.22 Caliber Feminist Art: The Menil Collection Opens ‘Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s’

We’re very rarely surprised anymore, especially where contemporary culture is concerned. But we admit that a survey of Niki de Saint Phalle‘s work at the Museum of the Rome Foundation in Italy’s capital in 2009 left us startled and awestruck at the sheer scope of her multifaceted, and utterly fearless talent. It is a talent which is only now beginning to be properly recognized.

Paris born (1930) and New York raised, it would later come out that she suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both her mother and father (two of her siblings eventually took their own lives as adults.) She began successfully modeling as a teen, ultimately appearing on the cover of French Vogue in 1952. By the time she was 24 she had attempted suicide, undergone electroshock therapy, and also, most importantly, started to paint. A trip to Barcelona in 1955 imprinted the influence of surrealist architect Antoni Gaudí on her artistic psyche, and her work from there took on a whole new and radical dimension.

Houston‘s revered art temple The Menil Collection will open Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s this September 10, the title referring to her most prolific period, where she not only ran with the new sense of possibilities of those anything goes times, but actually took them further than almost anyone she could count as a contemporary. This was an especially astonishing accomplishment, as the art world then was still really the province of hard-living macho sorts like de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

The exhibition will feature notable paintings, assemblages, and sculptures from that most transformative decade, as well as film and photographic documentation from the Menil archives. Impressive in its scope, it does nevertheless put a specific focus on her two most extraordinary artistic notions. First, her shooting paintings, or Tirs (French for gunshot), for which she fired a .22 caliber rifle at bags of paint attached to a blank canvas. Intended as much as performance works – the act of shooting – the likes of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg joined her in taking aim, giving the series a highly conceptual sheen. They were also an unflinching commentary on the violence of modern culture.

But certainly more visceral, and ultimately incredibly influential, were her exuberantly colorful, ideologically powerful Nanas, which were unfettered celebrations of the female form, and certainly suggested the aforementioned Gaudí influence, in that form was allowed to roam beyond the stifling boundaries of reality, extolling women’s primal connection to nature. Originals and copies now occupy museums and open air spaces around the globe, something of a physical meme of positive feminist empowerment.

Niki de Saint Phalle
Gorgo in New York, 1962
Paint and found objects on wood
95 3/4 × 193 × 19 1/2 in. (243.2 × 490.2 × 49.5 cm)
Four panels, each: 95 3/4 × 48 1/4 in. (243.2 × 122.6 cm)
The Muse

Of course, as the age of social media – Saint Phalle passed away in 2002, before it took over our lives – has unleashed a whole new era of body shaming and bullying, her work is once again rife with relevance and poignancy. And her story of rising above terrible childhood tragedy to devise such daring and forward-thinking methods of visceral expression should absolutely affirm her essential place in the contemporary history of women artists.

“During the 1960s, Saint Phalle – the only female member of the French avant-garde group the Nouveaux Réalistes – also collaborated with innovative American artists of her generation, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns,” explains Menil Collection Senior Curator Michelle White. “Within the male-dominated artistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic, her place in art history has been hard-fought. Her artwork from this time constitutes some of the most advanced work being done around emergent ideas of participatory art and was prophetic of feminist concerns related to the critique of painting and the representation of the body that will drive art in the decades to come.”

Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s will be on show at Houston’s The Menil Collection until January 23, 2022, before traveling on to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in April.


Niki de Saint Phalle
Pirodactyl over New York, 1962
Paint, plaster, and various objects on two wood panels
98 3/8 × 122 × 11 3/8 in. (249.9 × 309.9 × 28.9 cm)
Guggenheim Museum Abu Dhabi

Niki de Saint Phalle
Madame ou Nana verte au sac noir, 1968
Painted polyester
101 9/16 × 60 5/8 × 25 9/16 in. (258 × 154 × 65 cm)
Private collection, Switzerland; Courtesy of Georges-Philippe &
Nathalie Vallois Gallery, Paris

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