Niki de Saint Phalle was a French-American self-taught artist, best known for her vibrant, large-scale public sculptures, decorative assemblages, and her sculptural female figurines known as Nanas. She was also a painter, performer, and filmmaker. She was one of the few women artists known for monumental sculptures at this time.
Sainte Phalle was born in Paris. When she was three years old, her family moved to Connecticut and four years later to New York City. In 1952, with her husband and baby daughter, she moved to Paris. A year later she had a nervous breakdown. While convalescing, she began to paint. Five years after her son was born, she met the artist Jean Tinguely. They married in 1971.
Her figurative canvases, painted in the 1950s as a form of therapy, were followed by abstract works, which were influenced by Pollock and Rauschenberg. Her early assemblages were vividly colored small sculptures made with found objects. They evolved in complexity and scale culminating in her last assemblage, “Pirodactyl over New York” 1962, which was more than ten feet long.
Moving away from her iconic assemblages, Saint Phalle joined the French Nouveau Realiste movement, which included Yves Klein, Tinguely, and Christo. She invented her controversial “Tirs” or “Shooting Paintings” where pockets of paint were covered by plaster that would explode when shot by a gun. Saint Phalle kept a loaded rifle at the gallery and would shoot the paintings to make them bleed. In another artwork, she took a shirt from a former lover, fitted it over a wooden panel, and replaced the head with a dartboard. She invited gallery visitors to shoot it. “I fired at men, at society with its injustice, and at myself.”
Her “Shooting Paintings” evolved into her Nanas, her best known sculpture series. These were life size, buxom female figures who developed into larger, rounder monumental works. In time, these sculptures became more joyful, more colorful, and even larger. Some were posed dancing or performing acrobatics dressed in boldly exuberant primary colors.
She worked with her second husband and partner for twenty years, Jean Tinguely. Sexual exploitation and child abuse were recurrent themes in her multifaceted work – as in her 1973 autobiographical film “Daddy” which described her own rape by her father when she was eleven years old and which continued for many years.
Saint Phalle made outdoor sculptures for numerous cities throughout the world. Her most magnificent was “Tarot Garden” in Tuscany, which she began in 1979 and which was opened to the public in 1998. Because of the damage done to her lugs by working with polyesters, she moved to the milder climate of California where she died in 2002 of pulmonary emphysema.
There was a major retrospective of her work in Paris in 2014-2015. She was one of the most significant feminist artists of the 20th century and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world. Her work is held in collections of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice France.