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Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life at MoMA PS1

Installation view of Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life, on view at MoMA PS1, New York, from March 11 to September 6, 2021. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Kyle Knodell

Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life


Through September 6, 2021 


In 1966, the then-French (later French-American) artist Niki de Saint Phalle displayed Hon, an 82-foot-long sculpture, of a pregnant woman with a vaginal opening visitors could walk into, where they found, among other exhibits, a 12-seat auditorium, a planetarium, and a fish pond. The artist’s combination of a gleeful eroticism, accessibility, and a roughness of visual manner was evident then, and now, in this colorful, enjoyable show. De Saint Phalle was untaught in art and brought to her production a nearly naive sense of purpose, albeit one that was consistently public and political; her AIDS drawings in the later Eighties make it clear that she was an artist of unusual social concern. Her signature Nanas, or large-breasted female sculptures, convey a sense of fun and fantasy, at the same time establishing the presence of a dominant female figure--a decision that reflected her early feminism. As an artist, de Saint Phalle communicated enthusiasm and joy--she was a Euopean exponent of pop art, finding ways to communicate with as wide an audience as possible.

Visitors entering Hon. 1966. © Hans Hammarskiöld Heritage. Photo: Hans Hammarskiöld.

“Structures for Life” was hindered to some extent by the fact that large sculptures made by de Saint Phalle could not be brought into the exhibition space--photographs of Hon and her permanent garden installations were available in the show, although visitors could see, as they were walking toward the building, an outdoor installation of a colorful fountain Nana, sprouting water from outsize breasts, in the middle of a gravel courtyard embellished by wall works imitating stained glass. There are times when one can feel distanced from the repetition and simplified messages inherent in de Saint Phalle’s insistence on a small number of themes--sexuality, an orientation toward the many rather than the few, art primarily as a vehicle for social awareness.  Indeed, after a while the number of Nanas populating the exhibition can overwhelm the visitor’s appreciation of them. But her audience was always large: we are living in a time of populism in culture, and the artist regularly addresses as broad a group as possible, seemingly in anticipation of current events. In truth, it may be that de Saint Phalle’s populism is her strongest attribute. It was a message for the future, today’s emphasis on an art that regularly places experience ahead of visual construction. 

The Nanas are central to de Saint Phalle’s popularity, as well as being the major part of her production. On one long, black wall, we can see a dozen relief sculptures; they offer her audience a kind of kaleidoscope of brightly hued forms, in which the simplicity of the shapes are intensified by the colors themselves. Almost always, the sculptures, whether in relief or fully three-dimensional, are oriented toward an ecstatic understanding of life experience, perhaps a way of chasing the demons away from her traumatic experience as an abused child. But there is something else, too. The experience of seeing so much color alongside the feminist bias of her art merges a sensibility based on enjoyment with a more serious purpose, namely, the assertion of women, a deeply considered part of the artist’s point of view. The Nana sculptures may have seemed playful at first, but they were also, all of them, women whose robust physique signaled an assertive presence. De Saint Phalle’s belief in a world in which women are fully equal to their male counterparts is evident even in this group of smaller wall sculptures, which remind us of a cosmic, slightly comic, but also forthright version of the female body.

Niki de Saint Phalle. Cover of AIDS, You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands. 1986. Book; published by Bucher. Photo: NCAF Archives. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation.

In the 1980s, de Saint Phalle devoted herself to producing posters about the AIDS crisis, mixing her well-known, unabashedly romantic style with some tough information about the disease. In one work, a book cover made in 1986, the word “AIDS” is painted at the top of the composition; in the center of the image is a red and pink heart, in the middle of which we find, painted in profile, a blonde woman and a man with dark brown hair. At the bottom there is a warning: “you don’t catch it holding hands.” The AIDS crisis was a very good window for the artist’s exuberant allusions to erotic feeling and her real need to make a difference in the socal mores of her time. For someone like de Saint Phalle, the structures of life--the fabric of lived experience--could not be dismissed in favor of art alone. Maybe this is the lesson we take away from this expansive, sweet-tempered, colorful shown: art cannot be separated from life. De Saint Phalle was particularly good at merging the two; one has only to see the photos of the tarot sculpture garden she worked on in Tuscany, where visitors explore the artist’s grand structures. The merger of experience with the imagination may be a close to impossible task, but it is one worth trying, as de Saint Phalle makes clear in an enjoyable show. WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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