At the Menil, Niki de Saint Phalle’s groundbreaking embrace of violence, joy, and women’s empowerment


If you’ve ever visited the Centre Pompidou in Paris, chances are you’ve seen Niki de Saint Phalle’s colorful Stravinsky Fountain next to the museum. The kinetic outdoor artwork was created in 1983 by Saint Phalle, and her husband of 20 years, artist Jean Tinguely, who contributed the mechanical portions of the sculpture.

Long enjoying name recognition in France, recent exhibitions at MoMA PS1 and Salon 94 in New York mean Saint Phalle’s work is receiving overdue attention stateside. The MoMA PS1 show centered on later work including architecture and sculptural environments, but many would agree her most revolutionary work is from the 1960s, which is the focus of an exhibition currently on view at Houston’s Menil Collection.

“Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” is divided into two basic sections, the “shooting paintings” or “Tir” series, which came first, followed by the “Nanas” — with a lot of assemblage and collaged imagery running throughout. Both the “Tirs” (tir, meaning shooting or gunshot in French) and the “Nanas” (French slang for young girl/woman/broad) are groundbreakingly feminist, although they express female empowerment in markedly different ways.

Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Nike de Saint Phalle’s “Nanas” sculptures were groundbreakingly feminist with expression of female empowerment. Photo by Paul Hester, courtesy Menil Collection

Part performance, the shooting paintings evolved out of an incident when Saint Phalle asked gallery visitors to throw darts at “Hors-d’oeuvre, or Portrait of My Lover” (1960) a painted assemblage combining a man’s shirt and target in place of a face representing attributes of former flames. Over the next few years more than 25 shooting events were held, Saint Phalle furnishing a .22 caliber rifle to spectators willing to participate, including American artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg at one point. Bags filled with different colored paint enclosed within layers of plaster against a blockboard backing exploded on contact releasing the pigment, which would drip, splash and splatter down the work’s surface.

While the “Tirs” garnered their fair share of sensationalistic press, they were quite personal to the artist. A victim of childhood assault, Saint Phalle’s works not only emphasized chance but also struck back in defiantly violent moments of action, which were integral to the finished work. They not only dealt with violence against women before Me Too, but the larger threat of war.

Although somewhat late to the game, Saint Phalle was one of the few female artists associated with the New Realism group in France (Nouveau Réalisme). Her goals synched with the group’s in that she challenged the previous decade’s emphasis on hyper masculinity, embodied in the archetypal, emotive, and heroic action-painter. New Realists provided foils to America’s post-war Abstract Expressionism and Europe’s more diverse version of abstract art, Informalism (Art Informel).

In their critique of consumer culture through materials conveying urban decay, New Realists were drawn to assemblage, collage and décollage and Saint Phalle was no exception. Her painted assemblages repeatedly include found objects like dolls, shoes, sculptures of sacred figures, toy guns, musical instruments, and plastic skulls. In “Cathédrale” and “Reims,” splattered black and blue paint, chicken wire, cloth, and other media on plywood combine to depict Gothic cathedrals.

Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle, Pirodactyl over New York, 1962. Paint, plaster, and objects on two wood panels, 98 3/8 × 122 × 11 3/4 in. (249.9 × 309.9 × 29.8 cm). Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved
Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle, Reims, 1962. Paint, plaster, wire, wire mesh, cloth, and objects on plywood, 74 1/2 × 48 × 11 7/8 in. (189.2 × 121.9 × 30.2 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. Photo: Paul Hester

After a few years of successfully parodying patriarchal art stars (think Georges Mathieu and Jackson Pollock) in the shooting paintings, Saint Phalle changed approaches, worrying out loud that firing a weapon was a drug to which she’d become addicted.

She shifted attention to the female body, exhibiting her first papier-mâché “Nanas” in 1965. Like updated fertility figures these ultra-curvy and brightly decorated females boldly dance, bound and leap. Described by some as playful and others as imposing, they tend to extend their limbs outwards, in an eternal exercise to make themselves bigger physically.

The Menil features a room of both large and small “Nanas” along with some screenprints and works on paper from the same time. “Portrait of Pregnant Clarice Rivers” (1964-1965) is not a sculptural Nana, but a collage, colored pencil, pastel and ink on paper that stands out. Pregnant friend, Clarice Rivers (wife of Larry Rivers) indeed influenced the development of Saint Phalle’s emblematic fecund goddess. Here the subject and soon-to-be-mother is seen from the side. Her entire body and some type of headdress are intricately covered, as if fully body tattooed, with abstract designs, text and representational imagery (for example, a ballerina, pinup, kitten, and bird, along with butterflies, roses, and crustaceans — curiously located in utero.) Rivers’ face, hand-drawn in graphite, turns toward the viewer, contrasted in its bareness.

A 1968 clothed “Madam,” or “Green Nana with Black Bag” is on view. Monumental in scale, this matriarch boasts a blocky body and tiny head (like many prehistoric sculptures of women). She commands her space, ready for the world in her green patterned frock, clutched handbag, and clunky black heels.

Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle and Larry Rivers, “Portrait of Pregnant Clarice Rivers,” 1964–65. Collage, color pencils, pastel, graphite, and ink on paper, 61 13/16 × 44 1/16 in. (157 × 112 cm). Collection of Isabelle and David Lévy, Brussels. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. © Estate of Larry Rivers / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Menil Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Madame, or Green Nana with Black Bag,” 1968. Painted polyester, 101 9/16 × 60 5/8 × 25 9/16 in. (258 × 154 × 65 cm). Private collection, Courtesy of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, Paris. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. Photo: André Morain

The Menil exhibition also features archival footage and a model of the artist’s largest figure, the “Hon – en katedral [She – a Cathedral].” Artists, Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt contributed to this temporary installation sited at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1967. The work depicts a giant pregnant woman laying on her back, knees bent, and legs open to reveal a doorway where her vagina would be. Eighty feet long, and 20 feet high, the construction could fit 150 people inside. The interior was designed to have an amusement park feel and the whole thing drew loads of international attention, effectively but cleverly asserting female power.

Included in the last gallery are books, magazines, posters, portraits of the artist in her studio, and photos of the artist with friends Francois and John de Ménil on a visit to Houston in 1969. Perhaps my favorite of the supplementary documentation are the 12 black and white photos capturing the youthful Nouveau Realists (including founding member, Pierre Restany) engaged in shooting paintings in a Parisian alleyway. They provided an insider glimpse into a very specific moment in time, where the exploits and ideas of some avant-garde artists anticipated decades of conceptual art to come.

Menil Niik de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle during a shooting session at Impasse Ronsin, Paris, 1962. © André Morain Photo courtesy Menil Collectio


“Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” is on view at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston, through Jan. 23, 2022.

Erin Keever
Erin Keever
Erin Keever is an Adjunct Professor of Art History, freelance writer, art historian and art appraiser. She lives and works in Austin, and serves on the Sightlines board.

Related articles