We need to talk about Niki de Saint Phalle

GLOSS THE RECORD - Marbbie Tagabucba - The Philippine Star
We need to talk about Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle on her work: “I want to get closer to the roles women are brought about (to accept) in plain society.” The artist pictured with “The High Priestess” in The Tarot Gar-den, Tuscany, Italy.
Photo: Michiko Matsumoto © Michiko Matsumoto

‘Men have been very inventive. They’ve invented all these machines. They invented our industrial age, but they don’t know how to make the world any better.’ — Niki de Saint Phalle

It’s hard to believe that the artist Niki de Saint Phalle is only having her first major exhibition in the US at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 at this point in time.

The feminist icon and visionary rejected social injustice and furthered the position of women in the mid-’60s with her work as a sculptor and architect by pioneering social and environmental causes.

“She pushed boundaries not only of what a woman artist can do but what an artist can do,” says Ruba Katrib, MoMA PS1 curator during the online launch hosted by patron La Prairie.

“La femme et L’oiseau fontaine” (1967–88) © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

“Not just as a female or artist but as an individual,” agrees Irene Kim, Art Basel regional head of VIP Relations Americas.

Saint Phalle was a woman in a man’s world; early on in her career she was connected to a milieu of male artists as part of the Nouveau Realisme group.

Saint Phalle entered into the public realm as an artist in the ’60s when she started shooting at canvases with a gun and releasing pigments randomly.

“The image of a young attractive woman with a rifle shooting a painting quickly took hold of the popular imagination and it was also quite provocative,” Ruba says of Saint Phalle’s “Tirs (Shooting Paintings),” a performance in which she turned the tools of patriarchy and colonialism back on the establishment by aiming a gun at symbols of oppression.

She was so ahead of her time that when she met Joan Mitchell, the fellow artist addressed her as “one of those writer’s wives that paints.”

She persisted despite the discrimination. Self-trained, she took hold of forms and aesthetics that reached audiences outside of traditional artistic circles — even getting them involved in the process — and funding them with commercial work that allowed her to be both artist and patron.

A large cobalt blue “Nana” in Schwäbisch Hall.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A famous example is her “Nana” balloons, characterized by their robust female forms that were equally provocative and scandalous. “One was to make a mask or object that everyone could have. The second reason was because I wanted to become a millionaire,” Saint Phalle has said. “The reason I wanted to become a millionaire is to be able to make lots of other art projects.”

Another is her eponymous perfume launched in 1982, a chypre floral packaged with a scarf and a box, within an exhibition and not separate from her work, “as a mass art object that anyone could have; making perfume as an art experience,” according to Katrib. It is no longer in production but still highly collectible because each bottle is a sculpture, bearing her signature snakes intertwined in cobalt blue.

Greg Prodromides, chief marketing officer at La Prairie, comments, “Securing one third of the funding of The Tarot Garden (1979–2002) in Pescia Fiorentina, Italy shows her determination to act as her own patron. She empowered herself to do so.”

While her master and inspiration Antoni Gaudí had his Duke as patron for Park Güell (1914) in Barcelona, Niki had only herself. (It is interesting to note that in The Tarot Garden, names and casts of the ceramicists, tile workers and local laborers are recognized with memorials — a gesture of solidarity that flew in the face of modernist ideals of authorship and individual artistic genius.)

Niki de Saint Phalle perfume bottle, 1982. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Lucky cobalt blue

Unabashed and provocative in her use and juxtaposition of primary colors — sometimes perceived as repulsive but engaging overall — the way Saint Phalle highlights cobalt blue paints and pigments is most memorable. She even uses them in liquid polyester paint for extra vibrancy. She describes her favorite color: “It’s the color of the sky. It’s the color of joy; it’s a spiritual color. And I feel like the Greeks do, that it brings good luck.”

Cobalt blue reappeared in the bands of color she painted on “Hon” at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. The central structures of The Tarot Garden also incorporate blue. “The Sphinx” (also known as “The Empress”) has a mantle of blue mirrored hair, and “The High Priestess” has a light blue face positioned above a pool of water.

It is the same Cobalt Blue in La Prairie’s iconic Skin Caviar collection and it is no coincidence.

“The pivotal encounter with Niki happened in the ’80s,” Prodromides shares. “She was working on her perfume out of a 5th Avenue studio in New York, from which La Prairie was also working from at the time. Ideas were exchanged and she suggested that La Prairie use ‘The color of joy and luck.’ In the ’80s, all skincare packaging was the same boring white or pale pink plastic jars. La Prairie had to be unexpected. The encounter with Niki made it crystal clear: it had to be cobalt blue. Nothing else would do.”

“L’Estrella Carta No. XVII” (1997) © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Empowering women

The exhibition is made possible by La Prairie’s patronage. “Women are unfortunately underrepresented and, dare I say, slightly forgotten in the art and culture field,” Prodromides says — which is a bitter truth. “I cannot think of anything more important for La Prairie.”

Prodromides elaborates, “Women empowerment is at the core of who we want to be. It is our purpose that we are striving to achieve — to empower women to hold time in their hands and to master time, conspire with time and, at the end of the day, to feel more confident, feel more beautiful — to feel more themselves for longer.”

“Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life” highlights Saint Phalle’s interdisciplinary approach and engagement with key social and political issues. The exhibition will focus on works that she created to transform environments, individuals and society. Part confessional using allegory metaphor, we can also learn about the artist who has made her innermost struggles and dreams universal, stirring conversations about bigger ideas.

“Last Night I Had a Dream” (1968–88)
Photo: Laurent Condominas. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Saint Phalle has said of her work: “I want to get closer to the roles women are brought about (to accept) in plain society. Whether it’s a woman giving birth, a whore, a witch, the devouring mother, the bride — I identify with the fool in the fairy tale who goes out in the world, not knowing what she’s doing but on a quest.”

“My work has been a long quest,” she elaborates. “Men have been very inventive. They’ve invented all these machines. They invented our industrial age, but they don’t know how to make the world any better.”

“Obélisque Serpents” (1987)
Photo: © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation
The emblematic cobalt blue in La Prairie's best-selling Skin Caviar collection was influenced by a suggestion made by the artist.

* * *

“Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life” features over 200 works created from the mid-1960s until the artist’s death, including sculptures, prints, drawings, jewelry, films and archival materials. It is on view at MoMA PS1 in New York until Sept. 6 organized by curator Ruba Katrib with assistant curator Josephine Graf. More information at moma.org/ps1.

In the Philippines, La Prairie is at Rustan’s The Beauty Source, Ayala Center Makati; Shangri-La Plaza Mall, Ortigas; Ayala Center Cebu; and online at https://rstns.shop/LaPrairie.

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