Niki de Saint Phalle

Shooting Picture


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Not on display

Niki de Saint Phalle 1930–2002
Original title
Plaster, paint, string, polythene and wire on wood
Object: 1430 × 780 × 81 mm
Purchased 1984


Shooting Picture is a relief work by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The surface of the work is rough and textured, featuring a white background and multiple streams of differently coloured paint including purple, yellow, blue, red and black. Each of the colours appears to have dripped down the canvas from a hole, which exposes a dark surface beneath the white. Saint Phalle made this work by shooting with a gun at bags of paint that were placed on the canvas. Before the shooting began, the surface was covered with white plaster and pigment to resemble a blank canvas. As the shooting commenced, the bags would be punctured and the coloured paints released to flow and splash.

Shooting Picture is one of a series of works by Saint Phalle titled Tirs, meaning fire or gunshot in French, which were made up until 1970 and all involved the artist shooting at the canvas. These shootings were conceived as performances, and as such formed part of the work. At some shootings audience members were invited to participate, and in the case of this painting owned by Tate, the American artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns both took aim.

Shooting Picture was made for Saint Phalle’s exhibition Feu a Volonté (Fire at Will) that was held at Galerie J in Paris between 30 June and 12 July 1961. This exhibition – the third since the gallery had opened in May 1961 – represented the artist’s entry into the nouveaux réaliste group, whose work was promoted by Galerie J’s owner Jeanine Restany, wife of the French art critic Pierre Restany. The nouveaux réalistes worked with collage and assemblage as well as painting to incorporate everyday objects in artworks. These artists, including Arman, César, Christo, Jean Tinguely and Daniel Spoerri, were also influenced by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) and the work of more contemporary artists like Rauschenberg and Johns, who were in attendance at the Galerie J opening, along with Iris Clert, Yves Klein and Jean Fautrier. However, this shooting was not the first. Although it is not clear when Saint Phalle began the Tirs series, most of the earlier events took place in private. In one instance the artist used the studio of her partner and collaborator, the French artist Jean Tinguley, asking Daniel Spoerri and the owner of nearby shooting gallery, who provided the gun, to attend.

Other Tirs incorporated found objects into their surfaces, including Catholic statues, plastic objects, dolls and toy guns. Often these compositions focused on a particular experience, such as Tir (Autel) 1970, which resembled an altarpiece and alluded to Saint Phalle’s convent education, or a political issue like Shooting Gallery or Homage to the Postman Chapel 1962, which art historian Jill Carrick commented was made ‘during the year of the Cuban missile crisis’ to target ‘the threat of nuclear war’ (Carrick 2003, p.707). Kruschev et Kennedy from 1963 portrayed American president John F. Kennedy and Russian president Nikita Kruschev in an embrace, referencing the interminable political situation at the height of the Cold War. Saint Phalle paired the violence of the international situation with the intimate attack on the artwork, not only enacting personal catharsis or protest, but bringing the threat of war to the surface of the work.

While politics and personal histories animated Saint Phalle’s more figurative work, the found object assemblages also made reference to the work of other artists. In 1961 she made Tirs works for Johns (Tir de Jasper Johns 1961) and Rauschenberg (Tir de Bob Rauschenberg 1961). The former resembled a mock artist’s easel, with a blanked out square canvas resembling Johns’s Target paintings, a stack of brushes, plank, bulb and coat hanger – all motifs from his work – fixed onto a piece of plain backboard. Shots were fired at the target in the performance literalising Johns’s play with signs and symbols in his paintings. Saint Phalle engaged both Johns and Rauschenberg in shooting at the homages she had made for them, asking them to participate in what Carrick has called a ‘symbolic act of self-destruction’ (Carrick 2003, p.712).

Saint Phalle recognised the novelty and potential parody of her shooting performance, particularly in gendered terms. Having previously worked as a fashion model and trained in theatre, Saint Phalle performed her role as an artist, sometimes dressing in a clean, white overall cinched at the waist with black boots and at other times in overtly femme-fatale costume such as a sleek red dress parodying different aspects of gendered and creative identities. In this way her work has been understood in relation to feminism, although the artist distanced herself from the organised Women’s Liberation Movement.

By the mid-1960s Saint Phalle worked on the Tirs less frequently and instead began making a new series titled the Nanas, the title of which draws on the slang word for woman in French. These figurative sculptures depict large, curvaceous women decorated with bright colours and motifs, often with limbs raised as if in the midst of a joyous dance or a ferocious rage. The largest and most famous of these sculptures is Hon 1966, made for the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, in collaboration with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt. The reclining figure took up the entire exhibition hall and could be entered by visitors through a doorway between the large thighs.

Further reading
Niki de Saint Phalle, exhibition catalogue, Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York 1962.
Jill Carrick, ‘Phallic Victories? Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tirs’, Art History, vol.26, no.5, November 2003, pp.700–29.
Simon Groom, Niki de Saint Phalle, London 2008.

Amy Tobin
June 2016

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Display caption

The emphasis on the violent gesture in post-war abstract painting culminated in Saint Phalle’s Shooting Pictures. She filled polythene bags with paint and enclosed them within layers of plaster against a blockboard backing. Spectators were invited to shoot at these constructions, releasing the paint. This one was shot by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Saint Phalle stopped making these works in 1963, explaining ‘I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug’.

Gallery label, January 2016

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Catalogue entry

Niki de Saint Phalle born 1930

T03824 Shooting Picture 1961

Plaster and paint with various items including string, wire mesh and polythene bags on a composite wood support 1430 x 780 x 81 (56 3/8 x 30 3/4 x 3 1/8)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Jean Tinguely (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: Given by the artist to Jean Tinguely 1961
Exh: Feu à Volonté, Galerie J, Paris, June-July 1961; Galerie Handschin, Basle 1961 (170, as ‘Tirage')
Lit: G. Boudaille, ‘Niki de Saint Phalle', Cimaise, no.55, Sept.-Oct. 1961, p.101; John Ashbery, ‘Paris Summer Notes', Art International, vol.5, Oct.1961, p.91; Pontus Hulten, ‘Niki de Saint Phalle et l'evidence de la sculpture' in Niki de Saint Phalle, exh. cat., Museé nationale d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1980, p.4; Aude Bodet and Sylvain Lecombre, ‘Chronologie' in 1960 Les Nouveaux Réalistes, exh. cat. Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1986, pp.83-84; David Bourdon, ‘Niki de Saint Phalle: Targets, Nanas and Tarot' in Fantastic Vision: Works by Niki de Saint Phalle, exh. cat., Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Roslyn 1987, p.12

The following entry is based on information supplied to the compiler in a letter from the artist dated 23 February 1988, and has been approved by the artist.

T03824 was made for spectators to shoot at, at Niki de Saint Phalle's exhibition of Shooting Pictures entitled ‘Feu à Volonté' held at the Galerie J in Paris from 30 June to 12 July 1961. A .22 rifle was kept at the gallery and on request could be loaded with ammunition and used by visitors.

Galerie J had been opened in May 1961 by Jeanine Restany to promote the group of Nouveaux Réalistes with which her husband, Pierre Restany, was closely involved as spokesman and principal coordinator. Niki de Saint Phalle was not among the original founders of the group in 1960 but her show in 1961 marked her acceptance into the movement. The inaugural exhibition ‘A quarante degrès au-dessus de Dada' (Forty degrees above Dada) was held in May and was followed by an exhibition of works by Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villeglé. Niki de Saint-Phalle's show was the third exhibition to be held at the gallery.

Until 1960 Niki de Saint Phalle worked in oil and in collage; also, from the mid 1950s, she started to make small, painted sculptures. Her images were figurative, almost naive depictions of imaginary landscapes, buildings and creatures using a broad range of colours and covering surfaces with dense and decorative patterns. The dramatic innovations in her work were precipitated by a combination of influences:

In 1959 in Paris there was a big American exhibition and I saw the work of Jackson Pollock for the first time, as well as Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, de Kooning and I was very impressed by the content and the scale of these great paintings. The following year I also met Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Arman, Martial Raysse, and became aware of their work. I was fascinated by Spoerri's collages. It was an exciting time in Paris. We all had so much energy and no money at all. Through the New Realist Group and Jean Tinguely I became aware of Dada thought (Niki de Saint Phalle, unpublished text 1987, in the possession of the artist, a copy of which is held by the Tate Gallery Archive).

Undoubtedly these American and French contemporaries provided a framework for Niki de Saint-Phalle's Shooting Pictures of the early 1960s. Speaking of the splattered, gestural effect and active process of works like T03824 Pierre Restany later commented that they ‘constituted the most definitive satire, the most irrevocable parody of American style' (Pierre Restany, Le nouveau réalisme, Paris 1978, p.99). In addition, it is striking that Niki de Saint Phalle not only knew Jasper Johns and was familiar with his ‘Target' paintings, which date from 1955, but that Johns was one of several artists involved in the shooting performance at Galerie J at the opening of Saint Phalle's exhibition. The strong element of performance and of chance effects, in Tinguely's work for example and also in the destructive ‘Colères' of Arman, provided an atmosphere which encouraged new ideas regarding the potential relationship between artist and viewer. Similarly influential in her work was the Nouveau Réaliste appropriation of commonplace objects and their presentation in disconcerting assemblages. However, the specific inspiration for the shooting Pictures arose from the artist's own work and its public reception. During the late 1950s the artist made a number of collage reliefs employing found objects. One piece entitled ‘Saint-Sébastien ou le Portrait de mon amour' 1961 (repr. Paris exh. cat. 1986, p.185) was strategically important in this development:

I made a portrait of my lover, a man's shirt glued on to a piece of white board, with a dart board for its head. I was actually very angry with a boyfriend I had and I enjoyed throwing darts at his image.

Daniel Spoerri was crazy about this and he and Tinguely included it in the Nouveau Réalistes show. When I saw it hanging in the show I was fascinated to see the spectators throwing darts at the construction; and the idea of audience participation attracted me. So I started thinking up a new way of getting the audience to play with the work, and to be involved with the work.

I had the idea of putting some bottles of paint behind a plaster form, these would be fired on with a gun and the paint released; the idea of destruction being one of construction (Niki de Saint Phalle, unpublished text 1987).

The very first time that Saint-Phalle created Shooting Pictures in 1961 was, if not a public event, at least a group event. The shooting took place in the yard at the Impasse Ronsin, off the rue Vaugirard in Montparnasse where Jean Tinguely had had a studio since 1955. Both Tinguely and Spoerri took part as did the owner of a Parisian shooting gallery whom Tinguely persuaded to bring his .22 gun, having failed to locate one elsewhere. These first reliefs were made from found objects including food items (rice, spaghetti, eggs) and bags of paint embedded in plaster and were followed by months of experiment:

At the first shootout I was very tense. Would the colours come out? Yes. Red, blue, spaghetti, rice, green, eggs! It was thrilling. We took turns shooting. For the following six months I experimented a lot, mixing old cast away rubbish and objects with colours. I forgot about the spaghetti and rice and started concentrating on making the shooting paintings more spectacular (Niki de Saint Phalle, unpublished text 1987).

The moment of action and the ritual surrounding it were as important as the finished work. The artist later recalled that the experience was

like war. A nice war. No one ever got hurt. But after a shoot-out we always felt emptied, exhausted, like after a bull-fight. There was the whole ceremony of the gun. The whiteness of the blank picture ... the smoke, the noise, and the colour' (ibid.).

The opening of Saint-Phalle's show at Galerie J on the evening of 30 June was crowded and noisy. Among those who attended were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg both over from New York for one man exhibitions at the Galerie Rive Droite and the Galerie Daniel Cordier respectively. While in Paris, Johns and Rauschenberg collaborated with Saint-Phalle and Tinguely in designing the decor of ‘Variations II' by John Cage, which was played by David Tudor at the Theatre of the American Embassy on 20 June. Saint-Phalle recalls that Rauschenberg purchased one of the Shooting Pictures from the show and that he and Johns joined in the shooting of T03824. In addition, Iris Clert, Yves Klein and Jean Fautrier took part. According to the artist Fautrier was very excited: ‘He was so crazy about the idea he tried to push away everyone from the shooting because he wanted it only to be coloured in the middle, to make it more of a Fautrier painting.' Photographs of the event, taken by Harry Shunk and showing, among others, Iris Clert, Jasper Johns and Yves Klein shooting at works are reproduced in the 1986 Paris exhibition catalogue (pp.84-85).

Unlike some of the other Shooting Pictures created at the Galerie J exhibition T03824 embodied no found materials in its base. The explosion of colour alone was explored. The artist has described the process of construction and ensuing performance:

I started working on a piece of wood. Jean Tinguely made a metal container underneath, so that the drips of paint would not go all over the floor, and then I added a lot of nails, some wire mesh, some plaster and then some small bags of plastic paint inside it all. The whole effect was then re-covered with plaster to give a totally white effect, a pure white surface that was not smooth but textured. The spectator was invited to shoot at the painting to release the colour and make it come alive. It was very exciting to see the red, blue, green coming out and dripping down the picture' (letter to the compiler 23 February 1988).

The basis of T03824 was blockboard. This was covered in a thin layer of coarse grey plaster reinforced with galvanised wire mesh. A second layer, of white finishing plaster, concealed polythene bags filled with liquid paint and overlaid with sisal string. When the bags of paint were hit by a bullet the liquid paint cascaded down the front of the plaster and also found routes within the plaster layers and oozed out of the bullet holes at the back. The force of the onslaught is revealed by the fact that the blockboard was completely penetrated by the bullets causing extensive splintering at the back.

The performance at Galerie J was very much in the spirit of Nouveau Réalisme. At the first festival of Nouveau Réalisme held in Nice in July 1961 the exhibition at the Galerie Murator was complemented by a series of action-spectacles in the gardens of Roseland Abbey (the property of Jean Larcarde) on the evening of 13 July. In addition to Saint-Phalle's shooting (at a relief panel of glass objects, paint bags and smoke canisters), Mimmo Rotella recited phonetic poems, Tinguely erected a rotating metallic fountain and Arman performed a ‘colère' by destroying a table and chair and creating a collage from the debris.

Later manifestations of Saint-Phalle's were even more elaborate than the Galerie J show. During ‘Mouvement dans l'art', a major event organised by Pontus Hulten at the Moderna Museet, May-September 1961, several participators or spectators, including Robert Rauschenberg, got so worked up they started throwing stones at the painting. In Copenhagen a show at the Galerie Koepke involved a massive construction incorporating a bath tub and ended with the artist giving away signed fragments of the work. The following year, in September, the artist made a large construction for ‘Dylaby' at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The artist recalls that during the shooting of this piece, in the Museum, the Museum Commissionaire handed the gun to each participant in turn.

From these large-scale relief targets Saint-Phalle moved on to work within a more specific range of subjects, altars and hearts and cathedrals, which close colleagues among Nouveaux Réalistes considered to be deviations. The artist did not continue shooting pictures after 1963. She has stated:

After about two years of shooting paintings, I decided that I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug. So I decided to stop, not to continue, to pass on to something else. It was difficult. I missed the spectacle and the excitement and I missed the miracle of the exploding paint (Niki de Saint Phalle, unpublished text 1987).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.559-61


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