“I realized that there was nothing more shocking than joy.”
Niki de Saint Phalle
“Ready! On your marks! Red, yellow, blue, the painting weeps, the painting is dead. I’ve killed the painting.” So declared the self-taught artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who caught the attention of the French art scene and the popular press in February 1961 when she staged her first Tirs or Shooting Paintings. For this project, Saint Phalle created assemblages on wooden boards with items such as toys, tools, bicycle wheels, clothing, chicken wire, and plaster embedded with paint-filled plastic bags. She painted these constructions white, then she and others shot at them with a rifle, bursting the bags and covering her “assassinated” paintings with drips of color. “I was shooting at myself, society with its INJUSTICES,” the artist later explained. “I was shooting at my own violence and the VIOLENCE of the times.”
One Tir, Shooting Painting American Embassy, was created during a June 1961 performance that Saint Phalle staged with artists Jasper Johns, Jean Tinguely, and Robert Rauschenberg at the theater of the American Embassy in Paris in honor of the experimental composer and musician David Tudor. Her prepared white assemblage was brought out onto the stage and shot at by an experienced marksman who stood up in the audience.
Saint Phalle soon expanded this practice to shooting at sculptures, including a reproduction of the classical Greek statue Venus de Milo and forms of her own creation, often representations of women. She continued this turn to the sculptural, shifting from the violence of the Shooting Paintings to a joyful celebration of the female form. Her Nanas, a French slang for girls, are brightly colored and patterned sculptures of women in action. They dance, run, somersault, dive, and leap; according to Saint Phalle, they are provocative in their own right. “I thought beforehand that to be provocative, you had to attack religion or generals,” she has said. “I realized that there was nothing more shocking than joy.”
She soon moved on to planning joyful works on a monumental scale, including a project for a Nana house that one could enter and a large Golem sculpture on a playground: three long red tongues unfurling from its open mouth are slides that children can chute down. This practice culminated in The Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy, which Saint Phalle worked on for over 20 years. Finally opened to the public in 1998, the garden features 22 massive sculptures, some almost 50 feet high. Based on cards from the tarot deck, including the Empress, the High Priestess, and the Magician, the sculptures are brightly painted, with mosaics of glass, mirrors, and stones.
Saint Phalle was an early advocate for HIV/AIDS education, and in 1986 she wrote and illustrated the book AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands, which explains how the virus is transmitted and encourages compassion for those suffering from infection. It has been translated into five languages and distributed to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren around the world.
In the last years of her life, Saint Phalle continued to employ her art for activism, producing a number of illustrations addressing issues such as global warming, a woman’s right to choose, and gun violence in the United States. Reflecting on her life and work, Saint Phalle explained, “I became an artist because I had no choice...I embraced art as my deliverance and a necessity.”
Lily Goldberg, Collection Specialist, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2023