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.
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 and invented her controversial “Tirs” or “Shooting Paintings.” Pockets of paint were covered by plaster that could be exploded 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.
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 painfully 1973 autobiographical film “Daddy” which described her own rape by her father which started when she was only eleven years old and which continued for 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.
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, MoMA, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, and Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Nice France among others.