• Emma Laramie

Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life

Joy or terror. Joy and terror. How these two emotions both stand in opposition to one another and illustrate two sides of the same coin are at the heart of Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life, on view at MoMA PS1 until September 6th. With over 200 works ranging from maquettes for public sculptures, drawings, jewelry, and films, the exhibition traces the interdisciplinary ways Niki de Saint Phalle made some of the most joyous and most menacing images of postwar art history as a means to “transform environments, individuals, and society.”


Installation view of Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Kyle Knodell.


Although she spent much of her childhood in New York, French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle has long been underappreciated by American audiences—so much so that Structures for Life marks her first major US exhibition. Curated by Ruba Katrib with Josephine Graf, the show at PS1 finds itself juggling the dual tasks of introducing Saint Phalle to a newer audience while simultaneously attempting to forge its own narrative of her oeuvre. The result is a show that surprises at almost every turn, both for what it highlights and what it minimizes.


Niki de Saint Phalle, Autuel O.A.S, 1962-1992. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation.



Perhaps the most notable example of the latter is the scant amount of attention devoted to her Tirs, or “Shoots.” Begun in the early 1960s, Tirs is quite a literal descriptor. For these pieces, Saint Phalle took a gun and shot at, among other things, sacs filled with colored paint, producing drippy abstract canvases. One of the only direct acknowledgments in the show of these works that brought her international recognition is Autel O.A.S (1962-1992), a bronze altar in the exhibition’s third room. Shimmering in metallic plating and covered with bats, rats, crucifixes, and guns, Autel O.A.S is one of several altars Saint Phalle made in connection with her Tirs, some of which she also took a gun to. It is one of the most obviously horrific works in the exhibition, lacking in subtly but no less potent in how it evokes the awfulness of terrorist organizations or the strictness of the Catholic Church her parents raised her in. Similarly, while many of her famed Nanas are on display here, including the first one Saint Phalle ever made, they are clearly supporting a much larger narrative instead of being a focus in and of themselves.


Installation view of Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Kyle Knodell.


However, the exhibition’s devotion to her later works and public monuments is an exciting new version of Saint Phalle for those familiar with her as an artist, and an accessible entry point to those who are not. Visitors first get to glimpse maquettes and other ephemera for various public monuments Saint Phalle created over her long career, including a deck of Tarot cards she designed in connection with her life’s work, Tarot Garden, a massive sculptural installation outside of Rome. The cards echo the organic shapes of the garden’s structures, underscoring her belief that art can alter perception and shift reality, and the vibrant colors and forms of the maquettes buoy this childlike playfulness that anchors her work. Subsequent rooms showcase her commercial endeavors, which she did to finance Tarot Garden without relying solely on patrons or benefactors. A highlight of these is the fragrance she designed in 1982. Advertised as “the first fragrance conceived as a work of art” in the invitation for the launch party hosted by Andy Warhol and Interview, the bottle features two intertwined snakes—a common motif in her work.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Flaçon de parfum, 1982. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation.


Perhaps the most exciting part of Structures for Life comes in the latter half of the show when the curators tackle how Saint Phalle used fantasy and play as a means of coping with trauma and injustice—joy and terror rolled up into one. Lithographs, sculptures, artists’ books, and videos illustrate the multifaceted ways Saint Phalle staunchly defended her political views and dealt with personal and collective trauma. In one artist’s book, she openly discusses how her father raped her at age 11. Dear Clarice (1983) takes an epistolary form, as do many of the works in this section. A fictional character named Agnes writes to her friend Clarice, extolling the atrocities wrought by the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. The colorful illustrations, childlike handwriting, and simple turns of phrases belie the darkness of the letter’s subject matter to great effect—the letter is at once a visual delight and a sobering reminder of the fears of that time. Saint Phalle continues this style with vast success to the end of her life, with some of the last works in the exhibition profiling newly elected George W. Bush.


Niki de Saint Phalle, Dear Clarice, 1983. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation.


While Structures from Life feels at times disjointed and overwhelming with the sheer amount of objects to draw one’s eye, it is also a delight to see such an underappreciated artist receive overdue recognition for how she poignantly and uniquely plumbs the depths of darkness, managing to spread exuberance in its wake.