Best known for her patterned, colorful, and extravagantly voluptuous female figures, ‘Nanas’, Niki de Saint Phalle was a self-taught French American artist who actually began her professional career as a model. In a life full of torment and obsessions triggered by a traumatic childhood, de Saint Phalle had a mental breakdown at 22 which forced her to seek psychiatric treatment. Doctors first administered electroshock therapy and then encouraged art making.
“I started painting in the madhouse where I learnt how to translate emotions, fear, violence, hope, and joy into painting, discovering the somber depths of depression and how to overcome it”.
Her earliest work consisted of intensive, highly poignant explosions of color over the canvas, shooting away her inner demons, reacting against the patriarchal figure. De Saint Phalle revealed many years later, in an illustrated book in 1994, that her father had raped her at age 11. The artist who began her artistic career shooting paint onto a canvas as performance art went on to develop architectural projects such as sculpture gardens. She also wrote and illustrated books, participated in filmmaking, created theater sets, clothing, jewelry, and even her own perfume.
The exuberant, bold, and sensual Nana series came as a hymn to femininity but was also charged with comments on traditional, conservative values and lack of women’s rights. Discussing the monumentality of her figures, the artist stated:
“I think I made them so large so that man would look very small next to them”
These women expressed freedom, power and joy. Sadly, it was the art that saved her that also killed her. The toxic fumes inhaled from the polyester dust while working on her sculptures caused her lung problems that ended with respiratory failure at the age of 71, in 2002.
MOMA PS1’s retrospective of Niki de Saint Phalle is her first major exhibit in the US. Structures for Life features more than 200 artworks highlighting the broadness of her legacy, including studies and overviews of her architectural and utopian parks and spaces, theatre sets, books, prints, jewelry, paintings, and sculptures. Her progressive and intense devotion to social issues such as women’s rights, racism, climate change and HIV/AIDS are underlined in all this output. The show includes many illustrated pages for her book AIDS, You Cannot Catch It Holding Hands written in 1986 and then adapted for French television, tackling the topic of the dreaded illness and how to prevent it.
Structures for Life aims to emphasize how she worked to transform archetypal environments, individuals, and society, through her utopian vision. An example is the Tarot Garden, an immense sculptural garden in Tuscany, bursting with creativity, colors, and fantasy. The latter is a space allowing one to free oneself, its design and motifs aiming to change perception and shift reality. Similar ideals are illustrated in works related to Golem, a playground in Israel, Le Dragon de Knokke, a children’s playhouse in Belgium, La Fontaine Stravinsky or Le Rêve de l’Oiseau amongst others.
Structures for Life will be on view at MOMA PS1 through September 6th. The exhibition takes over the whole 3rd floor of the museum and is free to the public. Make sure to reserve your timed tickets here. If you are unable to make the show, make sure to check out our Instagram for more photos and videos!