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The Pioneering Feminism of Niki de Saint Phalle

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“Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life,” at moma PS1, is a ravishing and scandalously overdue New York museum show of the French-American avant-gardist, who died at the age of seventy-one, in 2002, of emphysema probably caused by her use of toxic materials. The self-taught Saint Phalle is one of the late twentieth century’s great creative personalities, ahead of her time in several respects, with traits that once clouded and now halo her importance. Her career had two chief phases: feminist rage, expressed by way of .22 rifles fired at plaster sculptures inside which she had secreted bags of liquid paint, and feminist celebration of womanhood, through sculptures of female bodies, often immense, in fibreglass and polyester resin. The shooting period lasted from 1961 until about 1963. The bodies consumed the rest of her life. Her masterpiece, the Tarot Garden (1979-2002), is a vast sculpture park in Tuscany filled with twenty-two free-form, monumental women, animals, and figures of fantasy, some the size of houses and made habitable with kitchens and plumbing. She was popular in Europe but, until late in life, cut little ice in transatlantic art circles. The problem tracks to a schism, around 1960, with triumphant American formalist abstraction, Pop art, and Minimalism on one side, and, on the other, European Nouveau Réalisme, a cohort (all male but for Saint Phalle) of provocateurs given to neo-Dadaist stunts: Yves Klein painting with pigment-slathered naked women, Arman amassing collections of identical common objects, Daniel Spoerri gluing down remnants of meals and hanging them vertically, Jacques Villeglé presenting ragged, found street posters.

“Mini Nana Maison,” circa 1968.Art work by Niki de Saint Phalle © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Saint Phalle’s gunplay, realized in Paris in 1961, was a stunt for sure: creation by destruction, theatrically perforating first plaster-covered boards and then figurative plaster sculptures of male subjects—avatars of her hated father, who sexually assaulted her when she was eleven. Some pieces concealed spray cans, for explosive effect when hit. That year, Marcel Duchamp, seventy-four years old, introduced the thirty-year-old Saint Phalle and her friend Jean Tinguely, the Swiss kinetic sculptor, to Salvador Dalí, fifty-seven. In honor of Dalí, they fashioned a full-size bull, which, wheeled out after a bullfight in Catalonia, satisfyingly blew up. Saint Phalle usually performed in fashionable white pants suits. The cultural frisson of a beautiful woman wielding deadly weapons and setting off explosives earned her notoriety in France, but there was scant critical curiosity, anywhere, about the motives of the work: a traumatic personal backstory and a politically edged aspiration to better the world.

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