From 1 February – 27 April 2008, Tate Liverpool will present the first UK exhibition of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work since her death in 2002. The Franco-American painter and sculptor is best known for her Fontaine Stravinsky works on display outside the Centre Pompidou. The exhibition presents a comprehensive survey of the artist’s entire career and will include key examples of all phases of her work; from her early assemblages and paintings in the 1950s, her acclaimed Shooting Paintings in the early 1960s, her religious altars and bride sculptures in the mid 1960s, the Nanas and larger sculptural works, a wide selection of graphic work, to her late works including the Skull Meditation Room,1990.
Beautiful, flamboyant, daring, provocative and fiercely independent, Niki de Saint Phalle emerged in the 1960s as a powerful and original figure in the masculine international arts world centred around Paris. Yet despite her association with theNouveau Réalistes, and a number of collaborations with many of the world’s leading artists and her marriage to Jean Tinguely, her work has largely been overlooked, or dismissed as merely playful. A believer in mythology and fairytales, her work is bright and colourful, demonstrating an exuberant love of life, at the same time revealing a certain darkness. This exhibition, a wide-ranging presentation of the work and exploration of her themes and concerns, will attempt to address this oversight and bring her work to a wider audience.
She began her career as an artist in the 1950s when she worked in oils and collage but also began to make small, painted sculptures. Her images were figurative, almost naïve depictions of imaginary landscapes, buildings and creatures, using a broad range of colours and covering surfaces with dense and decorative patterns.
In her Assemblages, begun in the 1950s, she created a very personal world based on found everyday objects which she embedded in plaster as a relief. However they were often littered with violent objects such as knives, scissors, nails and blades. Her darker side was also revealed in portraits of the time, such as Portrait of My Lover 1961, where the head has been substituted by a target studded with darts. This became part of a series known collectively as the Shooting Paintings (Tirs), with which she is most closely associated, and which secured her place amongst the Nouveau Réalistes, alongside artists such as Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri and Arman in Paris in the early 1960s.
Undoubtedly influenced by American artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who were working in Paris at the time, her Shooting Paintings explored the idea of the violent gesture in abstract art, in what can be read as a parody of the machismo of action painting. Embedding pockets filled with paint and foodstuffs within a thick layer of plaster on canvas, spectators were invited to shoot the paintings in order to make the pictures ‘bleed’. Tinguely, Spoerri, Rauschenberg and Johns all participated in the various ‘shoot-outs’ held between 1961-3. The moment of action and an emphasis on chance were as important as the finished work. She stopped making them in 1963, explaining, ‘I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug’. Niki de Saint Phalle went on to work with these artists in a number of collaborations, such as the décor for Variations II by John Cage at the American Embassy in Paris, and in 1962 with Rauschenberg, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Per Olaf Ulveld and Ad Peterson on the Dylaby exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
As Niki de Saint Phalle’s work progressed, she became interested in ideas of femininity and the representation of women. She originally explored these ideas through a series of works on the theme of the Bride. This led to the Nanas, which were very large brightly-coloured sculptures of women that, due to their generous size and form, have become iconic and enduring archetypal images of maternity and femininity. In 1966 she created a 28 metre long Nana, Hon, for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where visitors were invited to enter the woman between her legs, inside of which they found a bar, a screening room and various viewing platforms. Niki de Saint Phalle continued to explore these themes until her death in 2002, as well as working on more monumental works which culminated in the magical Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (TarotGarden) in Italy.