Niki de Saint Phalle at MOMA: Structures for Life

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s defined a generation of women. It marked a time when women’s rights such as abortion and access to equal pay were at the forefront. During this time, women used literature and the arts to spread awareness of these issues. One of the leading artists that inspired change ranging from artists to ordinary women during the Women’s Liberation Movement was Niki de Saint Phalle.

Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was one of the leading figures within the arts sector because of her radical thinking on patriarchy and feminism. Because her early work debuted nearly a decade before women’s liberation truly gained traction, she was an early influential figure for the movement.

The whimsical nature of Saint Phalle’s work added an essential component to her art. The use of bright colors, particularly shades of blues, reds, and greens with abstract drawings of humans and creatures created a sense of whimsy that left viewers with a feeling of astonishment alongside the vital message that the work was trying to convey.

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) P.S. 1 is showing Structures for Life until September 6th. The exhibition highlights Saint Phalle’s journey as a self-taught artist and demonstrates how she utilized art to spread awareness about social issues at the time. The exhibition also touches on more personal concerns of Saint Phalle’s, such as working with children.

Saint Phalle received international attention with her 1961 work Tirs (Shooting Paintings). Shooting Paintings was a metaphorical take on dismantling the damaging effects of the patriarchy and organized religion on society. Her demonstration was broadcasted on French television. It showcased Saint Phalle as a young woman aiming a rifle at pouches attached to plasterboard. After firing at the plasterboard, the finished product would be riddled with bullet holes with the color pouches splattered in various bursts with no accurate precision. This was her way of shooting against the patriarchy nearly a decade before the women’s liberation movement took hold.

It was a strategic process to make Tirs. In the mid-1960s, Saint Phalle contributed a do-it-yourself Shooting Painting to the Edition MAT Project (1959-1965). Alongside it, she included a list of instructions as followed:

  1. Lean picture against the wall.
  2. Put a strong board behind it (if required, to protect the wall).
  3. Take a .22 long rifle and load with short ammunition.
  4. Shoot the color pouches embedded in the plaster until they have “bled” (or until you like the picture).
  5. Attention! Leave the picture in the same position until well dried. Then still be careful, as remains of color not yet dry might run over the picture.

The do-it-yourself nature of the piece allowed viewers to engage with the work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before. The viewers could now partake in creating and could produce a Shooting Painting that meant something to them, whether aiming at a more significant societal issue or something more personal.

To accompany the Shooting Paintings piece, Saint Phalle created altars, which she would also take “aim” at, highlighting her dissatisfaction with how organized religion has impacted society. One of the pieces in the Structures for Life exhibition displays a bronze altar with contradictory symbols such as crucifixes and assault rifles. The juxtaposition of such symbols seemingly demonstrates how religion has been weaponized as a tool of oppression, which could be a reference to Saint Phalle’s upbringing in the French Catholic Church.

Another significant component of Saint Phalle’s career was her passion for working with children. Golem was Saint Phalle’s first public artwork for children and was initially commissioned by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and was constructed between 1971 and 1972. Although the Israel Museum wanted the artwork to be built on the property, Saint Phalle wanted the work to be more embedded in the community and completed the sculpture in a local neighborhood instead.

Golem was not only a piece of art but doubled as a slide for children to use. Golem, also known as “the monster” to locals, was seen as a giant monstrous head with three red tongues that could be used as slides by the children. Saint Phalle utilized the colors black and white in creating the monstrous head allowing for the three bright red tongues to pop from the stark contrast.

However, the project was initially met with pushback from the community due to concerns that the monstrous nature of Golem could negatively influence children. Saint Phalle insisted that the idea of fairy tales, myths, and monsters is needed in children’s developmental years because it instills in them a sense that they can conquer anything. Saint Phalle purposefully created Golem to resemble a grotesque monster. It allows children to overcome their fears since Golem wasn’t a terrifying monster but a monster that offered itself as a safe space. Saint Phalle was known for being abstract and whimsical due to her usage of bright colors and unconventional shapes; Golem fits perfectly in her body of work considering it alludes to a more meaningful message.

Saint Phalle’s later work in 2001, a year before she died, was a direct response to the Bush administration’s takes on war, gun violence, and climate change. One of the works, George W. Bush, was created using lithographs and stickers and portrays the former president in a cowboy hat. Bush can be seen with a fist full of money looking down on what he has created. Saint Phalle ultimately attempted to show how his greed for more oil and money led to pollution and war, leading to deaths worldwide. This work is yet another example of Saint Phalle’s political messaging appearing in her art.

Niki de Saint Phalle was a visionary far before her time. Her artworks still hold meaningful messages about the damaging effects of patriarchy on society and the need to dismantle it once and for all. Her work was deeply embedded in the idea of “whimsy” and the unconventional, which allows her to be timeless and continuously spark conversations around the need for change.

You can see Niki de Saint Phalle’s work on display until September 6th at MOMA:

© Jessica Bond (8/27/21) Special for FF2 Media


Featured Photo: “Le Choix (Le Jardin des Tarots de Niki de Saint Phalle à Capalbio, Italie)” by dalbera is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Bottom Photo: “Stravinsky Fountain (1988) – Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002)” by pedrosimoes7 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tags: International SWANs, iswans, Jessica Bond, MOMA, Museum of Modern Art, Niki de Saint Phalle, Support Women Artists Now, Visual Arts

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Jess joined FF2 Media as a 2020 graduate of Temple University's journalism program. She has a passion for the arts and using writing as a tool to spread awareness on social issues, independent and small artists. She is a 2021-2022 Fulbright recipient to the University of Sussex, getting her MA in Media and Cultural Studies. She hopes to become an international journalist focusing on local communities and showing the beauty within them.
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