by Marsha McCreadie
When the Oracle asked Niki de Saint Phalle which it would be, “perfection of the life or perfection of the art,” she said, “Screw Yeats. I’ll take both.”
For the most part, this is what artist-sculptor Saint Phalle did and what she got. An installation of nine of her sculptures, mainly representing her fanciful gigantisms phase and the final colorful chapter of her work, is on public display on Park Avenue in the 50s this summer and much of the upcoming fall. The occasion—really the celebration—is the 10th anniversary of Saint Phalle’s death.
For New Yorkers, whether sticky in the city or in and out of town, the outdoors season is right, the colors bright, the spirits high. The generously sized figures, thighs and bosoms to rival Botero’s, include some of her most well-known works (no, not “Hon,” or “She,” the huge prone pregnant body into whose cavernous vagina the public can walk—that one is permanently on display in Sweden and would take up half a subway stop) that include “Les Baigneurs” (“The Bathers”) from 1983, made of polyester resin, and the highly comic “Les Trois Graces Fontaine” from 1999, poly ceramic, stained, mirrored glass figures in pop art bathing suits, camping it up. Probably not what Greek classicists had in mind, but joyful as all get-out.
These represent her signature Nana (French slang for “broad” or “chick”) series, originally inspired by the pregnant Clarice Rivers, wife of Larry. Also on display is “Nana on a Dolphin,” as described, making nearby office buildings look very dull indeed.
To Saint Phalle’s credit, she was exploring female archetypes and imagery a few years before it became de rigeur. From a wealthy Franco-American family, she once was a model for French Vogue but became interested in art, even getting kicked out of the exclusive Brearley School for painting fig leaves red, she said, and subsequently becoming an artistic autodidact. Seemingly always part of the movement du jour, it didn’t hurt that she had a talent for getting with the right people, the emerging influences—in the very early 1960s, for instance, hanging with pals like Christo and Jean Tinguely (eventually one of her husbands) when they were practicing the Dada-influenced movement of conceptual art.
She first achieved notoriety for her “shooting paintings,” hidden paint containers shot by pistol to finish the work. You get the idea: random, violence, what is art? How we miss the ’60s!
But she truly hit her stride with the fanciful large sculptures that became her trademark, often used in public gardens such as her Tarot Garden in Tuscany, an enterprise 20 years in the making financed in part by her self-named perfume. Especially appealing to kids, the playful aspects of her surrealistic amusement park-like spaces were seemingly at odds with a temperament that once led to a nervous breakdown.
For New Yorkers right now, the installations are in tune with our temper and taste: Women, sports figures, people of color. If you’re on Park Avenue at 59th Street North, check out Louis Armstrong (polyurethane foam, resin and steel) and Miles Davis at 58th Street North (similar materials), both from Saint Phalle’s Black Heroes series, as well as an homage to Michael Jordan and “Baseball Player” (nod to Tony Wynn).
Nine sculptures by Saint Phalle are on view on Park Avenue from 52nd to 60th Street, July 12-Nov. 15.
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