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Niki de Saint Phalle at the Bechtler

by Barbara Schreiber

Niki de Saint Phalle at the Bechtler

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Picture by [Cropped detail: Niki de Saint Phalle, I Woke Up Last Night, 1994 ©2011 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved.]

March 23, 2011

The first time I saw the work of Niki de Saint Phalle in the flesh, I was pregnant and jetlagged in Paris. With sleep elusive, an acquaintance dragged me from my hotel to Centre George Pompidou and the adjacent Stravinsky Fountain, a phantasmagoria of colorful figures and mechanical devices spewing water created by Niki de Saint Phalle and her husband, Jean Tinguely. I remember little of that bleary day, but the image of ebullient Nikis cavorting in the fountain is unshakable 26 years later.

Charlotte is enjoying a profusion of Nikis now through October 3, as the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art hosts Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology. Many Charlotteans know Niki from her large outdoor works, particularly the much-photographed Firebird, which sits in front of the Bechtler. But this exhibition also provides an opportunity to view smaller sculptures, wall-mounted pieces, paintings, and prints. The fruit of a collaboration between the Bechtler, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, and corporate underwriter Wells Fargo Private Bank, Creation of a New Mythology encompasses 60 works, including five flamboyant, appealing sculptures on the Green completed between 1964 and the artist’s death in 2002.

Niki de Saint Phalle, I Woke Up Last Night, 1994 ©2011 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved.

Niki de Saint Phalle was born near Paris in 1930 into an aristocratic family that lost most of its wealth in the collapse of the stock market. She spent much of her childhood physically and emotionally separated from her parents and siblings, and later suffered a nervous breakdown during her first marriage. However, she mitigated her despair by pursuing an emotionally and artistically passionate adulthood.

Although self taught, she was immersed in an art world that saw her collaborating with such luminaries as Yves Klein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Tinguely, whom she later married. She literally gave her life for her art: fumes from polyester and other corrosive materials with which she worked severely damaged her lungs, and she succumbed to these issues in 2002.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Vive Moi, 1968, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. ©2011 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved.

John Boyer, President and CEO of the Bechtler, says the exhibition’s central idea is “Niki’s voracious appetite for the intellectual, and how she engaged so many different religions, myths, and cultural archetypes from around the globe and over the millennia.” Also among the panoply of themes, influences, and passions evident in her work are the celebration and examination of womanhood, honoring the natural world, and dreamscapes.

Niki is best known for colorful sculptures with alluring surfaces. Antonio Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona had a profound effect on Niki, probably not only for its visual audacity, but also because it is a park loved by both tourists and locals, and its sculptures are often covered in children. She was also influenced by large outsider art environments such as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles and Facteur Cheval’s Le Palais Idéal in Southeastern France. She was moved by the people who created them – “people who didn’t consider themselves artists, but who were incredible artists with a sense of generosity.... [They] did this out of passion, but in the end it was really for everybody else,” says her granddaughter, Bloum Cardenas.

 An artist in her own right and a board member of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, Cardenas speaks movingly not only of her grandmother, but of the a complex web of relationships that can be witnessed right here in Charlotte,  where we are privileged to be the home of Cascade, Jean Tinguely’s final work. Cardenas notes that this is the 20th anniversary of Tinguely’s death: “This is very special for us.... to have an exhibition here of Niki is a testament to that connection.”

She also points out that Mario Botta, architect of the Bechtler, designed the Tinguely Museum in Basel, Switzerland, as well as the entrance to Niki’s Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden) in Tuscany. She emphasizes that all of these influences come together in Charlotte.

The work featured in Creation of a New Mythology is both deep and accessible. Boyer says, “Everybody finds some portal of access to Niki’s work.” That they delight children “in no way erodes the importance and seriousness of these pieces.” In fact, some of her work has a distinct edge and address adult themes and serious issues. For example, La Peste is about HIV/AIDS.

Niki de Saint Phalle, The Bride

Niki de Saint Phalle, The Bride, 1965-1992 ©2011 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All rights reserved. 

The Bride is a complex, disturbing work that was made originally from small plastic toys. The version here is cast in bronze, and its dejected-but-resolute presence speaks eloquently about the entrapment Niki experienced in her first marriage, even though she remained close to her first husband until her death. In stark contrast are her “Nanas,” deeply sensuous and celebratory pieces that represent a turning point in her own life and her concept of womanhood. “She wanted the Nanas to be about transformation,” Cardenas says of this contrast. “They go from this really anguished state to being conquerors, to being an army of women – what she called Nana Power.”

Also notable are two tableaux éclaté, or exploding paintings; these large works, which honor the memory of Tinguely, are topped with motion sensors, so that people passing by cause elements attached to the paintings to move in a curious way.

Race became an important motivator in some of Niki’s later work, as she sought to inspire and provide heroes for her African American great-grandson. Several of these heroes – including Miles Davis – can be seen on the Green, Wells Fargo’s public park across the street from the museum. As beautiful and purposeful as these works are, however, my favorite work on the Green is the crowd-pleasing La Cabeza, a six ton walk-through skull that looks like an enormous Day of the Dead trinket.

Niki de Saint Phalle, La Cabeza Ou Tête de Mort (Grande), 2000. Exhibited at the Atlanta Botanical Garden 2006 © 2011 Niki Charitable Arts Foundation. Photo: Kristin Alexander.

Wells Fargo Private Bank (which also supports Charlotte Viewpoint) is the corporate underwriter for the exhibition. They have already invested heavily The Levine Center for the Arts. “We see this as a natural way to continue that investment beyond construction of buildings,” says Madelyn Caple, Wells Fargo Private Bank Regional Wealth Management managing director. “It’s about making compelling cultural experiences available to the broader community.”

Niki’s work appealed to Wells Fargo because it “is so full of color and life. And it generates a natural curiosity about the themes she addresses and the technical processes she uses to create her art,” says Caple. “Niki de Saint Phalle.... was an artist, writer, model, and mother. She was both complex in personality and generous in character. All of these experiences influenced her work.”

Marcelo Zitelli, part of Niki’s team and a conservator and curator for exhibitions with her smaller works, says, “She always presented herself as part of the team. She always acknowledged everyone who worked on these pieces.... She was able to take the best part of your work. All of us who worked with her felt part of the work, too.” 
Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology runs through October 3 at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
Arts editor: Jeff Jackson

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Tags: art, niki de saint phalle, the green, bechtler, wells fargo, exhibition, review

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