Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s opens at the Menil Collection

Houston museum debuts first major U.S. exhibition to focus on the radical work of Niki de Saint Phalle during the 1960s—from the artist’s shooting paintings to her exuberant sculptures of women

The exhibition, which will debut in Houston, is the first show to focus on the experimental and prolific work of French-American
artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) during this pivotal decade, featuring numerous works from European collections that will be displayed in the U.S. for the first time. Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s will be on view at the Menil through January 23, 2022.

The exhibition explores a transformative ten-year period in Saint Phalle’s work, when she embarked on two significant series: the Tirs, or “shooting paintings,” and the powerful Nanas, lively sculptures of the female form. Affirming the artist’s place in postwar art history, this show highlights these prescient works of performance, participatory, and feminist art, as well as her transatlantic projects and collaborations.

Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s brings together major paintings, assemblages, and sculptures from this chapter in the artist’s career, as well as extensive film and photographic documentation from the Menil Archives.

Rebecca Rabinow, director of the Menil Collection, said: “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s is the latest in a group of exhibitions organized by the Menil Collection that call attention to groundbreaking women artists, including our recent exhibition Virginia Jaramillo: The Curvilinear Paintings, 1969–1974; Roni Horn: When I Breathe, I Draw (2019); Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma (2018); and Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds (2014). Our Saint Phalle exhibition will include work that has never before been displayed in the United States, shedding light on the artist’s experimental processes, radical vision, and key role in contemporary art. The show will be accompanied by a scholarly book that is lavishly illustrated with archival photographs from this pivotal decade.”

Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s opens with the artist’s Tirs, which she created using a .22 caliber rifle. Often standing in front of an audience, Saint Phalle and invited participants would shoot at white plaster surfaces that concealed imbedded bags of pigment or cans of paint, which would explode spectacularly upon the impact of the bullets. Saint Phalle explained that her intention was “to make a painting bleed.”

Her paradoxical method of creating a work through destruction was intended as commentary on the ingrained violence of the culture, as well as a feminist assault the tradition of modern painting. The exhibition continues with Saint Phalle’s explorations of gender identity through figural assemblages representing female archetypes, such as brides, mothers, goddesses, and monsters. Evolving from wallbound reliefs to colorful and freestanding sculptures, these increasingly monumental, liberated, and curvaceous female forms— with outstretched arms and powerful poses—developed into what Saint Phalle referred to as the Nanas, French slang for “girls.”

These sculptures were begun in the mid and late 1960s, heralding the rise of an international feminist movement.

Michelle White, Senior Curator at the Menil Collection, said: “During the 1960s, Saint Phalle—the only female member of the French
avant-garde group, the Nouveaux Réalistes—also collaborated with innovative American artists of her generation, such as Robert
Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Within the male-dominated artistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic, her place in art history has been hard-fought. Her artwork from this time constitutes some of the most advanced work being done around emergent ideas of participatory art and was prophetic of feminist concerns related to the critique of painting and the representation of the body that will drive art in the decades to come.”

Jill Dawsey, Curator, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, said: “Saint Phalle’s performances and sculptural work of the 1960s put into circulation strikingly original representations of female agency and volition that resonate strongly in our own moment. With their rambunctious life force, the Nanas became a vehicle for the artist’s exploration of women’s freedom and mobility in the public realm.
Saint Phalle continuously experimented with their scale, using her figures to envision how women might, quite literally, take up more space in the world. Her trailblazing work presaged ideas and modes of making that would be elaborated by feminist artists in the in the 1970s and beyond

An exhibition catalogue will be available for purchase online and at the Menil Collection Bookstore. The publication is distributed by Yale University Press. Price $50. 248 pages, 135 color + b/w illus., 7 1/4 x 10 inches. ISBN: 9780300260106

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