Saint Phalle created Shooting Painting American Embassy during “Homage to David Tudor,” a performance program she staged, with the artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jean Tinguely, at the theater of the American Embassy in Paris on June 20, 1961. Over the course of the evening, each artist deployed strategies of indeterminacy—actions whose results are left open to chance—to make works onstage in front of an audience.
For her contribution, Saint Phalle hired a sharpshooter to fire a rifle at paint-filled balloons attached to a slab of wood covered in white plaster and paint with various objects encrusted in it; the bursting balloons created streams of brightly colored pigment that poured down over the work’s surface. A toy gun, a bucket seat, a hatchet, and an old shoe are among the items that were absorbed and reimagined as the stuff of painting.
This work is one of Saint Phalle’s “shooting paintings,” a series, begun in February of 1961, that repositioned the art of painting and assemblage as something explicitly violent. The sole female member of the Nouveaux Réalistes (New Realists) group, which championed the “poetic recycling of urban, industrial, and advertising reality,” Saint Phalle was a key figure among a generation of artists exploring the potential of found and everyday objects through performance-based practice.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Look at all the stuff in this artwork: there’s an ax, a shoe, and a toy gun! Now look up at the top and find the plastic bags that look like popped balloons. They are packages of paint that the artist Niki de Saint Phalle shot with a real gun, causing the colored paint to drip down the surface of the canvas. Choose a color and try to follow it with your eyes as far down as it goes.
Gallery label from For Kids, 2019