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Niki de Saint Phalle considered herself “a special case. An Outsider.”1 If anyone else had called her that, it would have sounded condescending, lazy—maybe even a misreading of the folk art affinities of her large and sometimes lounging, matronly-yet-erotic Nana sculptures. Despite her self-proclaimed outsider status, Saint Phalle came from a well-off family and attended good schools (though she never received a formal fine art education). She also spent her entire adult life around insiders: she and Harry Mathews, the experimental poet-novelist-translator she married to escape her dysfunctional family at age 18, sought out and surrounded themselves with avant-garde artists. When Saint Phalle began to paint in her early 20s, her mentor was Hugh Weiss, a well-regarded American-French surrealist working in Paris. When she grew out of Weiss’ influence, Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, and Daniel Spoerri became her mentors—and, in the case of Klein and Spoerri, her community. So, what to make of her self-definition as an outsider?
In the mid-1980s, she wrote a brief autobiographical essay called “Niki by Niki”—she was in her 50s and working on what would become her most ambitious public sculpture project, Tarot Garden (1998). In the essay, she described her life as a “fairy tale full of quests” and called herself a “devouring mother,” hypothesizing that critics had written about her so rarely because they were confused over whether she was a “twentieth century artist or archaic sculptor,” a New Realist or a romantic (her period associated with the New Realists in the 1960s had been overemphasized she felt, while her later “romantic, tormented period” had been overlooked).2 She wrote two versions of this essay—Saint Phalle was always revising and honing her writing about her life and work—one in the third person and one in the first. The third-person draft reads like a parody, as if a critic is trying to claim exclusive access to and understanding of a previously neglected artist. The first-person version feels like a sincere attempt to explain—to herself and others—why she felt like she didn’t fit, and why her work has confounded those who write histories.
Critic and editor Nicole Rudick includes the latter version in What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, out in February from Siglio Press. The book reads almost as an artist’s book, assembled entirely from Saint Phalle’s own drawings and writings about her life, as well as from the letters Saint Phalle wrote with virtuosity—drafting and redrafting missives and often including drawings that elaborated or emphasized certain sentiments. It is a visual delight, as there is little separation between Saint Phalle’s playful, vibrant images and her words—in fact, words often surround, or sit within, drawings of, for instance, a voluptuous serpent or an ornate leaning tower with bodies falling from its windows and ledges. Sometimes text is penned in thought bubbles emanating from the mouths of figures resembling Saint Phalle’s Nana sculptures. Yet, despite being filled with material created directly by Saint Phalle, What Is Known is neither autobiography nor artist book, as it was composed not by Saint Phalle but by Rudick. Rudick initially imagined the project as a more conventional biography, but after spending time in Saint Phalle’s Santee, California, archive, she realized that the artist had already written about much of her life herself, even if these recollections were not yet together in one place.3
Rudick chooses to begin the book with a poignant memory from Saint Phalle, about seeing Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon for the first time in 1950, when she would have been 19. The film prompts Saint Phalle to question her own understanding of truth. In looping script, she asks: “Is perceiving only personal? Does that mean my version is only mine?” She concludes that the only one “who can see all the pieces of the puzzle is GOD, not me!” From this passionate abdication of authorial control, What Is Now Known moves loosely chronologically, though many of the serigraphs, drawings, and letters it includes were composed in retrospect, when Saint Phalle was looking back on her life in the 1980s and 1990s. Rudick means for it to flow from beginning to end, but it is more intuitive and meandering than strictly narrative. In many ways, the book is about how to tell an artist’s story, told in the words of an artist who was never sure whether she fit in or how she wanted to—if at all. Rudick’s own questioning as the composer/ biographer (or unintended collaborator) comes through the book, too, as, like the pages themselves, her brief texts ponder how our lives are constructed (and remembered) in writing.
Rudick reflects on the limits and possibilities of the form in her introduction (which, in addition to the afterword, is the only writing in the 268-page book that is penned directly by the biographer), asking, “Where do the borders of a person’s life lie? Where is the hard stop, the point at which the (auto)biographer can say with assurance, this has no bearing?” She cites biographers who diverged from their subjects’ lives while writing (Sam Stephenson) and biographers who channeled their little-known subjects, using archival fragments as starting points (Saidiya Hartman). Rudick’s approach is a different kind of channeling, a choice to champion a life that was there, archived in the words Saint Phalle wrote herself across drawings, letters, and illustrated diary entries. Yet, these words would never have arrived to us as a body of autobiographical writing had Rudick not asked, “What could be closer to the artist’s voice than the artist’s own voice, closer to her sensibility than that produced by her own hand?”4
I discovered Rudick’s (auto)biography was forthcoming because I was searching for it, or something like it. I had been reading about Saint Phalle—mostly paging through exhibition catalogs—yet it was in the asides and anecdotes that I felt I had gotten the fullest sense of the artist: in Virginia Dwan’s recollection of shopping for “creepy crawlies” (plastic snakes and insects) with Saint Phalle on Olvera Street,5 or from a short passage in dancer Carolyn Brown’s memoir wherein she describes a 1960 Happening behind the Renaissance Club on Sunset Boulevard. Saint Phalle, dressed in a “white, space-lady bodysuit” and black boots, held a shotgun as she ascended and descended ladders, aiming and firing at one of her elaborate, matte-white assemblages.6 As she fired, explosions of colored paint erupted and corrupted the previously neutral surface. Afterward, Brown found Saint Phalle crying, tortured by the transience of the experience she had intentionally created. Descriptions like Brown’s had an immediacy and intensity that seemed to do justice to Saint Phalle—or perhaps I just wanted to feel a bit more like I knew her because her art seemed to be the product of such compelling, fiery energy.
What Is Now Known captures Saint Phalle’s immediacy and intensity, but also her self-protectiveness and careful self-presentation. None of the drawings or texts are raw or under-realized. The book unfolds in a more conventionally narrative way at first, as both Saint Phalle and Rudick intended. The artist’s writing about her pre-art-making life was more straightforward than her subsequent writing, because, as Rudick surmises, later she began to let her art tell the story instead. As Saint Phalle tells us in text often accompanied by drawings—like the one of her blond mother sitting on a black-and-white striped stool and staring into a scalloped mirror—she was born in Paris in October 1930, just as the stock market crash decimated her father’s banking fortune. In her childhood, her family returned to New York and she attended the all-girls school Brearley (which she loved until a series of pornographic drawings/stories she wrote got her in trouble with the headmaster). Early on, she was certain that the life of a homemaker was not for her, and she admired her father’s freedom while simultaneously fearing that her own sexual feelings would turn her into a philanderer like him. At 18, she and Mathews eloped, and after the birth of their first child, they moved to France to escape McCarthy-era conservatism and live among artists. Mathews encouraged her desire for creative expression, yet still, she felt trapped by domestic responsibilities—all the more so given his continued affairs. In the mid-1950s, after Mathews noticed Saint Phalle hiding sharp objects under the mattress and rightly assumed she was contemplating suicide, he took her to a doctor, who had her committed. She began to paint while in the psychiatric hospital. Upon her discharge, she received a letter from her father in which he discussed his sexual abuse of her as a child; while she had repressed memories of the abuse, exorcising the trauma of it became a driving motivation of her work for the next decade. In the mid-1950s, after the birth of her second child, she left Mathews to live alone nearby and focus on her work. She meant to return, but fell in love with the sculptor Jean Tinguely, who would be her lover for a decade and collaborator for life.
After she leaves her nuclear family and partners with Tinguely, Saint Phalle’s self-narration, and thus What Is Now Known, becomes less grounded in fact and chronology, propelled more by feelings and ideas. In a letter to the Swedish museum director Pontus Hultén, she explains the genesis of her shooting paintings, also known as her Tirs series (1961–63). She had imagined a painting bleeding and wounded, with emotions and sensations. Then, with Tinguely’s encouragement, she went about manifesting it: making reliefs with bulbous plaster covering up plastic bags full of paint and other things (spaghetti, eggs!). After the first shooting event in 1961, where she used a borrowed rifle to shoot so that her painting would bleed, critic Pierre Restany declared her one of the “New Realists,” a group that included Yves Klein, Tinguely, Martial Raysse, and others. The shoot-outs made her famous and also turned her into a femme fatale (“if I had been ugly, [the newspapers] would have said I had a complex and not paid attention” to this attractive girl “screaming against men”). Historian and MoMA curator William Seitz said her “attitude” had “set back modern art by 30 years!” But, as she tells Hultén, after two years doing shooting paintings she felt like a drug addict, hooked on the ritual, scandal, and attention, and felt she needed to turn away from “provocation” toward “a more interior, feminine world.”7 Her next long missive, to her friend Clarice Rivers, a teacher and the ex-wife of artist Larry Rivers, tells the tale of one of her largest early Nanas, Hon (1966), a pregnant goddess that viewers could enter from between her legs and climb into using a ladder reaching into her stomach.
In Saint Phalle’s writings, she reflected often on the patriarchy, as she does in a short, undated, typed essay called “Feminism.” She recounts a memory she had as a 12-year-old in which she told her mother she would never do laundry; her mother slapped her. At Catholic school, she told the nuns that Mary was more powerful than Jesus. Yet, she did not want to join the feminist movement when younger feminists approached her in the 1960s. “I felt in my own way as a loner making monumental works of art I was making a real contribution,” she wrote, going on to say that she saw feminism as cyclical—something that had always existed—and that at certain points in history, women are empowered to fight more strongly against oppression.8 In a long letter to her daughter, she again emphasizes her isolation in her battle against patriarchal violence, saying that her rape by her father as an adolescent forced her inward, where her rage helped her create the interior life that made her an artist. She acknowledges that not all women are able to overcome the trauma, even with the help of art.9 Yet she found a position of power for herself outside of the patriarchal systems that harmed her in her youth.
It becomes clear throughout What Is Now Known that for Saint Phalle, joining and belonging have more to do with master narratives than with the sharing of intimate lived experience. Between Saint Phalle’s letters to Hultén and Clarice, Rudick inserts a page-long passage, untethered to any dated letter or diary entry, in which Saint Phalle calls herself rootless and a rebel: “I don’t think I belong to any society,” she says. This not-belonging is a refrain throughout, even as her personal correspondences with artists, supporters, and collaborators give the book its shape. It is as if she worries that being defined, understood, or claimed by any movement or school will limit her range of experience and expression. In “Niki by Niki,” she writes that her series The Devouring Mothers (1972), a whimsical yet violent meditation on abuse, was unpopular. Yet she also sees herself as a devouring mother—does she mean then, that she is choosing to be unpopular? By not imposing the inevitable constraints of narrative biography, Rudick allows Saint Phalle’s story to stay in this undefined, open, outside place that she time and time again chose for herself.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 27.