1991|Affiche "what Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined"|Yellowcat Creative Commons|Book Cover 'aids You Can't Catch It Holding Hands'

The Fantastic Architecture of Niki de Saint Phalle

In her first major museum exhibition in New York City, MoMA PS1’s Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life investigates the artist’s underexplored relationship to the built environment.

niki de saint phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle. Tarot Garden, Garavicchio, Italy. Courtesy Peter Granser/2021 FONDAZIONE IL GIARDINO DEI TAROCCHI.

Tarot is often described as a mirror of the soul. Much like the spaces we inhabit, we can look at the symbols housed within the 72-card deck and see reflections of ourselves and our belief systems. The object and practice itself contain many architectural associations: It’s not uncommon for words like “structures,” “foundations,” and “home” to come up in a tarot reading. Traditional cards depict towers, castles, and churches. Sometimes the cards are described as keys, sometimes as gateways.  

The French-born artist Niki de Saint Phalle gleaned much inspiration from the esoteric craft of Tarot, not only from its visual language and narrative potentiality, but in the way she utilized art to vision her psyche, define her identity, and build structures in which she could freely and authentically live. The Tarot Garden (1979-2002) consists of concrete structures based on the twenty-two major arcana archetypes, formed from concrete, hand-cut tile mosaics, and tons of colored mirrors. The massive sculpture park in Tuscany was Saint Phalle’s life’s work and was funded by the artist selling perfume, jewelry, and multiples. The garden is just one aspect of Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Lifea new exhibition at MoMA PS1 that gazes deeper into the mirror that is Saint Phalle’s fantastical universe. 

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Visitors entering Hon. 1966. Courtesy Hans Hammarskiöld Heritage. Photo: Hans Hammarskiöld

“[Niki de Saint Phalle] made artist’s books in the 1970s saying that she’s an architect and that she’s building architecture,” explains Ruba Katrib, curator at MoMA PS1. “She didn’t see these things as tangential, they just got separated out via the art world and art market. My intention is to reconnect them.” The show displays over 200 works from the mid-1960s until the artist’s death in 2002 including sculptures, prints, jewelry, drawings, and film.  

Throughout her lifetime, Saint Phalle designed and built numerous inhabitable, figurative structures including private homes and playgrounds. Katrib’s interest in Saint Phalle’s structures stemmed from research into the history of women making monumental work. “An artist working in architecture in this way is pretty hard to come by. She was inspired by [Antonio] Gaudí but there haven’t really been examples of artists making entire buildings especially without any permitting,” Katrib notes. Her introduction in the exhibition’s catalog traces Saint Phalle’s inspiration for the Tarot Garden back to a 1955 trip to Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona.  

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Niki de Saint Phalle. What is now known was once only imagined. 1979. Offset print. Courtesy 2020 NIKI CHARITABLE ART FOUNDATION. Photo: NCAF Archives

The catalog also traces Saint Phalle’s inspiration to the surrealist work of Postman Cheval and Simon Rodia, and how she identified with their structures as someone who is similarly regarded as a “folk artist.” One letter she wrote to a friend read: “I too felt like an outsider among my fellow artists. I have never been to art school, and I am self-taught. I feel these people are my teachers and my masters… My major works have all been fantastic architecture.” Later in her life, she ended up working with Swiss architect Mario Botta on a park in Jerusalem called Noah’s Ark as well as the entrance to the Tarot Garden. “Other than that, she was working on her own as an artist figuring all of this stuff out,” Katrib says.  

Her first architectural project was a private home commission in 1968 consisting of three sculptural pavilions called Le rêve de l’oiseau (The Bird’s Dream). A structure called The Sorceress contained the bathroom; The Bird’s Dream housed the kitchen; and the bedroom was called Big Clarice, a colossal female figure whose breasts contained two children’s rooms (a lifelong motif in her work, Saint Phalle calls these buoyant figures Nanas, a French slang term for “chick.”) However, the home composed of dragons, female forms, and birds were not approved of by all. A local paper in 1970 featured a headline: “Who authorized this horror?” Katrib explains, “Her aesthetic was really aggressive and that was part of her strategy. She was never making easy art, even if it looked easy. She was playing with attraction and repulsion and intentionally messing with people’s sense of taste and aesthetics.” 

Le Dragon De Knokke Maquette
The exhibition features a never-before-exhibited moquette of Le Dragon de Knokke. Katrib explains, “I’ve seen some of the models shown as sculptures,” but “it wasn’t made clear that they were actually representing real structures somewhere in the world. It was really important to connect these models to their site-specific structures.”  Niki de Saint Phalle. Maquette for Le dragon de Knokke. c. 1973. Painted polyester. 18 1/2 × 51 15/16 × 48 1/16″ (47 × 132 × 122 cm). Photo: Katrin Baumann. Courtesy 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Additional structures include Le Dragon de Knokke, a children’s playhouse in Belgium (1973-75), the model of which is on view for the first time in the exhibition. Made out of an iron armature covered in sprayed cement and paint, the structure depicts a white monster covered in illustrations of the artist’s Nanas, snakes, and other creatures. The dragon’s tongue serves as a slide and the interior features a playroom, bathroom, and kitchen. In the 1980s, Keith Haring stayed inside the home, later obtaining permission from Saint Phalle to paint a mural inside.  

Like her contemporary Haring, Saint Phalle made many works in an attempt to educate the public on the AIDS epidemic, including a 1986 book titled AIDS, You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands. Her devotion to the cause eventually made it into the structures in the Tarot Garden. Dying from AIDS complications in 1989, Saint Phalle’s close friend and assistant Ricardo Menon was memorialized in the garden. Saint Phalle designed his tombstone to be installed there in addition to building a chapel for visitors to honor the garden’s collaborators who have passed. The structure represents the Temperance card of the tarot.  

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A chapel in the Tarot Garden represents the Temperance card of the tarot, a card that evokes alchemy, harmony, and divine intervention. In traditional depictions of the card, an androgynous angel stands with one foot in the water and one foot on land, symbolizing the balance between the conscious realm of earth and the unconscious realm of water. Courtesy Pietro Izzo/Creative Commons

Apparent in the chapel and much of Saint Phalle’s later work is attention to human connection. Katrib points out that her early work such as her Tir neuf trous paintings from the 1960s—in which she shot a gun at a series of canvases covered in symbols of men in power—have been “far more intellectualized.” The exhibition aims to chart a clear evolution from the violence of these early assemblages to her later public work in which she used archetypes of brides, mothers, and goddesses to challenge the patriarchy and examine the feminine psyche and ego through the construction of matriarchal spaces. Her subjectivity was her material, modeling imaginative ways that she could exist in the male-dominated world and in doing so, prompting others to look toward new ways of inhabiting space, both physically and psychically. Katrib says, “This work was actually just as strong, if not stronger as her early work.” 

The Tarot Garden opened to the public in 1998 and Saint Phalle continuously worked on it until her death in 2002. In 1982, she made herself at home in the garden’s Empress structurea mirrored mosaic house in the shape of a sphinx that was complete with a dining room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. The home was outfitted with Saint Phalle-designed furnishings one of which is a mosaic table titled Monastère TableA card that signifies abundance, creativity, and fertility, The Empress is the archetypal mother of the tarot deck. Seen in this light, Phalle’s structure is both a literal and symbolic embodiment of everything the artist stood for 

Granser For Press Tg Inside Empress
Niki de Saint Phalle. Interior view of Empress, Tarot Garden, Garavicchio, Italy. Above the table hangs a chandelier Jean Tinguely made for Saint Phalle; next to it sit chairs that Saint Phalle commissioned from the artist Pierre Marie Lejeune. Courtesy 2020 FONDAZIONE IL GIARDINO DEI TAROCCHI. Photo: Peter Granser

The exhibition is long overdue. It is Saint Phalle’s first major museum exhibition in New York City—where she grew up—and one of the most comprehensive shows in the United States. Postponed nearly a year due to COVID-19, Katrib is excited to finally help viewers better understand the legacy of one of the most famous female artists of the 20th century. She says, “I think she’s a really important example of an artist who was experimenting, challenging conventions, and pushing against societal norms of her time.” She also notes that while Saint Phalle’s subversive sculptures and structures continue to inspire countless contemporary artists and designers, “There’s definitely still a tension between her popular appeal and how she’s received in more academic art circles.” Structures for Life is sure to change that. 

Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life is on view at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, through September 6, 2021. 

You may also enjoy “Ceramics and Architecture: The Legacy of Betty Woodman

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  • 1991|Affiche "what Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined"|Yellowcat Creative Commons|Book Cover 'aids You Can't Catch It Holding Hands'
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