NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE : LAST WORKS ON PAPER

Throughout her career, Niki de Saint Phalle was balancing and blending – not resolving, but simply fusing – oppostions. As American as she was French, de St. Phalle made art that is as violent as it is whimsical. Feminine in its voluptuous beauty, de St. Phalle’s work is also masculine in its boldness and even aggression. We can go on and on with such dialectic symmetries, flogging clichés and hatching canards (aggressiveness is hardly a trait exclusive to males, for instance); but we cannot help but feel de St. Phalle’s art constantly achieving its balance with a grace so insouciant it takes our breath away.
De St. Phalle came to prominence with the “New Realist” assemblages she fabricated that were meant to be shot at, puncturing little sacs that would bleed pigment all over the until-then white reliefs. But what won over a larger public were the far more benign images and sculptures she produced in the forty subsequent years. Buxom and stolid yet surprisingly agile (and even airborne on occasion), de St. Phalle’s “nanas” – Venuses of Willendorf giddy with line and color – embody an irresistible maternal principle. (A “nana” can be a maid, or a nurse, or a babysitter, or a granny.) The fantastical menagerie that de St. Phalle unleashed soon after she set her nanas in motion displays much the same funk and charm, as if leaping off the pages of a psychedelic children’s book.
De St. Phalle’s fantasy world is not meant as an escape, for her or for her audience, from the pains and vicissitudes of real life. Rather, le monde st.-phallique provides both comment on and palliative to those stresses, whether they be matters of war or of disease, hunger or hate. Her largest, most ambitious works, towering sculpture groups that can be walked between, played among, even ventured into, lead us farthest from the madding crowd. Her works on paper, for all their sprightliness and even gaudiness, are always tinged with a bit of sadness, of regret, perfumed with the knowledge that their childlike delight radiates only so far past their surfaces. But if they ingratiate themselves into our minds and hearts, so much the better, for us and all those with whom we subsequently come into contact.
Niki de St. Phalle proselytized for hope, wonder, and the elevation of the spirit. She was always the Newest Realist.

Peter Frank, Los Angeles, April 2003