’s crevices.
The shooting paintings (tirs) are made through a kind of painterly violence. Niki de Saint Phalle (and others, as she invited collaborators to participate in these works, such as Jasper Johns, whose collaboration is included in the exhibition) would shoot the canvas with a rifle, sometimes with plastic bags of paint underneath the surface and other times with spray paint hanging in front of the assemblage. The gunshots exploded the paint — allowing the gun and chance to be collaborators. These works, upon close looking, at times appear as leaking, disemboweled bodies (and we call artists’ works their “body of work”); the deflated paint bags suggest the punctured stomach or intestines of the work. The use of a rifle makes violence and trauma legible components to the process. The colorful drips of paint reference and critique previous popular (and male-dominated) art movements such as abstract expressionism.
As the curators and others have expounded, Niki de Saint Phalle’s work takes “women empowerment” to the forefront and directly challenges the patriarchy of European culture (and American culture in a somewhat shared cultural ethos, as co-curator Michelle White also discusses in her catalogue essay “Outside World: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tirs and American Art, 1961-1963”). Saint Phalle’s work cogently shows, through both her subjects and materials, how expectations of women in the sixties — demure, sexy, mother, wife, lover — are produced by consumer culture and society. When you enter the exhibition space, Assemblage (Figure with Dartboard Head) (ca. 1962) immediately introduces you to these concepts, a “portrait” whose face is a target head and a wire heart and a “body” made of children’s toys, gendered in the time period — baby dolls for girls, plastic military men for boys — and a soda bottle bicep against the steeple-like backing. Consumer, societal, and religious expectations coalesce in the bandaged, body-like form. These kinds of materials populate the exhibition and are continually “shot at” in her work. In another room, M.O.N.S.T.R.E. (1964; a collaboration with Jean Tinguely) comes alive (barely) every 30 minutes — a decrepit and fossil-like dinosaur, made, in part, of machine and of plastic play things. Other works in the same room, Valentine (ca. 1963), Red Dragon (1964), and Gorgo in New York (1962), to cite only a few, show how the materiality of the objects, the materials, and popular culture that make expectations and empty promises (such as those of romantic love in Valentine, or how gendered roles in childhood toys create expected modes of being, in adulthood), are made into monsters.
Additionally, shooting paintings such as Old Master (1961) placed alongside Tir (Old Master) Séance Galierie J (1961) make evident (if there was a doubt) how those same systems exist for women within art systems and art historical canons, disrupting the staid, ostentatious gilded frames one would expect from an Old Master work (further amplified by the Menil’s white gallery walls).
One room of the exhibition is dedicated to her larger sculptures, including the Nanas which Saint Phalle described as “expressions of joy.” The monumental women’s bodies expand, taking up space (something women weren’t usually supposed to do) and calling attention to that expansion through bright paint. The archival room handily reminds you of the how abrasive these large bodies were in the sixties; a 1968 Life Magazine article about the artist describes the Nanas (in this case the inflatable version) as “a great balloon of a girl, rounded in the all the wrong places… .”
Earlier sculptures inhabit the same room as the Nanas and challenge gendered notions of societal modes of beauty and marriage and the role of women such as The Bride (or Miss Haversham’s Dream or When You Love Somebody) (1965), large and foreboding in her bridal gear not the least because of the romantic generational terror Dickens’ creation portends after her heartbreak. These sculptures, such as Lucrezia (1964), also use the same children’s playthings (baby dolls, military men, teddy bears, horses) to teach children, from the start, their gendered roles. These works, along with other Nana figures in the room, trace the origins and development from these earlier works to the monumental Nana figures that continued after the 1960s.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s works offer up the gristle of society, its pains and joys. In some of the video footage, she describes her work and her intention as an artist to inhabit a space outside of the elitism or snobbery of the traditional art space. Within the Menil Collection, a Houston art space predicated on access to the public, her works appear to belong. Her work is clear and precise, a provocative invitation to look closely. In the 1960s, Niki de Saint Phalle’s work described the conditions of life in and under patriarchy. You can’t unsee or unknow its damage in the exhibition. Her work resonates, reverberates, and continues today.
“Niki De Saint Phalle in the 1960s” is on view at the Menil Collection, Houston, through January 23, 2022. The exhibition is co-curated by Michelle White, Senior Curator, The Menil Collection, Houston, and Jill Dawsey, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. My thanks to Curatorial Assistant Molly Everett for sharing her insights about the exhibition.