Retrospective Reviews

Aim High: On Niki de Saint Phalle’s First New York Solo Show, in 1962

Peter Whitehead, still from Daddy, 1972, film. ©NIKI CHARITABLE ART FOUNDATION/PETER WHITEHEAD

Peter Whitehead, still from Daddy, 1972, film.


Niki de Saint Phalle, the French New Realist sculptor who died in 2002 at the age of 71, has been having a comeback. Three years ago, to mark the 10-year anniversary of her death, New York’s Nohra Haime Gallery held a long-overdue retrospective of Saint Phalle’s work. This year, in Paris, Saint Phalle finally got a Grand Palais exhibition, one of the greatest honors a French artist can have. Still, she has never had a major museum retrospective in America. Could her chance be coming soon?

With the Grand Palais show having closed a little over a week ago, we turn back to our review of Saint Phalle’s first New York solo show, held at Alexander Iolas Gallery in 1962. In the early ’60s—when she made her “Shooting Paintings,” in which she or an audience member (or, in one memorable case, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) used a rifle to shoot open bags of paint—she became famous in the Parisian art scene. She quickly grabbed the attention of the critic Pierre Restany and became the first woman of her artist-friend group to have a solo show in 1961. The next year, in an unusual move for a woman artist of her time, her work also became popular in America. In the Iolas show, Saint Phalle showed a “Shooting Gallery” that she made with Jean Tinguely, the artist who later became her husband. Jill Johnston called the work shown in the exhibition “powerful” and “disquieting” in her review, published in our December 1962 issue and reproduced in full below.

“Niki de Saint-Phalle”
By Jill Johnston

Niki de Saint-Phalle [Alexander Iolas Gallery] combines assemblage and the random technique for which she is well known to make powerful, disquieting images of decadence and destruction. Two works of huge dimension are embattled landscapes which could be interpreted as containing the past (pre-historic animals, cathedral, etc.), a cancerous accumulation of the present (mostly five-and-dime toys)—both representing the result of a holocaust. The Shooting Gallery, or Homage to Le Facteur Cheval, is attacked by the serpent and dinosaur (who are attacking each other, the latter with a “mechanically realized” jaw by Tinguely), by the jet airplanes upper right, and by the amused spectators who can take a shot at moving plastic bags of paint with a rifle if they like. Since the sculpture was all white to begin with, the lucky shots have the pleasure of adding another splattering defilement over “the remains of our civilization. Gorgo in New York is explicit in another way. The enormous construction is divided into three panels. On the right Gorgo, ancient beast, and five jets enter for the attack. The “city” is expressed by skyscrapers, an aerial view of a launching pad, fake flowers in a pot, soda bottles, toys, a large toy horse strangled by a serpent, a toy statue of liberty in which the statue is torn off its base and resting on a pineapple near a small reproduction of Adam and Eve, etc. And the whole relief is shot with explosions of black paint with running streams of the aftermath. The aftermath, one might say, of both the creation of the work and the destruction of the city. Prices unquoted.

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