fbpx The Menil Collection and MCASD are pleased to announce Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s | Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
on 26 Jan 2021 8:58 AM
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MCASD Announces First Special Exhibition for La Jolla Location in Spring 2022
January 26, 2021

SAN DIEGO- January 26, 2021— The Menil Collection and The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) and are pleased to announce Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s. Debuting in Houston in September, the exhibition is the first to focus on the experimental and prolific work of French American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) during this pivotal decade, from the artist’s shooting paintings to the exuberant sculptures of women known as Nanas. The exhibition will featurenumerous works from European collections, many seenin the United States for the first time. Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s will be on view at the Menil from September 10, 2021 to January 2, 2022, before traveling to San Diego in Spring of 2022. The opening of the exhibition at MCASD will be the Museum’s first special exhibition in the expanded La Jolla location, following an extensive expansion by award-winning architect Annabelle Selldorf.

The exhibition explores a transformative ten-year period in Saint Phalle’s work, when she embarked on two of her most significant series: the Tirs, or “shooting paintings,” and the powerful Nanas. Affirming the artist’s place in postwar art history, this show highlights these prescient works of performance, participatory, and feminist art, as well as her transatlantic projects and collaborations. Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s brings together major paintings, assemblages, and sculptures from this prolific chapter in the artist’s career, as well as extensive film and photographic documentation from the Menil Collection Archives.|

“While local audiences are familiar with Saint Phalle’s later fantastical works of public art, we in Southern California have had less exposure to her radical work of the 1960s, much of which is held in European collections,” explained Jill Dawsey, Curator, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. She added, “Saint Phalle had an important relationship to this region. In the early 1960s, she staged several shooting sessions in Los Angeles, in what were among the earliest instances of performance art in Southern California. She would eventually settle in San Diego in the 1990s.”

Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s opens with the artist’s Tirs, which she created using a .22 caliber rifle. Often standing in front of an audience, Saint Phalle and invited participants would shoot at white plaster surfaces that concealed imbedded bags of pigment or cans of paint, which would explode upon impact. Saint Phalle explained that her intention was “to make a painting bleed.” Her paradoxical method of creating a work through destruction was intended as commentary on the ingrained violence of the culture, as well as a feminist assault the tradition of modern painting.

The exhibition continues with Saint Phalle’s explorations of gender       through figural assemblages representing female archetypes, such as brides,goddesses, mothers, and monster. Evolving from wall-bound reliefs to colorful and freestanding sculptures, these increasingly monumental, liberated, and curvaceous female forms— with outstretched arms and athleticposes—developed into what Saint Phalle referred to as the Nanas, French slang for “girls.”Thesesculptures were begun in the mid-1960s, heralding the rise of an international feminist movement.

Michelle White, Senior Curator at the Menil Collection, said: “During the 1960s, Saint Phalle—the only female member of the French avant-garde group, the Nouveaux Réalistes—also collaborated with innovative American artists of her generation, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Within the male-dominated artistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic, her place in art history has been hard-fought. Her artwork from this time constitutes some of the most advanced work being done around emergent ideas of participatory art and was prophetic of feminist concerns related to the critique of painting and the representation of the body that will drive art in the decades to come.”

Jill Dawsey, Curator, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, said “Saint Phalle’s performances and sculptural work of the 1960s put into circulation strikingly original representations of female agency and volition that resonate strongly in our own moment. With their rambunctious life force, the Nanas became a vehicle for the artist’s exploration of women’s freedom and mobility in the public realm. Saint Phalle continuously experimented with their scale, using her figures to envision how women might, quite literally, take up more space in the world. Her trailblazing work presaged ideas and modes of making that would be elaborated by feminist artists in the in the 1970s and beyond.”

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, raised in New York City, and lived in France and the U.S. She gained prominence in the early 1960s as the only woman member of the New Realists, a group of French avant-gardists that included Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, Arman, and others.

In her later career, Saint Phalle became renowned for large-scale architectural environments, sculpture parks, and public artworks. In 1983, for her first outdoor commission in the U.S., the artist created Sun God, a 14-foot bird that sits atop a 15-foot arch at the University of San Diego, California, in the city to which Saint Phalle would move a decade later.

The artist spent the last eight years of her life in San Diego, leaving behind a legacy of vibrant public sculptures across the region, including her only major sculpture garden in the U.S., Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido. Today, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, which includes the artist’s archives, is based in San Diego.

Saint Phalle’s work can be seen throughout the county in various museums and public spaces including the Mingei International Museum, the UCSD Stuart Collection, the Convention Center, Balboa Park, and San Diego Waterfront Park, and more. Saint Phalle has a notable presence in the MCA San Diego collection, with one of her miniature Nanas of 1969 and the later monumental sculpture Big Ganesh (1998), beloved by museum visitors, in addition to others.

Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960sis co-curated by Jill Dawsey, PhD, Curator, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Michelle White, Senior Curator, the Menil Collection. A catalogue for the exhibition will be available September 2021.

About the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Founded in 1941, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) is the preeminent contemporary visual arts institution in San Diego County. The Museum's collection includes more than 5,500 works of art created since 1950. In addition to presenting exhibitions by international contemporary artists, the Museum serves thousands of children and adults annually at its varied education programs, and offers a rich program of film, performance, and lectures. MCASD is a private, nonprofit organization, with 501c3 tax-exempt status; it is supported by generous contributions and grants from MCASD Members and other individuals, corporations, foundations, and government agencies. Kathryn Kanjo is The David C. Copley Director and CEO at MCASD. Institutional support for MCASD is provided by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.mcasd.org

About the Menil Collection

Houston philanthropists and art patrons John and Dominique de Menil established the Menil Foundation in 1954 to foster greater public understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, culture, religion, and philosophy. In 1987, the Menil Collection’s main museum building opened to the public. Today, the Menil Collection consists of a group of five art buildings and green spaces located within a residential neighborhood. The Menil remains committed to its founders' belief that art is essential to human experience and fosters direct personal encounters with works of art. The museum welcomes all visitors free of charge to its museum buildings and surrounding green spaces. menil.org


Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960sis made possible by gifts to the annual operating fund. Institutional support of MCASD is provided by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Fund.

Major funding for this exhibition in Houston is provided by a gift in memory of Virginia P. Rorschach; and Bettie Cartwright. Additional support comes from Julie and John Cogan Jr.; Robin and Andrew Schirrmeister; and the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.

Research for this exhibition was supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.


Image Captions

  1. Niki de Saint Phalle, Pirodactyl over New York, 1962. Paint, plaster, and various objects on two wood panels, 98 3/8 × 122 × 11 3/8 in. (249.9 × 309.9 × 28.9 cm). Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. © Niki Charitable Art Foundation / ADAGP, Paris, 20

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