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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

La Femme Niki

posted by on January 22 at 14:30 PM

Because this is the kind of work she made for more than two decades before she died in 2002, this is what a work of art by Niki de Saint Phalle is generally understood to look like:




But there’s another, far lesser-known Niki de Saint Phalle: Niki the Shooter. According to the Tate Modern’s web site, de Saint Phalle started attaching paint-filled bags to backings and shooting them in 1960—and she stopped in 1963, saying, “I had become addicted to shooting.”

I found out about these a few months ago, when I first met Nancy Stoaks, a graduate student who is now The Stranger's visual art intern. Her master's thesis (in progress) is on de Saint Phalle's shooting paintings, and I can't wait to read it. Then last night, I was flipping through Artforum's previews when I saw:

Niki de Saint Phalle

Author: Melanie Gilligan

02.01.08-05.05.08 Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, UK

The chirpiest-seeming of feminist art stars, French artist Niki de Saint Phalle is not often associated with bloodthirst: "In 1961 I shot at: daddy, all men, small men, large men." This 1987 statement regarding her early Nouveau Réaliste Shooting Paintings—symbolic executions of the male art establishment—is a window into a lesser-known side of de Saint Phalle's work, which has been frequently identified with the grotesque friendliness and exuberance of her subsequent Nana sculptures. Attempting to revise preconceptions, this retrospective—spanning 1953 to the late 1990s—will focus on the darker, more brutal aspects of de Saint Phalle's oeuvre in some 120 assemblages, paintings, sculptures, altars, and graphic works. WIll this approach afford new insights? For instance, that her overblown icons of female jouissance have always held a latent threat? The show's catalogue features an essay by Barbara Rose, among others.

Before I met Stoaks, I'd never imagined anything "brutal" about de Saint Phalle, although, given the exaggerations of her figures, I probably should have.

But one thing that strikes me from looking at images Stoaks has shared with me is that while many of de Saint Phalle's shooting works have violent overtones (this painting is in line with Gilligan's citation in Artforum)


there seems to be something else at play, too. De Saint Phalle's shooting paintings do not simply appropriate the militaristic tools of the patriarchy to form a mirror-image matriarchal subjectivity that can shoot back at men.

In some cases they take apart the subjectivity of the artist altogether. In some cases, de Saint Phalle doesn't do the shooting at all. She has other people do the shooting, sometimes other artists and sometimes viewers.

In other words, for every one of these juicy, heroine-like views of Niki with a gun,


there's an alternative documentation of a perfect civilian doing the shooting, like this one (from a show of de Saint Phalle's works):


No doubt de Saint Phalle is taking aim at the male art establishment with her shooting paintings. But again, it's complicated. She's inviting as collaborators male artists who are taking the same aim in their own work (ie Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns), and then asking them to shoot parodies of their own works. Here are two of those parodies, shot at by Rauschenberg and Johns themselves:



The show at the Tate Liverpool opens February 1. I only wish I could be there.

RSS icon Comments


i think i just got carpal tunnel just quickly scrolling past all that crap

Posted by kinkos | January 22, 2008 2:32 PM

Today in hideous art...

Posted by Zookeeper | January 22, 2008 2:37 PM

Why can't you be there? You can get a flight direct from Seattle to Manchester, thirty miles away now, or Vancouver to Liverpool if you prefer. It's a lovely city. Tate Liverpool is in Albert Dock, arguably the finest industrial building in the history of the world. I wouldn't go inside, though.

Posted by Fnarf | January 22, 2008 3:26 PM

i'm no art cricket, but those first 3 sculptures look like they were made by a wealthy suburban housewife [probably alcoholic] with way too much free time on her hands, then sold to another wealthy suburban housewife [probably drunk at the time] at an arts & crafts fair for way too much money. does she make cookie jars, too?

Posted by brandon | January 22, 2008 4:24 PM

That's an amazing and fascinating art story. Also--that picture of her holding a gun? That is so what I've always wanted to look like--a secretly aggressive skinny little French girl with a huge fucking gun.

Posted by Ari Spool | January 22, 2008 4:26 PM

I love her fountain at the Beaubourg. But a lot of the rest of it is like some shit by a Texas women's college art teacher.

It's all BIG and COLORFUL and SPARKLY.

But that gun shit rocks. Ever watch Bill Burroughs make his gun painting/sculpture/things? Hot shit.

And yeah, ARI SPOOL, chicks with guns...dah-hay-yam!

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | January 22, 2008 8:43 PM

And WTF? Is this REALLY a Jen Graves post with a jump?!?!?

Thank you, Baby Jesus!

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | January 22, 2008 8:44 PM

Phalle's paintings were so much more Pop than feminist (hence the involvement of Robert, Jasper & suburban housewives in creating her work).

Posted by Jean-Genet Ramsey | January 22, 2008 10:37 PM

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