Niki de Saint Phalle, French/American (1930 - 2002)

Niki de Saint Phalle

The artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, was born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle at Neuilly-sur-Seine, and was the second of five children of Jeanne Jacqueline, nee Harper and Andre Marie de Saint Phalle, a banker.

In the early 1930s, her father lost all the family money in the stock market crash of 1929, and Niki and her elder brother were separated from their parents and sent to live with paternal grandparents in the Nievre area of France for the next three years.

In 1933, the family reunited in Greenwich, Connecticut and spent summers in France with American maternal grandfather Donald Harper at his chateau "Filerval" with gardens designed by Le Notre. This experience of living in two cultures had much long-range influence on her thinking and creativity.

From 1937 to 1947, the family lived in New York city. Marie-Agnes, now called Niki, started school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Her first visual influences were comic books, and visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout her youth she continually questioned authority and was sent to a succession of schools. At the Brearly School, she becomes interested in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and the Greek tragedies. She discovered Russian authors and passionately read all the Dostoevsky novels. She acted in school plays and began to write her own poetry and plays. But she was dismissed from Brearly for painting the fig leaves red on the school's statuary. She graduated from a private all girl school, Old Field School, in Maryland and from the late 40s to mid 50s, worked as fashion model for Vogue, Life, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, and other French and American magazines.

At age eighteen, she eloped with Harry Mathews and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She began to paint, experimenting with different media and style while her husband studied music at Harvard University. Their first child, Laura, was born April 1951.

In 1952, she and her husband moved to Paris where Niki studied theatre and acting, and her husband continued his studies in music, only later to become a writer, and a founder of the literary magazine Locus Solus. They shared the upbringing of their daughter, and traveled through France, Italy, and Spain visiting museums and cathedrals. Niki was especially impressed by the concept of a cathedral as a 'collective ideal' realized through the efforts of many; this later becomes an important aspect in her own work.

In 1953, she was hospitalized in Nice with nervous breakdown and painted while recuperating from this crisis, and re-evaluated the direction of her life, beginning to seriously consider communicating through her art.
In Paris, she is introduced to American painter Hugh Weiss who becomes a friend and mentor, encouraging her to remain painting in her self-taught style. Moves to Deya, Majorca, Spain where son Philip was born in may 1955. Reads Proust, visits Madrid and Barcelona where she discovers Antonio Gaudi and is deeply affected by this experience which opens many possibilities of the use of diverse material and object-trouves as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. In particular, Gaudi's "Parc Guell" is a special revelation that makes her determined to one day create her own garden of joy combining mart and nature.

Returns to Paris. Meets sculptor Jean Tinguely and his wife Eva Aeppli for the first time. Both are supportive of her ideas. Asks Tinguely to weld an armature for her first sculpture.

Frequently visits the collections of the Louvre. Interested in the work of Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, and Pablo Picasso. Inspired by the postman, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval's architecture "Le Palais Ideal", in Hauterives, France.

Lives in Lans-en-Vercors in the French Alps with family. First solo exhibition of paintings in St. Gall, Switzerland in 1956. Paints and explores various collage elements. Meets a number of contemporary writers including John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch through Harry Mathews.

Introduced to contemporary art in exhibition at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris that includes works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Separates from husband. Children live with their father. Sets up studio and concentrates solely on work. Assemblages take on an angry aspect-a new series 'target' paintings actually have darts thrown at them.

End of 1960 moves to 11 Impasse Rosin, Paris and lives and shares a studio with Jean Tinguely; they will collaborate and assist each other on projects throughout their long association. Constantin Brancusi is a neighbor at Impasse Rosin. Through Tinguely, meets Pontus Hulten then director of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Hulten includes her in major exhibitions organized at the time. Through his foresight, the Moderna Museet will acquire pivotal pieces from throughout her career to form the most comprehensive collection of her work.

Because of her bicultural background and the direction in her own art, she becomes a kind of ambassador between the avant-gardes in France and the United States.

Expands on the 'target' paintings with a series of 'shooting' paintings or tirs. It is through acts of destruction that these works are created-the assemblages are shot with a pistol, rifle or cannon by herself or others, producing spontaneous effects and the dispersion of colors. As they evolve, the tirs become larger, more elaborate in concept and include elements of spectacle and performance.

Pierre Restany, founder of the Nouveau Realistes, attends first public tir, and invites her to become a member. Becomes involved in the ideas, festivals and activities of this group which includes Arman, Cesar, Christo, Gerard Deschamps, Francois Dufrene, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Jacques Villegle.
First solo exhibition in Paris at Galerie J with assemblages, tires, and a public shooting area. Exhibits in group shows in Europe and the United States. Becomes friends with American artists staying in Paris including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers and his wife Clarice, and will participate in various projects with them over the years.

She and Tinguely are introduced to Salvator Dali by Marcel Duchamp. Travels to Spain with Tinguely for celebration honoring Dali, and they make a life-size exploding bull with plaster, paper and fireworks for the arena at Figueras.

Major tir "King Kong" created in LA., sponsored by Dawn Gallery; later acquired by Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Her love of horror movies provides source of inspiration for this and other works. Reviews.

She and Tinguely find an old country inn outside of Paris to live and work, l'Auberge du Cheval Blanc, Soisy sur Ecole, France. Begins work on figurative reliefs -confrontational depictions of women, some giving birth or vivisectioned. Creates other figurative assemblages including freestanding dragons, monsters and brides presented in first solo show at Hanover Gallery, London. Travels to new York with Jean Tinguely and stays at the Chelsea Hotel, taking part in New York art activities.

Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarisse Rivers, she begins considering archetypal female figures in relation to her thinking on the position of women in society. Her updated version of 'everywoman' are named 'Nanas'. The first of these freely posed forms, made of papier-mache, yarn and cloth are exhibited at the Alexander Iolas Gallery, Paris, September 65. For this show Iolas publishes her first artist book that includes her handwritten words in combination with her drawings of 'Nanas'. Encouraged by Iolas, she starts a highly productive output of graphic work that accompanies exhibitions -invitations, posters, books and writings.
In 1966 collaborates with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultlvedt on a large scale sculpture installation, "hon-en katedral". for Moderna Museet, Stockholm. The outer form of "hon" is a giant, reclining 'Nana', whose internal environment is entered from between her legs. The immense public reaction to the work is written about in magazines and newspapers throughout the world. The interactive quality of the "hon" combined with a continued fascination with fantastic types of architecture insensifies her resolve to see her own architectural dreams realized. Meets Swiss artist Rico Weber, during construction of the "hon". Over the next ten years, Weber will be an important assistant /collaborator for both she and Jean Tinguely. Designs decors and costumes for two theatrical productions - a ballet by Roland Petit, and an adaptation of Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata".

Together with Tinguely receives commission from the French Government to make a sculpture for "Expo '67" in Monreal, Canada. Their collaboration, "Le Paradis Fantastique", a combination of their distinct styles, is installed on the roof of the French Pavilion. After "Expo'67", attempts fail to find a permanent home for the sculpture in either France or the United States. Through the efforts of Pontus Hulten, the piece is saved from destruction, and acquired by moderna Museet where it is installed. Working on the "Paradis Fantastique", she is exposed to toxic fumes produced by polyester. This and other materials used in her work cause severe damage to her lungs, that result in recurrent health problems.

First retrospective, "Les Nanas au Pouvoir", is organized at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Creates a number of new pieces for the show that emphasize a direction toward architectural and functional design -"Nana Dream House" and "Nana Fountain", and the placement of elements to form a sculptural tableau. "The Bride's Dream".

Writes story that she adapts with Rainer Von Diez into a play, ICH. Designs decors, costumes, and poster for the production that is presented at the Staatstheater, Kassel, Germany, June 1968. Designs 'Nana' inflatables, a multiple in plastic, that are produced and distributed in the United States. Publishes series of semi-autobiographical serigraphs that are executed in a pictographic style combining images, letters and writing into a complete narrative. Exhibits extensively in the United States.

First permanent architectural project is private commission for a summer residence in the South of France. The project consists of three buildings, each uniquely shaped, detailed and painted, completed in 1971. Continues involvement in 'fantastic' architectural projects requiring her total commitment in all stages of planning and execution. Sculpture "Black Venus" acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and exhibited in museum's show, "Contemporary American Sculpture, Selection II", April 69. Travels to India and Egypt -these cultural experiences broaden the context of visual associations used in her work. Tinguely begins work on his major sculptural project, "LA Tete" or "Le Cyclop", Milly-la Foret, France. Declared a monument of France, this work in progress for over twenty years is a collaboration of many artists.

Participates in the "10th anniversary of the Nouveau Realistes Festival" in Milan November 70. She shoots an outdoor tir as part of the 'action spectacles'.

Marries Jean Tinguely, July 13, 1971. They travel together to Morocco. Granddaughter, Bloum, born to Laura and Laurent Condominas in Bali 71. Receives a public commission to create a an architecture for children in Jerusalem, "Golem", a giant monster head with tongue slides which is completed in 72. The following year receives a private commission to build an architecture for children, "Dragon", in Belgium.

In 1972 begins productive association with art fabricator, Haligon, France, for her large scale sculptures and work in editions. Makes first jewelry design for GEM Montebello Laboratory, Milan.

Exhibits new sculptural tableaux "Devouring Mothers" and the following year "Les Funerailles du Pere". These works are based on ideas of a child's perspective of estrangement from the world of adults.

Acts in film "Daddy" that she wrote, produced and directed with Peter Whitehead. The film is a surreal, psychological exploration of a relationship between a father and a tri-part character of the daughter as child, adolescent and adult. Official premiere September 73 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "IIth New York Film Festival". Designs the film's festival's program cover with reference to three noted women directors.

Builds three large scale' Nanas' for permanent site near town hall in Hanover, Germany. The city names them Sophie, Charlotte and Caroline in honor of three historically distinguished women from Hanover.

Exhibits maquettes of realized and unrealized architectural projects, creates artist book and invitation to accompany the show. Hospitalized with a serious lung ailment. Lives in the Swiss mountains to regain her health. Reads Gaston Bachelar, Rainer Maria Rilke and Konstandinos Kavafy. There she meets a friend she had known in New York in the 1950's, Marella Caracciolo Agnelli, to whom she confides her ultimate dream-to someday build a sculpture garden based on her interpretations of symbols from the Tarot. Her friend's brothers, Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo, offer a parcel of their land in Tuscany, Italy as a site for her dream. The massive undertaking of the garden will consume her thoughts and energies for nearly twenty years.

Writes, directs, produces and acts in the film "Un Reve Plus Long que la Nuit". The production includes the talents and participation of her daughter Laura Condominas, Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoeri, Lunguinbul, Eva Aeppli, Marina Karella, Andree Putman, and others. In 1975, her eighteen element sculptural tableau "Last Night I Had a Dream" is installed on the exterior of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, for an arts festival.

Returns to Switzerland for a period of time. Develops ideas for the imagery that will carry the special mystic meanings, energies, and associations of the tarot to the site of her planned contemplative, sculpture garden.
Beginning of a close and long friendship with assistant/collaborator Ricardo Menon, who will be with her for many years.

Land is cleared and foundations dug at site in Tuscany formally named "Giardino dei Tarocchi". Makes first models related to the Tarot figures that will be represented in the Garden.
Becomes interested in the idea of linear sculpture-drawings in space and makes the "Skinnys". This series of totem-like pieces often have colored lights and elements suspended by string. Begins to design furniture and other functional objects with serpents and figurative forms.

Lives for a while in Malibu, California and conceives a series of maquettes based on new ideas for architectural fantasies. These works are first exhibited at Gimpel & Weitzenhffer, New York, and then travels in the United States.
Has first solo show in Japan at Gallery Watari, Tokyo.

The symbols of the Tarot serve as guide in the creation of the Garden. Construction begins on the first architectural sculpture "La Papesse", representing female creativity and strength. Spends the major part of the next ten years on site receiving assistance from many friends and supporters. Jean Tinguely together with Rico Weber and Seppi Imhof begin welding the iron under structures for the first group of enlarged Tarot Figures; this work involving special engineering skills for each piece, is taken over and completed by Dutch artist, Doc Wilsen. Local residents are hired and over the years, their efforts will be important to the project's success.
The Ulm Museum organizes the first retrospective devoted to her graphic work. Permanently installs the sculpture "Poet et sa Muse" at University of Ulm. Honored with a major retrospective at Musee National d'art moderne, Centre George Pompidou, Paris, that travels to Austria, Germany and Sweden.
First show is organized at experimental space, SPACE NIKI, Tokyo. Established by Yoko Masuda, SPACE NIKI is an impressive collection of work in all media, films and related material that further understanding of the artist and her work.

Creates fragrance that bears her name for the Jaqueline Cochran Company, New York. Designs distinctive blue and gold bottles and packaging with logo of entwined serpents. Makes a promotional tour across the United States for the perfume. The money from the perfume goes to finance the Garden. Collaborates with Tinguely to create a foundation for the City of Paris on a site beside the Centre George Pompidou. They combine their sculptural elements in a fluid, moving setting, producing a joyous spontaneity-an apt homage to Igor Stravinsky for whom the fountain is named.
Creates permanent sculpture "Sun God" for the University of California at San Diego as part of the Stuart Collection. Designs print for a project to support an alternative art space, the Temporary Contemporary, Los Angeles. The work, in the form of a pictographic letter, expresses her early awareness and concern for those afflicted by AIDS. Continues to be involved in efforts to reverse the effects of ignorance and bias which allow this fatal virus to spread.
Suffers first of recurring, debilitating attacks of rheumatoid arthritis. Exhibits the "Skinnys" at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer, New York and at Gimpel Fils, London. Moves into the "Empress", the Sphinx structure at the Tarot Garden. This will be her home and studio for the next seven years during a period of intense work of completing the Garden. Meets Verena Finocchiaro, a ceramist teacher from Rome.

During these years, most of her time is spent on site of the Garden, where many of the major works are nearing completion. Works based on her Tarot figures, accompanied by an artist book, are exhibited at Gimpel Fils, London and at Gimpel& Weitzenhoffer, New York.
The Victoria Albert Museum, London, acquires one of her perfume bottles capped with entwined serpents. Produces a series of flower vases in the shape of various animals. Meets Marcelo Zitelli who becomes an important assistant/collaborator.
In collaboration with Dr. Silvio Barandun, writes and illustrates the book "AIDS: You Can't Catch it Holding Hands". This informative text, presented in a positive and compassionate format, is published in seven languages. Receives commission from Mrs. Helen Schneider to create a fountain, "Snake Tree", for the Schneider Children's Hospital, Long Island, New York. Has major retrospectives at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturtiftung, Munich, and Nassau County museum of Fine Art, Long Island, New York.

With Tinguely creates "Fontaine Chateau Chinon", commissioned by the French President, Francois Mitterand. Alexandre Iolas her longtime friend, dies. Begins to be represented in Paris by JGM Gallery and Gallery de France. These galleries organize a number of exhibits that focus on different periods in her career.
Begins use of bronze in new series of sculpture derived from ancient Egyptian deities. Continues to develop images that have long interested and impressed her, including' Nana' fountains, Tarot figures, phallic-like obelisks, skulls, 'Skinny' lamps, and a series of pictorial reliefs made in response to the killing of endangered species. The experience of the Tarot Garden carries over in her use of materials, particularly brilliantly colored or mirrored mosaics. Ricardo Menon her assistant/collaborator with whom she shared a unique rapport, dies. Collaborates with son Philip Mathews on an animated film based on her AIDS book. This film, drawings for the film, and a revised edition of the AIDS book, published by Agence Francaise de lutte contre le sida, are exhibited at the Musee des ARTS Decoratifs, Paris, opening on international AIDS Awarness Day in November 1991. Designs a giant kite "L'Oiseau Amoureux" for a worldwide exhibition of artists' kite organized by Goethe Institute, Japan.

Makes maturate for "Le Temple Ideal", a place for worship for all religions. This architecture was originally conceived in the early 1970's as a hopeful alternative to the religious intolerance she observed while working in Jerusalem. Receives commission from the city of Nimes, France, to build this architectural sculpture. Because of politics, this project is never realized. Jean Tinguely dies in Switzerland in August. In his honor, she makes her first kinetic sculptures "Meta-Tinguelys".

The Kunst und Ausstellunghalle, Bonn organizes large restropective. Exhibits in McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, the Musee d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Musee D'Art et d'Histoire, Fribourg. Installs fountain "Oiseau Amoureux" in Duisburg, Germany; and she creates a sculpture for Olympic Museum "Les Footballeurs".

Moves to California, where she now lives and work. Realizes a series of silkscreen, "California Diary" for Kornfeld editions. Receives the Caran d'Ache. Shows in the James Goodman & Maxwell Davidson Galleries, New York. Peter Schamoni realizes a long feature film about Niki entitled "Who is the Monster, You or Me". Exhibit at the Kornfeld Gallery in Bern, Switzerland.

The Garden's first opening to the public during the month during the months of July. Works on autobiography. Architect Mario Botta builds a gate/entrance to the Garden. Works in collaboration with Mario Botta on a project to build a sculpture park for children representing the arrival of Noah and the Arch to the promised land. Official opening of the Tarot Garden to the Public, May 15, 1998.

Begins search for land on which to build a sculpture garden in San Diego County. In October 2000, the City of Escondido accepts offer to create a garden in the Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park. Starts design work and plans for Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. She draws much of its imagery from her interpretations of early California history, myth, and legend, Native Americans and Meso-American culture and the study of indigenous plant and wildlife.
Awarded the 12th Praemium Imperial Prize (Sculpture Category) sponsored by the Japan Art Association and considered to be the equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the art world. Among the other prize winners in 2000 are American composer Stephen Sondheim, painter Ellsworth Kelly, the German composer Hans Werner Henze, and the British architect Richard Rogers.
Niki starts to exhibit with the Tasende Gallery, San Diego.
In November 2000, the Sprengel Museum in Hannover unveils a portion of the more than 300 works donated by the artist and publishes a major catalogue about the gift.
Makes a new series of vases.

Accepts commission to redesign and ornament three rooms in the historic 17th century Grotto built in Hannover’s Royal Herrenhausen Garden. Originally decorated with shells, crystals and minerals removed in the 18th century, the building was used as a store for many years. Donates major gifts of work to the City of Nice for its Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain and to the Musée d'Art Décoratifs in Paris.
Designs and builds a 12-meter-tall sculpture ‘Coming Together’ for the Port of San Diego. The sculpture in shape of half a female and male face united, adorned with mosaic and stones, is inaugurated in October.
Finishes writing the second volume of her autobiography Harry & Me. The Family Years.

Niki de Saint Phalle dies on May 21 at the age of 71 in La Jolla, California.

Granddaughter Bloum Cardenas, assistant/collaborator Marcelo Zitelli, technical advisor Lech Juretko as well as other members of her international staff oversee final work on Escondido and Hannover projects to ensure they meet her specifications. The exhibition, From Niki Matthews to Niki De Saint Phalle, opens at The Sprengel Museum.

The Grotto opens in March with mosaic decorations of glass, mirrors, and pebbles as well as a host of painted and sculpted figures.
Summer exhibition of monumental sculptures in Palais-Royal Gardens in Paris
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is dedicated and opens to the public on October 26. This is her first American garden and the last major project realized by the artist.
The Niki Charitable Art Foundation, a non-profit organization, is established.

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