Niki de Saint Phalle
Structures for Life
In the countryside of Tuscany, a gargantuan, sphinx-like empress, red-crowned and red-lipped, presides over a garden of delights just as strange: a giant blue head whose mouth serves as doorway; a sunset-hued bird atop an arch one can walk through; an ethereal castle tower. Niki de Saint Phalle, who passed away in 2002, considered the sculpture park Tarot Garden her magnum opus, but she was a wide-ranging artist. Featuring more than two hundred works spanning the mid-‘60s to the artist’s death, “Structures for Life” at MoMA PS1, the first major presentation of Saint Phalle in the United States, explores her interdisciplinary forays into architecture, playgrounds, books, prints, film, theater, clothing, jewelry, and perfume.
“Since we could not bring [the large-scale site-specific] structures to the museum, they are represented through models, sculptures, prints, and archival photographs and video recordings that show the process and place in which they were made,” Ruba Katrib, the curator of the exhibition, explains. The model for Le Dragon de Knokke (1973-75), a playhouse located in Belgium with a tongue that doubles as a slide, for instance, is exhibited for the first time, and offers a viewer a holistic view of the structure that the completed work would not allow.
Saint Phalle’s site-specific architectural work also extends, says Katrib, to “more radical forms such as perfume and jewelry as wearable artworks that can go out into the world.” The serpentine tongue of Le Dragon de Knokke, for instance, continues not only in the feminine curves of her large-scale and fecund Nanas sculptures but also in the coiled and almost-kissing snakes on her signature perfume, which Saint Phalle sold to fund Tarot Garden, as well in as the looping cursive of her drawings, including the illustrated book AIDS, You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands (1986).
Saint Phalle’s AIDS advocacy, alongside an outspokenly feminist body of work—she first reached notoriety for her Tirs series, in which she fired a gun at canvases plastered with domestic elements including eggbeaters, scissors, and doll parts—underscores a political bent which paved a path for artists in her wake. “Many of [her works] were misunderstood at the time,” Katrib says. This exhibition re-contextualizes her work as not only radical for its time, but deeply influential for generations to come. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Niki de Saint Phalle. Mini Nana maison. c. 1968. Painted polyester. 6 5/16 × 5 7/8 × 3 9/16 inches. Photo: Aaron Serafino. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation.