de Saint Phalle, French/American (1930 - 2002)
Niki de Saint Phalle, was born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de
Saint Phalle at Neuilly-sur-Seine, and was the second of five
children of Jeanne Jacqueline, nee Harper and Andre Marie de
Saint Phalle, a banker.
In the early 1930s, her father lost all the family money in
the stock market crash of 1929, and Niki and her elder brother
were separated from their parents and sent to live with paternal
grandparents in the Nievre area of France for the next three
In 1933, the family reunited in Greenwich, Connecticut and
spent summers in France with American maternal grandfather Donald
Harper at his chateau "Filerval" with gardens designed
by Le Notre. This experience of living in two cultures had much
long-range influence on her thinking and creativity.
From 1937 to 1947, the family lived in New York city. Marie-Agnes,
now called Niki, started school at the Convent of the Sacred
Heart. Her first visual influences were comic books, and visits
to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout her youth she
continually questioned authority and was sent to a succession
of schools. At the Brearly School, she becomes interested in
the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and the Greek tragedies.
She discovered Russian authors and passionately read all the
Dostoevsky novels. She acted in school plays and began to write
her own poetry and plays. But she was dismissed from Brearly
for painting the fig leaves red on the school's statuary. She
graduated from a private all girl school, Old Field School,
in Maryland and from the late 40s to mid 50s, worked as fashion
model for Vogue, Life, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, and other French
and American magazines.
At age eighteen, she eloped with Harry Mathews and moved to
Cambridge, Massachusetts. She began to paint, experimenting
with different media and style while her husband studied music
at Harvard University. Their first child, Laura, was born April
In 1952, she and her husband moved to Paris where Niki studied
theatre and acting, and her husband continued his studies in
music, only later to become a writer, and a founder of the literary
magazine Locus Solus. They shared the upbringing of their daughter,
and traveled through France, Italy, and Spain visiting museums
and cathedrals. Niki was especially impressed by the concept
of a cathedral as a 'collective ideal' realized through the
efforts of many; this later becomes an important aspect in her
In 1953, she was hospitalized in Nice with nervous breakdown
and painted while recuperating from this crisis, and re-evaluated
the direction of her life, beginning to seriously consider communicating
through her art.
In Paris, she is introduced to American painter Hugh Weiss who
becomes a friend and mentor, encouraging her to remain painting
in her self-taught style. Moves to Deya, Majorca, Spain where
son Philip was born in may 1955. Reads Proust, visits Madrid
and Barcelona where she discovers Antonio Gaudi and is deeply
affected by this experience which opens many possibilities of
the use of diverse material and object-trouves as structural
elements in sculpture and architecture. In particular, Gaudi's
"Parc Guell" is a special revelation that makes her
determined to one day create her own garden of joy combining
mart and nature.
Returns to Paris. Meets sculptor Jean Tinguely and his wife
Eva Aeppli for the first time. Both are supportive of her ideas.
Asks Tinguely to weld an armature for her first sculpture.
Frequently visits the collections of the Louvre. Interested
in the work of Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, and
Pablo Picasso. Inspired by the postman, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval's
architecture "Le Palais Ideal", in Hauterives, France.
Lives in Lans-en-Vercors in the French Alps with family. First
solo exhibition of paintings in St. Gall, Switzerland in 1956.
Paints and explores various collage elements. Meets a number
of contemporary writers including John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch
through Harry Mathews.
Introduced to contemporary art in exhibition at the Musee d'Art
Moderne de la Ville de Paris that includes works by Jackson
Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
Separates from husband. Children live with their father. Sets
up studio and concentrates solely on work. Assemblages take
on an angry aspect-a new series 'target' paintings actually
have darts thrown at them.
End of 1960 moves to 11 Impasse Rosin, Paris and lives and
shares a studio with Jean Tinguely; they will collaborate and
assist each other on projects throughout their long association.
Constantin Brancusi is a neighbor at Impasse Rosin. Through
Tinguely, meets Pontus Hulten then director of the Moderna Museet,
Stockholm. Hulten includes her in major exhibitions organized
at the time. Through his foresight, the Moderna Museet will
acquire pivotal pieces from throughout her career to form the
most comprehensive collection of her work.
Because of her bicultural background and the direction in her
own art, she becomes a kind of ambassador between the avant-gardes
in France and the United States.
Expands on the 'target' paintings with a series of 'shooting'
paintings or tirs. It is through acts of destruction that these
works are created-the assemblages are shot with a pistol, rifle
or cannon by herself or others, producing spontaneous effects
and the dispersion of colors. As they evolve, the tirs become
larger, more elaborate in concept and include elements of spectacle
Pierre Restany, founder of the Nouveau Realistes, attends first
public tir, and invites her to become a member. Becomes involved
in the ideas, festivals and activities of this group which includes
Arman, Cesar, Christo, Gerard Deschamps, Francois Dufrene, Raymond
Hains, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri,
Jean Tinguely, Jacques Villegle.
First solo exhibition in Paris at Galerie J with assemblages,
tires, and a public shooting area. Exhibits in group shows in
Europe and the United States. Becomes friends with American
artists staying in Paris including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper
Johns, Larry Rivers and his wife Clarice, and will participate
in various projects with them over the years.
She and Tinguely are introduced to Salvator Dali by Marcel
Duchamp. Travels to Spain with Tinguely for celebration honoring
Dali, and they make a life-size exploding bull with plaster,
paper and fireworks for the arena at Figueras.
Major tir "King Kong" created in LA., sponsored by
Dawn Gallery; later acquired by Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Her
love of horror movies provides source of inspiration for this
and other works. Reviews.
She and Tinguely find an old country inn outside of Paris to
live and work, l'Auberge du Cheval Blanc, Soisy sur Ecole, France.
Begins work on figurative reliefs -confrontational depictions
of women, some giving birth or vivisectioned. Creates other
figurative assemblages including freestanding dragons, monsters
and brides presented in first solo show at Hanover Gallery,
London. Travels to new York with Jean Tinguely and stays at
the Chelsea Hotel, taking part in New York art activities.
Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarisse Rivers, she
begins considering archetypal female figures in relation to
her thinking on the position of women in society. Her updated
version of 'everywoman' are named 'Nanas'. The first of these
freely posed forms, made of papier-mache, yarn and cloth are
exhibited at the Alexander Iolas Gallery, Paris, September 65.
For this show Iolas publishes her first artist book that includes
her handwritten words in combination with her drawings of 'Nanas'.
Encouraged by Iolas, she starts a highly productive output of
graphic work that accompanies exhibitions -invitations, posters,
books and writings.
In 1966 collaborates with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultlvedt on
a large scale sculpture installation, "hon-en katedral".
for Moderna Museet, Stockholm. The outer form of "hon"
is a giant, reclining 'Nana', whose internal environment is
entered from between her legs. The immense public reaction to
the work is written about in magazines and newspapers throughout
the world. The interactive quality of the "hon" combined
with a continued fascination with fantastic types of architecture
insensifies her resolve to see her own architectural dreams
realized. Meets Swiss artist Rico Weber, during construction
of the "hon". Over the next ten years, Weber will
be an important assistant /collaborator for both she and Jean
Tinguely. Designs decors and costumes for two theatrical productions
- a ballet by Roland Petit, and an adaptation of Aristophanes'
Together with Tinguely receives commission from the French Government
to make a sculpture for "Expo '67" in Monreal, Canada.
Their collaboration, "Le Paradis Fantastique", a combination
of their distinct styles, is installed on the roof of the French
Pavilion. After "Expo'67", attempts fail to find a
permanent home for the sculpture in either France or the United
States. Through the efforts of Pontus Hulten, the piece is saved
from destruction, and acquired by moderna Museet where it is
installed. Working on the "Paradis Fantastique", she
is exposed to toxic fumes produced by polyester. This and other
materials used in her work cause severe damage to her lungs,
that result in recurrent health problems.
First retrospective, "Les Nanas au Pouvoir", is organized
at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Creates a number of new
pieces for the show that emphasize a direction toward architectural
and functional design -"Nana Dream House" and "Nana
Fountain", and the placement of elements to form a sculptural
tableau. "The Bride's Dream".
Writes story that she adapts with Rainer Von Diez into a play,
ICH. Designs decors, costumes, and poster for the production
that is presented at the Staatstheater, Kassel, Germany, June
1968. Designs 'Nana' inflatables, a multiple in plastic, that
are produced and distributed in the United States. Publishes
series of semi-autobiographical serigraphs that are executed
in a pictographic style combining images, letters and writing
into a complete narrative. Exhibits extensively in the United
First permanent architectural project is private commission
for a summer residence in the South of France. The project consists
of three buildings, each uniquely shaped, detailed and painted,
completed in 1971. Continues involvement in 'fantastic' architectural
projects requiring her total commitment in all stages of planning
and execution. Sculpture "Black Venus" acquired by
the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and exhibited
in museum's show, "Contemporary American Sculpture, Selection
II", April 69. Travels to India and Egypt -these cultural
experiences broaden the context of visual associations used
in her work. Tinguely begins work on his major sculptural project,
"LA Tete" or "Le Cyclop", Milly-la Foret,
France. Declared a monument of France, this work in progress
for over twenty years is a collaboration of many artists.
Participates in the "10th anniversary of the Nouveau Realistes
Festival" in Milan November 70. She shoots an outdoor tir
as part of the 'action spectacles'.
Marries Jean Tinguely, July 13, 1971. They travel together to
Morocco. Granddaughter, Bloum, born to Laura and Laurent Condominas
in Bali 71. Receives a public commission to create a an architecture
for children in Jerusalem, "Golem", a giant monster
head with tongue slides which is completed in 72. The following
year receives a private commission to build an architecture
for children, "Dragon", in Belgium.
In 1972 begins productive association with art fabricator,
Haligon, France, for her large scale sculptures and work in
editions. Makes first jewelry design for GEM Montebello Laboratory,
Exhibits new sculptural tableaux "Devouring Mothers"
and the following year "Les Funerailles du Pere".
These works are based on ideas of a child's perspective of estrangement
from the world of adults.
Acts in film "Daddy" that she wrote, produced and
directed with Peter Whitehead. The film is a surreal, psychological
exploration of a relationship between a father and a tri-part
character of the daughter as child, adolescent and adult. Official
premiere September 73 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln
Center's "IIth New York Film Festival". Designs the
film's festival's program cover with reference to three noted
Builds three large scale' Nanas' for permanent site near town
hall in Hanover, Germany. The city names them Sophie, Charlotte
and Caroline in honor of three historically distinguished women
Exhibits maquettes of realized and unrealized architectural
projects, creates artist book and invitation to accompany the
show. Hospitalized with a serious lung ailment. Lives in the
Swiss mountains to regain her health. Reads Gaston Bachelar,
Rainer Maria Rilke and Konstandinos Kavafy. There she meets
a friend she had known in New York in the 1950's, Marella Caracciolo
Agnelli, to whom she confides her ultimate dream-to someday
build a sculpture garden based on her interpretations of symbols
from the Tarot. Her friend's brothers, Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo,
offer a parcel of their land in Tuscany, Italy as a site for
her dream. The massive undertaking of the garden will consume
her thoughts and energies for nearly twenty years.
Writes, directs, produces and acts in the film "Un Reve
Plus Long que la Nuit". The production includes the talents
and participation of her daughter Laura Condominas, Jean Tinguely,
Daniel Spoeri, Lunguinbul, Eva Aeppli, Marina Karella, Andree
Putman, and others. In 1975, her eighteen element sculptural
tableau "Last Night I Had a Dream" is installed on
the exterior of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, for an
Returns to Switzerland for a period of time. Develops ideas
for the imagery that will carry the special mystic meanings,
energies, and associations of the tarot to the site of her planned
contemplative, sculpture garden.
Beginning of a close and long friendship with assistant/collaborator
Ricardo Menon, who will be with her for many years.
Land is cleared and foundations dug at site in Tuscany formally
named "Giardino dei Tarocchi". Makes first models
related to the Tarot figures that will be represented in the
Becomes interested in the idea of linear sculpture-drawings
in space and makes the "Skinnys". This series of totem-like
pieces often have colored lights and elements suspended by string.
Begins to design furniture and other functional objects with
serpents and figurative forms.
Lives for a while in Malibu, California and conceives a series
of maquettes based on new ideas for architectural fantasies.
These works are first exhibited at Gimpel & Weitzenhffer,
New York, and then travels in the United States.
Has first solo show in Japan at Gallery Watari, Tokyo.
The symbols of the Tarot serve as guide in the creation of the
Garden. Construction begins on the first architectural sculpture
"La Papesse", representing female creativity and strength.
Spends the major part of the next ten years on site receiving
assistance from many friends and supporters. Jean Tinguely together
with Rico Weber and Seppi Imhof begin welding the iron under
structures for the first group of enlarged Tarot Figures; this
work involving special engineering skills for each piece, is
taken over and completed by Dutch artist, Doc Wilsen. Local
residents are hired and over the years, their efforts will be
important to the project's success.
The Ulm Museum organizes the first retrospective devoted to
her graphic work. Permanently installs the sculpture "Poet
et sa Muse" at University of Ulm. Honored with a major
retrospective at Musee National d'art moderne, Centre George
Pompidou, Paris, that travels to Austria, Germany and Sweden.
First show is organized at experimental space, SPACE NIKI, Tokyo.
Established by Yoko Masuda, SPACE NIKI is an impressive collection
of work in all media, films and related material that further
understanding of the artist and her work.
Creates fragrance that bears her name for the Jaqueline Cochran
Company, New York. Designs distinctive blue and gold bottles
and packaging with logo of entwined serpents. Makes a promotional
tour across the United States for the perfume. The money from
the perfume goes to finance the Garden. Collaborates with Tinguely
to create a foundation for the City of Paris on a site beside
the Centre George Pompidou. They combine their sculptural elements
in a fluid, moving setting, producing a joyous spontaneity-an
apt homage to Igor Stravinsky for whom the fountain is named.
Creates permanent sculpture "Sun God" for the University
of California at San Diego as part of the Stuart Collection.
Designs print for a project to support an alternative art space,
the Temporary Contemporary, Los Angeles. The work, in the form
of a pictographic letter, expresses her early awareness and
concern for those afflicted by AIDS. Continues to be involved
in efforts to reverse the effects of ignorance and bias which
allow this fatal virus to spread.
Suffers first of recurring, debilitating attacks of rheumatoid
arthritis. Exhibits the "Skinnys" at Gimpel &
Weitzenhoffer, New York and at Gimpel Fils, London. Moves into
the "Empress", the Sphinx structure at the Tarot Garden.
This will be her home and studio for the next seven years during
a period of intense work of completing the Garden. Meets Verena
Finocchiaro, a ceramist teacher from Rome.
During these years, most of her time is spent on site of the
Garden, where many of the major works are nearing completion.
Works based on her Tarot figures, accompanied by an artist book,
are exhibited at Gimpel Fils, London and at Gimpel& Weitzenhoffer,
The Victoria Albert Museum, London, acquires one of her perfume
bottles capped with entwined serpents. Produces a series of
flower vases in the shape of various animals. Meets Marcelo
Zitelli who becomes an important assistant/collaborator.
In collaboration with Dr. Silvio Barandun, writes and illustrates
the book "AIDS: You Can't Catch it Holding Hands".
This informative text, presented in a positive and compassionate
format, is published in seven languages. Receives commission
from Mrs. Helen Schneider to create a fountain, "Snake
Tree", for the Schneider Children's Hospital, Long Island,
New York. Has major retrospectives at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturtiftung,
Munich, and Nassau County museum of Fine Art, Long Island, New
With Tinguely creates "Fontaine Chateau Chinon", commissioned
by the French President, Francois Mitterand. Alexandre Iolas
her longtime friend, dies. Begins to be represented in Paris
by JGM Gallery and Gallery de France. These galleries organize
a number of exhibits that focus on different periods in her
Begins use of bronze in new series of sculpture derived from
ancient Egyptian deities. Continues to develop images that have
long interested and impressed her, including' Nana' fountains,
Tarot figures, phallic-like obelisks, skulls, 'Skinny' lamps,
and a series of pictorial reliefs made in response to the killing
of endangered species. The experience of the Tarot Garden carries
over in her use of materials, particularly brilliantly colored
or mirrored mosaics. Ricardo Menon her assistant/collaborator
with whom she shared a unique rapport, dies. Collaborates with
son Philip Mathews on an animated film based on her AIDS book.
This film, drawings for the film, and a revised edition of the
AIDS book, published by Agence Francaise de lutte contre le
sida, are exhibited at the Musee des ARTS Decoratifs, Paris,
opening on international AIDS Awarness Day in November 1991.
Designs a giant kite "L'Oiseau Amoureux" for a worldwide
exhibition of artists' kite organized by Goethe Institute, Japan.
Makes maturate for "Le Temple Ideal", a place for
worship for all religions. This architecture was originally
conceived in the early 1970's as a hopeful alternative to the
religious intolerance she observed while working in Jerusalem.
Receives commission from the city of Nimes, France, to build
this architectural sculpture. Because of politics, this project
is never realized. Jean Tinguely dies in Switzerland in August.
In his honor, she makes her first kinetic sculptures "Meta-Tinguelys".
The Kunst und Ausstellunghalle, Bonn organizes large restropective.
Exhibits in McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, the Musee d'art Moderne
de la Ville de Paris and the Musee D'Art et d'Histoire, Fribourg.
Installs fountain "Oiseau Amoureux" in Duisburg, Germany;
and she creates a sculpture for Olympic Museum "Les Footballeurs".
Moves to California, where she now lives and work. Realizes
a series of silkscreen, "California Diary" for Kornfeld
editions. Receives the Caran d'Ache. Shows in the James Goodman
& Maxwell Davidson Galleries, New York. Peter Schamoni realizes
a long feature film about Niki entitled "Who is the Monster,
You or Me". Exhibit at the Kornfeld Gallery in Bern, Switzerland.
The Garden's first opening to the public during the month during
the months of July. Works on autobiography. Architect Mario
Botta builds a gate/entrance to the Garden. Works in collaboration
with Mario Botta on a project to build a sculpture park for
children representing the arrival of Noah and the Arch to the
promised land. Official opening of the Tarot Garden to the Public,
May 15, 1998.
Begins search for land on which to build a sculpture garden in San Diego County. In October 2000, the City of Escondido accepts offer to create a garden in the Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park. Starts design work and plans for Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. She draws much of its imagery from her interpretations of early California history, myth, and legend, Native Americans and Meso-American culture and the study of indigenous plant and wildlife.
Awarded the 12th Praemium Imperial Prize (Sculpture Category) sponsored by the Japan Art Association and considered to be the equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the art world. Among the other prize winners in 2000 are American composer Stephen Sondheim, painter Ellsworth Kelly, the German composer Hans Werner Henze, and the British architect Richard Rogers.
Niki starts to exhibit with the Tasende Gallery, San Diego.
In November 2000, the Sprengel Museum in Hannover unveils a portion of the more than 300 works donated by the artist and publishes a major catalogue about the gift.
Makes a new series of vases.
Accepts commission to redesign and ornament three rooms in the historic 17th century Grotto built in Hannover’s Royal Herrenhausen Garden. Originally decorated with shells, crystals and minerals removed in the 18th century, the building was used as a store for many years. Donates major gifts of work to the City of Nice for its Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain and to the Musée d'Art Décoratifs in Paris.
Designs and builds a 12-meter-tall sculpture ‘Coming Together’ for the Port of San Diego. The sculpture in shape of half a female and male face united, adorned with mosaic and stones, is inaugurated in October.
Finishes writing the second volume of her autobiography Harry & Me. The Family Years.
Niki de Saint Phalle dies on May 21 at the age of 71 in La Jolla, California.
Granddaughter Bloum Cardenas, assistant/collaborator Marcelo Zitelli, technical advisor Lech Juretko as well as other members of her international staff oversee final work on Escondido and Hannover projects to ensure they meet her specifications. The exhibition, From Niki Matthews to Niki De Saint Phalle, opens at The Sprengel Museum.
The Grotto opens in March with mosaic decorations of glass, mirrors, and pebbles as well as a host of painted and sculpted figures.
Summer exhibition of monumental sculptures in Palais-Royal Gardens in Paris
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is dedicated and opens to the public on October 26. This is her first American garden and the last major project realized by the artist.
The Niki Charitable Art Foundation, a non-profit organization, is established.