Niki de Saint Phalle: French plastician, painter and sculptor (1936 - 2002) | Biography, Facts, Information, Career, Wiki, Life
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Niki de Saint Phalle
French plastician, painter and sculptor

Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro French plastician, painter and sculptor
A.K.A. Niki De E, Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, Niki De St. Pha...
Was Artist Model Painter Visual artist Sculptor
From France Switzerland
Field Arts Creativity Fashion
Gender female
Birth 29 October 1936, Neuilly-sur-Seine, canton of Neuilly-sur-Seine, arrondissement of Nanterre, Hauts-de-Seine
Death 21 May 2002, San Diego, San Diego County, California, U.S.A. (aged 65 years)
Spouse: Harry MathewsJean Tinguely
Children: Laura Duke Condominas
Niki de Saint Phalle
The details (from wikipedia)


Niki de Saint Phalle (born Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, 29 October 1930 – 21 May 2002) was a French-American sculptor, painter, and filmmaker. She was one of the few women artists widely known for monumental sculpture.

She had a difficult and traumatic childhood and education, which she wrote about decades later. After an early marriage and two children, she began creating art in a naive, experimental style. She first received world-wide attention for angry, violent assemblages which had been shot by firearms. These evolved into Nanas, light-hearted, whimsical, colorful, large-scale sculptures of animals, monsters, and female figures. Her most comprehensive work was the Tarot Garden, a large sculpture garden containing numerous works ranging up to house-sized creations. Her idiosyncratic, naive style has been called "outsider art"; she had no formal training in art, but associated freely with many other contemporary artists, writers, and composers.

Throughout her creative career, she collaborated with other well-known artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, composer John Cage, and architect Mario Botta, as well as dozens of less-known artists and craftspersons. For several decades, she worked especially closely with Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, who also became her second husband. In her later years, she suffered from multiple chronic health problems attributed to repeated exposure to glass fibers and petrochemical fumes from the experimental materials she had used in her pioneering artworks, but she continued to create prolifically until the end of her life.

A critic has observed that Saint Phalle's "insistence on exuberance, emotion and sensuality, her pursuit of the figurative and her bold use of color have not endeared her to everyone in a minimalist age". She was well-known in Europe, but her work was little-seen in the US, until her final years in San Diego. Another critic said: "The French-born, American-raised artist is one of the most significant female and feminist artists of the 20th century, and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world during her lifetime".

Early life and education (1930-1948)

Marie-Agnès de Saint Phalle was born on October 29, 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, near Paris. Her father was Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle (1906–1967), a French banker, and her mother was an American, named Jeanne Jacqueline Harper (1908–1980). Marie-Agnès was the second of five children, and her double first cousin was French novelist Thérèse de Saint Phalle (Baroness Jehan de Drouas).

Her birth was one year after Black Tuesday, and the French economy was also suffering in the aftermath of the infamous stock market crash that initiated the Great Depression. Within months of her birth, her father's finance company closed, and her parents moved with her oldest brother to the suburbs of New York City; she was left with her maternal grandparents in Nièvre, near the geographical center of France. Around 1933, she rejoined her parents in Greenwich, Connecticut; her father had found work as manager of the American branch of the Saint Phalle family's bank. In 1937, the family moved to East 88th Street in the affluent Upper East Side neighborhood of New York City. By this time, Marie-Agnès was known as "Niki", the name she would use from then on.

Niki grew up in a strict Catholic environment, which she rebelled against. Her mother was temperamental and violent, beating the younger children, and forcing them to eat even if they were not hungry. Both Elizabeth and Richard de Saint Phalle, younger siblings, would later commit suicide as adults. The atmosphere at home was tense; the only place where Niki felt comfortable and warm was in the kitchen, overseen by a black cook. Decades later, Niki would reveal that she had suffered years of sexual abuse from her father, starting at the age of 11.

She returned frequently to France to visit relatives, becoming fluent in both French and American English. In 1937, she attended school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart on East 91st Street. After she was expelled in 1941, she rejoined her maternal grandparents, who had moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and she briefly attended the public school there.

She returned to the Upper East Side and studied there at the Brearley School from 1942-1944, but was dismissed for painting in red the fig leaves on the school's classical statuary. Despite this, she would later say it was there “[that] I became a feminist. They inculcated in us that women can and must accomplish great things.” She was then enrolled in a convent school in Suffern, New York, but was expelled. She finally graduated from the Oldfields School in Glencoe, Maryland in 1947.

During her late teenage years, Saint Phalle became a fashion model; at the age of 18, she appeared on the cover of Life (26 September 1949) and, three years later, on the November 1952 cover of French Vogue. She also appeared in the pages of Elle and Harper's Bazaar.

First marriage and children (1949-1960)

Niki de Saint Phalle in 1964
Parts of Le Paradis Fantastique (1967-1971), an early collaboration of Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely

At the age of 18, Saint Phalle married Harry Mathews, whom she had known since the age of 11 through her father. Initially they had a civil ceremony on 6 June 1949 in New York, but they also had a religious rite at the French Church of New York the following February, at the urging of Niki's mother.

Although her parents accepted the union, her husband's family objected to her Catholic background and cut them off financially, causing them to resort to occasional shoplifting. They moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts so Mathews could study music at Harvard University. Saint Phalle began to paint in oils and gouaches, but aimed to pursue a career in acting. Their first child, Laura, was born in April 1951. In 1952, the small family moved to Paris, where Harry continued his studies in conducting at I’Ecole Normale de Musique (Paris Normal School of Music). The new parents were casual, even negligent in their care, but their children would benefit from better financial circumstances after Mathews received an inheritance.

Saint Phalle rejected the staid, conservative values of her family, which dictated domestic positions for wives and particular strict rules of conduct. Poet John Ashbery recalled that Saint Phalle's artistic pursuits were rejected in turn by relatives: her uncle "French banker Count Alexandre de Saint-Phalle, ... reportedly takes a dim view of her artistic activities", Ashbery observed. However, after marrying young and becoming a mother, she found herself living the same bourgeois lifestyle that she had attempted to reject.

For about a decade, the family would wander around France and Europe, living a bohemian lifestyle. In Nice, Saint Phalle and Mathews would have separate affairs in 1953; after she attacked her husband's mistress, she took an overdose of sleeping pills but they had little effect because she was manic at the time. When Harry discovered a stash of knives, razors, and scissors under a mattress, he took his wife to a mental clinic in Nice, where she was treated with electroshock therapy and insulin shock. Liberated from routine household work, she focused on creating artwork instead, and improved enough to be discharged in six weeks. Around the same time, her husband abandoned his music studies and started to write his first novel, eventually switching to a career in writing.

While in Paris on a modeling assignment in 1954, Saint Phalle was introduced to the American painter Hugh Weiss, who became both her friend and artistic mentor. He encouraged her to continue painting in her self-taught style.

In September 1954, she moved to Deià, Majorca, Spain, where her son Philip was born in May 1955. While in Spain, Saint Phalle read the works of Proust and visited Madrid and Barcelona, where she became deeply affected by the work of architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí's influence opened many previously unimagined possibilities for Saint Phalle, especially with regard to the use of unusual materials and objets-trouvés as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. Saint Phalle was particularly struck by Gaudí's "Park Güell" which would inspire her to one day create her own garden-based artwork that would combine artistic and natural elements.

Saint Phalle continued to paint, particularly after she and her family moved to Paris in the mid-1950s. Her first art exhibition was held in 1956 in Switzerland, where she displayed her naïve style of oil painting.

In 1956, she met the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely and his wife, artist Eva Aeppli. Saint Phalle attempted her first large-scale sculpture, enlisting Tinguely to make an iron armature, which she covered with plaster and paint.

In the late 1950s, Saint Phalle became ill with hyperthyroidism and tachycardia, which were eventually treated by an operation in 1958.

In 1959, Saint Phalle first encountered multiple artworks by Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, Daniel Spoerri, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Seeing these avant-garde works triggered her "first great artistic crisis". She switched from oil painting to gouaches and gloss paint, and began to produce assemblages from household objects and castoffs.

In 1960, she and Harry separated, and her husband moved to another apartment with their two children. She soon moved in with Tinguely, who was becoming well-known for his kinetic sculptures. In many ways, they were polar opposites, and sometimes had violent disagreements, and frequent affairs with others. They would live together intermittently and collaborate closely on artistic projects for over a decade before marrying in 1971. Two years later they separated, but remained on good terms and continued to collaborate on various projects up through Tinguely's death in 1991.

In 1960, Tinguely introduced her to Pontus Hultén, then the director of the Moderna Museet (Modern Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. Over the next few years, he would invite her to participate in important exhibitions, and acquire her artworks for the museum. He would later become the first director of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1974-1981), where he continued to be influential in promoting wider recognition of Saint Phalle's artwork.

Tirs (1961-1963)

Autel d'or (Golden Altar, 1962) resembles smaller versions of the Tirs series, but was not shot or paint-splattered

Saint Phalle created a series of works in the early 1960s she called Tirs (Shootings or Shots). The series began as "target pictures", with painted bullseye targets prominently displayed within her painted collages, such as Saint Sébastien (Portrait of My Lover/Portrait of My Beloved/Martyr nécessaire) (1961), or Assemblage (Figure with Dartboard Head) (1962). She would invite viewers to throw darts at the dartboards embedded as faces in her figurative assemblages, which were influenced by the targets painted by her friend Jasper Johns.

Soon, she would start by embedding knives, scissors, eggbeaters, baby-doll arms, and other household items in plaster covering a large board, along with bags filled with colorful paints, cans of spray paint, and sometimes a tomato. In addition, she might suspend bags of paint or cans of spray paint in front of the white-painted assemblage. She would then repeatedly shoot the assemblage with a pistol, rifle, or miniature cannon, causing the liquids to "bleed" or to spray out. Her first staged public shooting event was in February 1961, attended by Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, and Pierre Restany, among others. As founder of the Nouveau réalisme ("New Realist") movement, Restany asked Saint Phalle to join this group of French artists upon seeing her performance; she was the only female member of this group.

These extreme expressions of violence attracted media attention, catapulting Saint Phalle into the ranks of avant-garde artistic rebellion. The Tirs combined performance, body art, sculpture, and painting, in the artistic ferment of the 1960s. Saint Phalle began to stage variations on this process in art museums and galleries, and recruited other artists to join in staged public "happenings", where some of her colleagues would also pull the trigger. She met many other emerging artists through these performances, including Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, and Edward Kienholz. She would also invite gallery visitors to shoot at her assemblages.

She participated in Spoerri's "Edition MAT" (Multiplication d’Art Transformable) program of multiple artwork editions, supplying simpler versions of her Tir works, with detailed instructions on how to shoot them with a .22 rifle. Saint Phalle carefully documented her artistic process in the Tirs with writing, still photos, and films. She would attach readymade common artifacts to a board, attach bags of colorful paint, whitewash everything, and then dip the assemblage into milk-white plaster. Once it had dried, the assemblage was ready for shooting.

In June 1961, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely joined Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in a concert-happening called Variations II, orchestrated by avant-garde American composer John Cage, and held at the American Embassy in Paris. While David Tudor played Cage compositions on the piano, the artists created their works of art on stage as the audience watched the proceedings.

In August 1961, Marcel Duchamp introduced Saint Phalle and Tinguely to Salvador Dalí, who invited them to create a life-sized exploding bull with fireworks (Toro de Fuego). This Homenage a Dalí (Homage to Dalí) was wheeled out after the end of a traditional Spanish bullfight, in Figueras, Catalonia, Spain, and exploded in front of the audience.

An exclusive 1962 open-air shooting event in the Malibu Hills above Los Angeles was attended by Hollywood celebrities, including Jane Fonda and John Houseman. In most of these public performances, she was impeccably dressed in a fashionable white pantsuit.

By 1963, she had taken the series to galleries in New York City and Los Angeles, inviting the public to participate in the shootings. In Los Angeles, she shot a large-scale King Kong assemblage she had constructed, paint-spattering the embedded sculpted faces of politicians such as John F Kennedy, Fidel Castro, and Charles De Gaulle, with Santa Claus and Donald Duck as well. This work would later be acquired by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and would mark her transition to a new series of fantastic monsters, animals, and female figures. Throughout her career, snakes, birds, and dragons would become recurring symbols in her artworks.

In 1963, Saint Phalle and Tinguely purchased an old hotel, called Auberge au Cheval Blanc ("White Horse Inn"), in Soisy-sur-Ecole. It had previously been a brothel, but the new owners converted it into artistic studios which they would share over the decades to come.

Nanas (1964-1973)

Gwendolyn (1966)
Le poète et sa muse ("Poet and his Muse", 1976-1978)
Blue Nana (2000)
A Nana
A black Nana

Saint Phalle next explored the various roles of women, in what would develop into her best-known and most prolific series of sculptures. She started making life-size dolls of women, such as brides and mothers giving birth, monsters, and large heads. Initially, they were made of soft materials, such as wool, cloth, and papier-mâché, but they soon evolved into plaster over a wire framework and plastic toys, some painted all white.

As the series developed into larger monumental works, Saint Phalle used composite fiberglass-reinforced polyester plastic (also known as FRP or GRP) decorated with multiple bright-colored acrylic or polyester paints. She also used polyurethane foam in many of her sculptures. These innovative materials enabled the construction of colorful, large-scale sculptures with a new ease and fluidity of form. However, the fabrication and painting processes can release large numbers of glass fibers and chemicals such as styrene, epoxy, and solvent fumes, which may cause health problems if not used carefully.

In 1963, she created a series of sculptures protesting stereotypical societal roles for women, as child bearers, devouring mothers, witches, and prostitutes. Some of her early artworks from this Bride period depicted ghostly, skeletal brides dressed in white, which have been compared to Miss Havisham, an ethereal character in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations.

Over time, these figures became more joyful, whimsical, colorful, and larger in scale. Inspired by a collaborative drawing with American artist Larry Rivers of his wife, her pregnant friend Clarice Price, Saint Phalle began to portray archetypal female figures with a more optimistic view of the position of women in society. The newer figures took on ecstatic dance poses and even acrobatic positions, such as handstands and cartwheels. Saint Phalle's light-hearted figures have been compared to the joyful dancers of Matisse and the sturdy female figures by Gaston Lachaise, Aristide Maillol, and Rodin.

By 1964, she was calling her artistic expressions of the proverbial everywoman Nanas, after a French slang word that is roughly equivalent to "broad", or "chick". The first of these freely-posed forms—made of papier-mâché, yarn, and cloth—were exhibited at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in Paris in September 1965. For this show, Iolas published Saint Phalle's first artist book that included her handwritten text in combination with her drawings of Bananas. During this show, she joined a type of tombola raffle organized by the Artist's Club of New York, whereby artworks were randomly left in coin-operated luggage lockers at Pennsylvania Station, and keys were offered for $10 each. Encouraged by Iolas, she started a highly productive output of graphic work that accompanied exhibitions which included silk-screened prints, posters, books, and writings.

In 1966, Saint Phalle collaborated with Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt (sv) on a temporary indoor sculpture installation, hon-en katedral (also spelled Hon-en-Katedrall, which literally means "She-a-Cathedral" in Swedish), filling a large space in the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm, Sweden. During construction, Saint Phalle recruited Swiss art student Rico Weber (de), who had been working as a dishwasher in the museum restaurant (in the following years, he would become an important assistant and collaborator for both Saint Phalle and Tinguely). A team of 8 people worked strenuously for 40 days, first building a frame using metal rebar, covering it with chicken wire, sheathing it with fabric attached with a smelly animal glue, and then painting the inside of the enclosure black, and covering the outside in bright colors. The final stucture was 82 feet (25 m) long and 30 feet (9.1 m) wide, weighing around 6 tonnes (6,000 kg).

The outer form was a giant, reclining sculpture of a pregnant woman (a Nana), whose internal body cavity could be entered through a door-sized vaginal opening between her legs. Written on one of Hon's massive thighs was the motto Honi soit qui mal y pense ("Shamed be [he] who evil of it thinks"). Inside the massive sculpture were a 12-seat cinema theater, a milk bar inside a breast, a fish pond, and a brain built by Tinguely, with moving mechanical parts. In addition, the sprawling Nana contained a coin telephone, a love-seat sofa, a museum of fake paintings, a sandwich vending machine, an art installation by Ultvedt, and a playground slide for children.

After an initial shocked silence, the installation elicited immense public commentary in magazines and newspapers throughout the world, raising awareness of the Moderna Museet. Over 100,000 visitors crowded in to experience the immersive environment. At the end of 3 months the entire temporary setup was removed and destroyed, except for the head, which was preserved by the museum in its permanent collection. Some small fragments were attached to limited-edition exhibition catalogs, and sold as mementos.

Around this time, Saint Phalle also designed stage sets and costumes for theatrical productions: Éloge de La Folie (Praise of the Madness, 1966), a ballet by Roland Petit; an adaptation of the Aristophanes play Lysistrata (1966); and a German-language play she co-wrote with Rainer von Diez titled ICH (All About Me) (1968). Large, moveable Nana figures were prominent in several of these productions.

In 1967, Saint Phalle began working with polyester resin, a material which could be shaped easily, but would transform into a hard, smooth, weather-resistant surface. This new technology enabled her to construct enormous, fantastical figures for display outdoors in public spaces and parks. The material is reasonably durable outdoors (similar materials are used for boats and car bodies), though decades of weather exposure would eventually cause deterioration, requiring art conservation measures.

In 1967, she exhibited Le Paradis Fantastique (The Fantastic Paradise), a collaborative grouping of 9 of her sculptures with 6 machines built by Tinguely, on the rooftop terrace of the 8-level French Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. The composition was originally conceived of as an attack by Tinguely's dark mechanical constructions upon Saint Phalle's brightly-colored animals and female figures.

Although the French Pavilion itself was popular, most visitors did not see the rooftop terrace where the sculptures were installed. In 1968, the sculptures were redisplayed at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and in New York Central Park. In 1971, some of the artworks were purchased by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, and permanently installed in an outdoors sculpture garden.

In 1968, she first disclosed that she had developed respiratory problems from exposure to dust and fumes in making her artwork.

Starting in 1968, Saint Phalle sold Nana inflatable pool toys, amid criticism from the art world. She ignored the complaints, focusing on raising money for her future monumental projects. In the coming years, she would face more criticism for over-commercializing and popularizing her artwork, but she raised significant funding that enabled her to finance several ambitious projects on her own. Over the years, she produced clothing, jewelry, perfume, glass or porcelain figures, furniture, and craft items, many with a Nana theme.

From 1969-1971, she worked on her first full-scale architecture project, three small sculptural houses for Rainer von Diez in southern France, which she called Le Rêve de l'oiseau (fr) (The Dream of the Bird). The project was a collaboration with him and Jean Tinguely, and a forerunner of her later Tarot Garden project.

That same year, she joined several other artists under the lead of Tinguely, starting work on Le Cyclop (also known as La Tête, meaning "The Head", or le Monstre dans la forêt, meaning "the Monster in the forest"), in Milly-la-Forêt, near Paris. Eventually, 15 different people worked on the project, which would not be considered finished until 1994.

In November 1970, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Nouveaux Réalistes, Saint Phalle shot at an altar assemblage.

On 13 July 1971, Saint Phalle and Tinguely legally became married, though the immediate reason may have been tax savings, as Saint Phalle thus became a Swiss citizen. Their marriage did give the two artists mutual control over each other's artistic estate, if one of them should die.

That same year, she designed her first pieces of jewelry.

Starting in 1972, she engaged Robert Haligon (Fabricant de Plastiques d’Art) to help fabricate her large-scale sculptures, as well as multiple editions of artworks. This collaboration would continue for many years, including his son Gérard.

In 1972, Saint Phalle shot footage for the surreal horror film Daddy, about a deeply troubled father-daughter love-hate relationship, working in a rented castle near Grasse in southeastern France in association with filmmaker Peter Whitehead. In November, the film was shown in London. The following January, she produced a new version of the film, with additional scenes in Soisy and in New York, and an expanded cast. The revised version premiered at Lincoln Center for the 11th New York Film Festival in April. She was also commissioned to design the cover of the program for the festival.

Saint Phalle continued to create Nanas for the rest of her life, but would soon focus her attention on a comprehensive project in Italy.

Tarot Garden (1974-1998)

In 1955, Saint Phalle had visited Antoni Gaudí's Parc Güell in Barcelona, Spain, which inspired her to use diverse materials and found objects as essential elements in her art. Another influence was the Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, in the Tuscany region of Italy. In the late 1950s, she and Jean Tinguely had visited Le Palais Idéal built by Ferdinand Cheval in Hauterives, France, as well as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Both locations were examples of fantastical outsider art and architecture built by ordinary working men of modest means but expansive vision. Saint Phalle decided that she wanted to make something similar: a monumental sculpture garden, but created by a woman.

The initial sponsors for her ambitious project were members of the Italian Agnelli family. In 1974, while recuperating in St. Moritz, Switzerland after being hospitalized for chronic lung problems from exposure to petrochemical fumes, Saint Phalle reconnected with Marella Caracciolo Agnelli, a friend from the 1950s in New York. Saint Phalle told Agnelli about her ideas for a fantasy garden. In 1978, Agnelli's brothers Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo offered a parcel of their land in Tuscany for the garden's site.

In 1975, Saint Phalle wrote the screenplay for Un rêve plus long que la nuit (A Dream Longer Than the Night, later also called Camélia et le Dragon), and she recruited many of her artist friends to help make it into a film, a phantasmagorical tale of dragons, monsters, and adolescence. A young girl is held captive by a dragon, manages to escape, and must explore Sept Portes du Mystère ("Seven Doors of Mystery") to find love. Saint Phalle's daughter Laura was the lead character in the film, appearing with Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and other artist friends; Peter Whitehead composed the music. For the filming, she designed several pieces of furniture, which were later displayed on the facade of the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Palace) in Brussels. From 1968-1988, she also worked on Last Night I Had a Dream, a sculptural relief painting that included many elements from her earlier life and dreams.

In 1976, she retreated to the Swiss Alps to refine her plans for the sculpture park. In 1977, Ricardo Menon became her assistant, working closely with her until 1986.

In 1977, she worked with Constantin Mulgrave to design sets for The Traveling Companion, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, but the project was never completed. She also visited Mexico and New Mexico.

In 1978, Saint Phalle started to lay out her sculpture garden in an abandoned quarry in Garavicchio, Tuscany, about 100 kilometres (62 mi) north-west of Rome along the coast. The following year, sites were cleared and foundations were dug.

In 1979, she produced the first of what would become a new series of sculptures, the Skinnies. These were flat, planar, see-through outlines of figures, highlighted by patches of color. In some ways, they resembled her colorful sketches and drawings, but scaled up to monumental size. She also continued to produce her Nanas in addition to her new style of sculpture. Both styles of figures would appear in her Tarot Garden project.

In 1980, Saint Phalle and her team began to build the first architectural sculpture in the garden. As the project progressed, Saint Phalle started taking lessons in Italian, to better communicate with local workers. The second crew member she hired was Ugo Celletti, a 50-year-old part-time postal delivery man, who discovered a love for mosaic work on the project. He would work on the project for 36 years, and recruit his nephews to join in; some family members are still involved in maintaining the site.

She invited artist friends from Argentina, Scotland, Holland, and France to help work on the sculptures. Over time, Saint Phalle worked with dozens of people, including architects, ceramicists, iron workers, brick layers, painters, and mosaic artists. The materials used in the project would include: steel, iron, cement, polyester, ceramic, mosaic, glass, mirrors, and polished stones (which she called "M&M's"). The basic shape of the large Tarot Garden sculptures was established with frameworks made of welded steel rebar. A second layer of lighter-gauge steel reinforcement bars was added, followed by two layers of expanded metal. A specialist firm was then brought in to spray shotcrete onto the structure. A layer of tar for waterproofing, and a final layer of white cement produced a sturdy, hollow structure ready for decoration.

In 1980, she also began selling a series of polyester snake chairs, vases, and lamps. That year, she recorded her first attack of rheumatoid arthritis, a painful disease affecting the joints of the skeleton.

In 1980-1981, she designed a colorful paint scheme for a Piper Aerostar 602 P twin-engine airplane, which participated in the first trans-Atlantic race sponsored by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation of Amsterdam. As an act of playful rebellion against the cigarette manufacturer sponsor, she added a "No Smoking" sign visible on the belly of the plane (she was allergic to tobacco smoke).

In 1981, Saint Phalle rented a small house near the Tarot Garden, and hired young people from Garavicchio to help with construction of the garden. Jean Tinguely led a Swiss team, comprising Seppi Imhoff and Rico Weber, and started welding the frames of the sculptures. The following year, Dutch artist Doc Winsen (also called "Dok van Winsen") took up the welding operations.

In 1982, she developed and marketed an eponymous perfume, using the proceeds to help finance her project. The perfume bottle top featured a small sculpture of two intertwined snakes, one golden and the other brightly multicolored. She may have raised as much as a third of the funds she needed for the garden in this way. She actively solicited funding from friends and acquaintances, as well as by selling her artworks.

In 1982, Saint Phalle collaborated with Tinguely to produce the Stravinsky Fountain, a 15-piece sculptural fountain for Igor Stravinsky Square, located next to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Because of its prominent location in Paris, it would become one of the best-known collaborations between the two artists.

From 1983 onwards when on site, Saint Phalle lived in a small apartment built into The Empress, a house-sized sphinx-like sculpture in the garden. On the second level, her bedroom was inside one breast, and her kitchen was inside the other one. Each of these two rooms had a single recessed circular window, appearing as an inverted nipple when viewed from the outside. In 2000, she would recall: "At last, my lifelong wish to live inside a sculpture was going to be granted: a space entirely made out of undulating curves ... I wanted to invent a new mother, a mother goddess, and be reborn within its form ... I would sleep in one breast. In the other I would put my kitchen".

The ground floor contained a large mirrored space with a mirrored dining table where she would serve lunch to workmen and artists, beneath a chandelier made with a cow skull. She used this motherly role to help reinforce her authority in directing the team of men she needed to help build her project. Eventually, she would grow tired of the cramped space "in the womb of her mother", and after 1988 would move into a New-York-loft-style studio which she had built for herself underground at the site.

Around 1983, Saint Phalle decided to cover her Tarot Garden sculptures primarily in durable ceramic colored tiles, adding shards of mirrors and glass, and polished stones. Ricardo Menon helped her recruit Venera Finocchiaro, a ceramics teacher from Rome; she taught local women new techniques for molding ceramic pieces to curved surfaces, and installed on-site ovens to finish the pieces. Starting in 1985, Jean Tinguely added motorized and stationary steel sculptures and fountains to the project. Robert Haligon and his sons did much of the work which involved polyester resins. Saint Phalle asked Pierre Marie Lejeune to create a cement path, which he inscribed with hieroglyphs, other signs and symbols, and text. During this period, Saint Phalle dedicated almost all of her time to living and working at the garden.

In 1986, Ricardo Menon left to attend a drama school in Paris. While there, he recruited Marcelo Zitelli to work for Saint Phalle as a gardener, but he in turn became her assistant for other work as well, helping her fabricate sculptures for at least the next decade. The same year, Saint Phalle took some time to collaborate with Silvio Barandun (de) (a German medical professor of immunology) in writing and illustrating her book AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands, intended for students in middle school or high school. It was first published in San Francisco in English, then later translated into five different languages; 70,000 copies were sold or given to medical institutions and schools.

From 1987-1993, Saint Phalle spent more of her time in Paris, where she developed many of the smaller sculptures for the garden. From time to time, she would organize gallery shows of her art, including maquettes of her larger works, to raise funds for the garden project. Saint Phalle also worked on establishing a permanent legal structure for the preservation and maintenance of the garden.

In 1991, she produced a maquette for Le Temple Idéal (The Ideal Temple), a place of worship welcoming all religions, in response to the religious intolerance she saw while working in Jerusalem. The city of Nîmes (France) commissioned her to build the architectural sculpture, but the project never was built, due to politics.

In 1992-1993, remedial maintenance on the Tarot Garden sculptures was performed, using new glues and silicones to attach mirrors and glass elements more securely, to withstand weathering and the touch of many visitors' hands. As of 2017, a similar restoration process of re-attaching mirrors is ongoing with Le Cyclop, located in Milly-la-Forêt, near Paris.

The Tarot Garden was under development for almost 30 years, and $5 million (roughly $11 million in 2016 dollars) was spent to construct it. The Foundation of the Tarot Garden was constituted in 1997 (and would attain official juridical status in 2002), and the garden officially opened to the public on 15 May 1998. The completed garden (called il Giardino dei Tarocchi in Italian, and le Jardin des Tarots in French) now contains sculptures and architectural sculptures representing the 22 cards of Major Arcana found in the Tarot deck of cards, plus other smaller artworks. The site covers around 2 hectares (4.9 acres) on the southern slope of the hill of Gravicchio, in Capalbio. The tallest sculptures are about 15 metres (49 ft) high.

Saint Phalle's friend, architect Mario Botta, built a fortress-like protective wall and a porthole-shaped gateway at the entrance to the garden, marking a distinctive separation from the outside world. The entry structure also houses a ticket office, a gift shop, and rest rooms for visitors. Within the park there are fountains, courtyards, a multilevel tower, and many larger-than-life mythical creatures. Saint Phalle designed a brochure containing a map and other information for visitors to the garden, which is open seasonally.

Later years (1990-2002)

In her final years, Saint Phalle was afflicted with emphysema, asthma, and severe arthritis, which a number of commentators attributed to exposure to fumes and petrochemicals from materials used in her artworks. Despite these handicaps, she launched into exploring new venues, new technologies, and new art media.

Throughout her career, Saint Phalle was outspoken in addressing important political and cultural issues of the time. Her Tirs series and assemblages reflected the violence of the early 1960s Algerian War for independence from France, and asserted her rebellion as part of second-wave feminism. Her enormous, curvaceous Nanas celebrated the fecund female form, featuring large breasts and buttocks, splayed limbs, joyous dance postures, and often, black skin. She was one of the earliest artistic champions of AIDS awareness, creating artworks and a widely-distributed book. Shortly before her death, she exhibited drawings critical of the George W Bush administration. In addition to her artworks, she wrote extensively in both French and in English, and granted numerous interviews; much of this material is collected in her archives.

In 1989, Ricardo Menon, Saint Phalle's former assistant, died of AIDS. She created a large mosaic cat, Chat de Ricardo, to serve as his cemetery headstone in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris, France. A second copy of the Chat de Ricardo is located in the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, where he had worked with her for many years. In 1990, Saint Phalle completed Skull (Meditation Room), a 5-metre (16 ft) tall room-sized skull-shaped enclosure surfaced in colorful mosaics and lined inside with mosaic mirrors, to memorialize the AIDS crisis. She used bronze for the first time, in a series of Egyptian gods and goddesses.

In August 1991, Jean Tinguely died in Bern, Switzerland. In his memory, Saint Phalle created her first kinetic sculptures, which she called Méta-Tinguelys. With initial assistance from her friend Larry Rivers, she created a series of kinetic reliefs or moving paintings, called Tableaux Éclatés ("Shattered Paintings"), in homage to her late husband and colleague. When a visitor approached, a photocell would trigger motors which caused elements of the paintings to separate.

As her health deteriorated, she worked on creating the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland, as well as continuing work on her Tarot Garden. During this time, she became a good friend of the museum's architect Mario Botta, and she also engaged him to design the wall and entryway to her Tarot Garden.

In 1994, Saint Phalle published her memoirs Mon Secret (My Secret) in French, and revealed her childhood history of sexual abuse. In 1999, she released Traces, an English-language autobiography, which she also illustrated. In 2006, Harry and Me: The Family Years; 1950 - 1960 was published (posthumously), consisting of her self-illustrated memoirs from the decade when she was married to Harry Mathews.

Saint Phalle moved from Paris to La Jolla, California in 1994 for health reasons. She set up a new studio, and produced sculptures which were covered with mirrors, glass, and polished stones, instead of paints. In her new workspace, she started to explore novel technologies for designing and creating artwork. She also became an active member of the San Diego arts scene, participating in fund-raisers and exhibitions there.

In 1994, she designed a stamp for Swiss Post. with the message "Stop AIDS/Stop SIDA", for which she was awarded the Prix Caran d’Ache.

In 1994, she finally declared the collaborative sculpture Le Cyclop, started in 1969 by Tinguely and worked on by 15 artists, to be finished. The President of France, François Mitterrand, opened the work to the general public in May. To control vandalism, the installation was donated to the French state, which has taken responsibility for its safeguarding and maintenance. The massive structure is 22.5 metres (74 ft) tall, weighs 350 tonnes (350,000 kg), and is filled with custom-built artworks, including a giant rolling ball sculpture. Many of the artworks are kinetic, endowing the installation with constant motion, and producing loud groaning and other mechanical noises.

In October 1994, the Niki Museum, dedicated to telling the story of her life and artwork, was opened in Nasu, Japan. However, the Niki Museum would later be forced to close in 2011.

In 1995, Saint Phalle worked with Peter Schamoni in making a documentary film about her life story, Niki de Saint Phalle: Wer ist das Monster – Du oder ich? ("Who is the Monster, You or I?").

In 1996, she began building Gila, a large dragon-shaped children's playhouse for a San Diego private residence. This project was her first use of computerized techniques to enlarge drawings into full-scale construction.

In 1996, she supported the opening of the Museum Tinguely in Basel, by donating 55 major sculptures and over 100 graphic works by Tinguely, which constituted much of the core collection. She also donated some of her and her husband's artwork to create L’Espace Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Fribourg, Switzerland.

In 1997, she designed snake chairs of wood with a mosaic inlay, made by Del Cover and Dave Carr.

In 1998, she created a series of Black Heroes sculptures in honor of African-Americans who made major contributions to sports or jazz, including Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Josephine Baker. She dedicated the series to her great-grandchildren, who are of mixed race. With assistance from Marco Zitelli, she also completed her series of 23 large animals for the Noah's Ark sculptural park at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, in collaboration with architect Mario Botta.

In 1999, she debuted a monumental statue of Buddha, a one-eyed contemplative figure seated in the lotus position. The figure is covered with glittering mosaic tiles, glass, mirrors, and polished stones, and was installed in a nature garden.

On 17 November 2000 she became an honorary citizen of Hannover, Germany, and donated 300 pieces of her artwork to the Sprengel Museum located there. In 2000, the artist was awarded with the Praemium Imperiale award for sculpture by the Japan Art Association. The award is considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the world of art.

In 2001, she gave 170 pieces to the Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain (MAMAC) in Nice, France, and donated other works to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. She also designed and built a 12-metre (39 ft) tall sculpture, Coming Together, for the Port of San Diego. The sculpture, part of her Skinnies series, consists of a colorful half female and a black-and-white half male face joined together, covered with mosaic and stones, and was dedicated in October.

Saint Phalle endured intensive care hospitalization for 6 months before dying of respiratory failure (caused by emphysema) at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, on 21 May 2002, attended by her first husband Harry Mathews, and their children.

Up until the end, she continued to design further developments for her Tarot Garden in Italy, including a maze, for which land was cleared and metal rods were installed. Upon her death, all new developments in her garden were halted, as she had previously specified.

Posthumously, the Grotto (2001-2003) was completed according to detailed instructions left by Saint Phalle. The permanent installation, in the Grosser Garten, Herrenhausen Gardens , Hannover, consisted of three rooms which were decorated on every surface with mirrors, glass, ceramics, and colored stones.

Posthumously, Queen Califia's Magical Circle (2003), a 120-foot (37 m) diameter sun-drenched sculpture garden designed by Saint Phalle, was opened in Escondido, California in October 2002. It is enclosed in a 400-foot (120 m) undulating wall topped with huge python-like snakes, and includes a maze and 10 large sculptures she designed, comprising the largest public collection of her work in the US. The decorations include symbols and plaques referring to her earlier Tarot Garden.

Major exhibitions

  • 1998 Niki de Saint Phalle : insider, outsider world inspired art, Mingei International Museum on The Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
  • 2000 La Fête. Die Schenkung Niki de Saint Phalle (Celebration: The Donation of Niki de Saint Phalle), Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany
  • 2002 [retrospective], Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC), Nice, France
  • 2014 Niki de Saint Phalle, Grand Palais, Galeries nationales, Paris, France
  • 2016 Niki de Saint Phalle, Arken Museum of Modern Art, Ishøj, Denmark

Public art

Buddha (1999)
Nikigator (2001)
Oiseau Amoureux (1993)

Many of Saint Phalle's sculptures are large and are exhibited in public places. The Niki Charitable Art Foundation maintains an online map and catalog of all her extant public artworks, including a pizza oven in La Jolla, California.

  • Le Paradis Fantastique (The Fantastic Paradise, 1967), Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden – collaboration with Tinguely
  • Golem (1971), Kiryat Hayovel, Jerusalem
  • Hannover Nanas (1973), along the Leibnizufer in Hannover, Germany
  • La Fontaine Stravinsky (Stravinsky Fountain or Fontaine des automates, 1982) near the Centre Pompidou, Paris – collaboration with Tinguely
  • Sun God (1983), a fanciful winged creature next to the Faculty Club on the campus of the University of California, San Diego as a part of the Stuart Collection of public art
  • La Lune (The Moon, 1987), Brea Mall in Brea, California
  • Fontaine de Château-Chinon (1988), at Château-Chinon, Nièvre – collaboration with Tinguely, a commission by French President François Mitterrand
  • Le Grand Oiseau Amoureux (Great Amorous Bird, 1988-1989), Mendrisio, Switzerland, depicts a Nana in a Yab-Yum embrace with a large standing bird
  • Grand Oiseau de Feu sur l’arche (Great Firebird on the Arch, 1991), in front of Bechtler Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina
  • La Tempérance (1992) in Centre Hamilius, Luxembourg-Ville, Luxembourg (this work was in storage as the site was being demolished).
  • Le Monstre du Loch Ness (Loch Ness Monster, 1992), Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain (MAMAC), Nice, France
  • Oiseau Amoureux Fontaine / Lebensretter-Brunnen (Amorous Bird Fountain / Lifesaver Fountain, 1989-1993), Duisburg, Germany – collaboration with Tinguely
  • Le Cyclop (1969-1994), Milly-la-Forêt, France – collaboration with Tinguely and others
  • Tympanum (1996) triangular mirror mosaic and mirrored pediment above the entrance to the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland
  • L'Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel, 1997) in the hall of the Zürich Hauptbahnhof, the largest rail station in Switzerland
  • Le poète et sa muse (Poet and His Muse, 1998), Mingei International Museum on The Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
  • Big Ganesh (1998), San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hindu elephant-god Ganesh dances with a small mouse
  • Miles Davis (1999), outside of Hotel Negresco in Nice, France
  • Nana on a Dolphin (1998), National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, US
  • Les Trois Grâces (The Three Graces, 1999), National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, US
  • Noah's Ark (1994-2001), Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, 23 works in a collaborative sculpture park with architect Mario Botta
  • Nikigator (2001), Mingei International Museum on The Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
  • Coming Together (2001), San Diego Convention Center
  • Grotto (2001-2003), Herrenhäuser Gardens in Hannover, Germany
  • Queen Califia's Magical Circle (2003), a sculpture garden in Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California

Museums and collections

The Sprengel Museum has the largest holdings of Niki de Saint Phalle's work, and other major holdings are at MAMAC. Her archives and artistic rights are held by the Niki Charitable Art Foundation (NCAF) in Santee, California, near San Diego, which became active upon her passing. The NCAF maintains an online catalog of artworks in museums and major collections.

Bibliography (by publication date)

The World
  •   – autobiography
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  • Jo Applin, "Alberto Burri and Niki de Saint Phalle: Relief Sculpture and Violence in the Sixties", Source: Notes in the History of Art, Winter 2008

See also a short, annotated bibliography at the Niki Charitable Art Foundation website.

As of 2017, a definitive multi-volume catalogue raisonné is in preparation.


  • Daddy (1973), written and directed by Saint Phalle and Peter Lorrimer Whitehead
  • Un rêve plus long que la nuit / Camélia et le Dragon (A dream longer than the night / Camelia and the Dragon, 1976), written and directed by Saint Phalle
  • Niki de Saint Phalle: Wer ist das Monster – Du oder ich? (de) ("Who is the Monster, You or I?", 1995), biographical documentary (in German) by Peter Schamoni in collaboration with Saint Phalle
  • Niki de Saint Phalle: Introspections and Reflections (2003), posthumous documentary by André Blas
  • Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely: Bonnie and Clyde of the arts (2012), posthumous documentary by Louise Faure and Anne Julien
  • Niki de Saint Phalle, un rêve d’architecte (Niki de Saint Phalle: An architect’s dream, 2014), posthumous documentary by Louise Faure and Anne Julien

See also a comprehensive listing at the Niki Charitable Art Foundation website.

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