Narrator: The artist Niki de Saint Phalle made Shooting Painting American Embassy in 1961. It’s an assemblage constructed from a range of materials including: paint, plaster, wood, plastic bags, a shoe, twine, a metal seat, an ax, a metal can, a toy gun, wire mesh, shot pellets, and additional found objects, including a wooden panel. The work is slightly larger than a standard door. It measures about 8 feet high and 2 feet wide. Because of the protruding found objects, the work is more than half a foot deep. In metric units, it is about 245 centimeters high, 66 centimeters wide, and 22 centimeters deep.
To understand what the work looks like we’ll describe how it was made. De Saint Phalle made this work as part of a live performance in Paris. Each artist who participated in this event created a work of art onstage in front of an audience, leaving some aspects open to chance.
De Saint Phalle’s contribution began with a vertical wooden panel with a square patch of metal mesh—roughly the size of a pizza box—adhered about six inches below its top edge. The panel and mesh are coated with an uneven application of matte white paint. A mound of plaster covers most of the mesh.
The artist affixed several objects, all painted white, to the panel’s lower half. Some of them protrude several inches from the surface. The largest of these is a metal tractor seat, with four coin-sized holes puncturing its surface. The seat is a little more than half of the panel’s width and mounted roughly in the middle of the panel with its convex side out. Cluttered around and below the seat are additional items, including a toy pistol, a small hatchet, a shoe, a ball of string, as well as other objects that are harder to identify.
For her performance, de Saint Phalle attached more than 25 plastic packages filled with various colors of paint embedded in the plaster mound. She fired a rifle at the piece, bursting many of the packages. This sent streams of brightly colored pigment flowing down the work’s surface.
The gunshots hit the plaster, pitting it with jagged holes that range from about the size of a walnut to the size of an apple. The cavities are filled with vivid colors, including lapis blue, pink, gray, orange, brown, green, blue, teal, and yellow.
A stream of paint cascades from each hole, beginning as bold, mostly vertical streaks of saturated bright color. As they follow the pull of gravity, the lines become erratic and messy. They tumble over, around, or behind the objects in their path, leaving behind colorful stains. Below each object, the colors appear splattered and muddy where they have mingled. Most end their journey with a dive straight down and off the assemblage’s bottom edge.
Now let's hear more about this work from a curator.
Curator, Anne Umland: The artist Niki de Saint Phalle's Shooting Painting American Embassy was created during a performance in Paris on June 20, 1961.
De Saint Phalle was the only female member of a French group known as the Nouveaux Réalistes, or the New Realists. And these artists were interested in finding new ways, as Robert Rauschenberg famously put it, of “working in the gap between art and life.” They did so by recycling things scavenged from the street or from the garbage can and introducing them into their art. If you look at the lower portion, there are all sorts of scavenged objects a bucket seat and a plastic toy gun, a hatchet, and an old shoe.
If you look at its upper section, I hope you can see that embedded in that messy layer of plaster and wire are plastic packages of paint. And de Saint Phalle burst many of these packages by shooting at them with a rifle, causing those cascades of brightly colored paint to pour down over the cluttered surface of this work. Her stated goal was "to make a painting that would bleed." In doing this, she repositioned the art of painting and of assemblage into a highly charged physical performance.