Niki de Saint Phalle's Inner World

A selection of the French artist's letters

Nicole Rudick

For Niki de Saint Phalle, an artwork was not an object but an act: "I discovered that when paint fell on objects, the result could be dramatic." Image by Niki de Saint Phalle. Courtesy Niki Charitable Art Fund.

I first discovered Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) in someone else’s story. Her name—my nickname—leapt out at me. She was a woman artist who celebrated women, rendering them in buoyant colors, and she was French, which was catnip for me in my youth. (Much later, I came to understand that, having been raised in the United States, she was as American as she was French, if not more so—in her independence and in the monumentality and energy of her work.) After that, whenever I saw her again, she was always one facet of a larger history or a passing mention in another artist’s life. (I can’t recall the identities of these others; their names are lost, and hers has persevered.)

An uncategorizable artist, Saint Phalle fits in at odd angles to any tidy story of art. From around 1953 to her death, in 2002, she made paintings, sculptures, performative works, drawings, prints, books, films, and large-scale public and private works. “Everything starts with drawing for me,” Saint Phalle writes on a sketch. On the left half of an undated work, she drew a handful of animals and plants in her flat, two-dimensional style—a lizard, a bird, snakes, an elephant, a spider, the sun, a trio of wilting flowers in a vase, a cactus, a tree, a crescent moon, and stars. On the right half, she drew several versions of the alphabet, a miscellany of ornament: lacy, curving, scalloped, blooming, spiky, striped. The letters resemble the animals; the animals recall the letters. Together, they read like a primer for a language that was hers and hers alone. And in that language, she could say what she needed to.

Saint Phalle left behind two memoirs of her early life and a vast trove of drawings, prints, writings, letters, poems, books, and sketches that respond to or comment upon her life and thoughts. An artwork, for Saint Phalle, was not an object but an act—ritual, performance, public, revelatory of her personal life. Art gave her wholeness. It gave her the ability to talk about loss and pain, mistakes and successes, collaboration and creativity. It gave her the ability to talk about joy. “I bring to LIFE my desires my feelings my contradictions longing forgotten memories shadows—visions from some other place,” she writes on a sketch. The duality of this statement, of “bringing to life,” is an apt summation of the overlap of Saint Phalle’s life and art: both a bringing into existence and a bringing to bear. These are visions from the frontiers of consciousness. In living, she gave these sensations form. In her art, she gave them life.

Each of Saint Phalle's writings and drawings can be read and understood on its own, but when they come together—like the art and letters I present here—we get a bigger picture of Saint Phalle’s inner world. It is a picture I have put together, but who’s to say it wasn’t already there and just needed a different way of reading and looking?

Nicole Rudick

In a series of "shooting paintings," Saint Phalle found that a painting could "become a person with feelings and sensations." Image by Niki de Saint Phalle. Courtesy Niki Charitable Art Fund.

To Pontus Hultén, Swedish museum director

Dear Pontus,

You asked me about the shooting paintings.

One spring day in 1961 I was visiting the Salon Comparaisons exhibition in Paris. A relief of mine was hanging in the show. It was called Portrait of My Lover.

There were darts on the table for spectators to throw at the man’s head. I was thrilled to see people throw the darts and become part of my sculpture. Near my work, there hung a completely white plaster relief by an artist named Bram Bogart. Looking at it—FLASH! I imagined the painting bleeding—wounded; the way people can be wounded. For me, the painting became a person with feelings and sensations.

What if there were paint behind the plaster? I told [Swiss sculptor] Jean Tinguely about my vision and my desire to make a painting bleed by shooting at it. Jean was crazy about the idea; he suggested I start right away.

There was some plaster at l’Impasse Ronsin. We found an old board, then bought some paint at the nearest store. We hammered nails into the wood to give the plaster something to hold on to, then I went wild and not only put in paint but anything else that was lying around, including spaghetti and eggs.

When five or six reliefs had been finished, Jean thought it was time to find a gun. We didn’t have enough money to buy one, so we went to a fairground in the boulevard Pasteur and convinced the man at the shooting stand to rent us his gun. It was a .22 long rifle with real bullets, which would pierce the plaster, hit the paint in little plastic bags embedded inside the relief, causing the paint to trickle down through the hole made by the bullet and color the outside surface. The man from the shooting stand insisted on coming along. Maybe he was afraid we wouldn’t return his gun.

We had to wait a couple of days before he came, which, of course, added to the excitement and gave us time to invite a few friends. […] I was getting a great kick out of provoking society through ART. No victims.

We took turns shooting. It was an amazing feeling shooting at a painting and watching it transform itself into a new being. It was not only EXCITING and SEXY, but TRAGIC—as though one were witnessing a birth and a death at the same moment. It was a MYSTERIOUS event that completely captivated anyone who shot. […]

Today it seems quite incredible that one was able to shoot freely in the middle of Paris. A retired cop who lived nearby came and watched the shoot-outs as soon as he heard the shooting begin! He liked these events and never asked about a gun permit—this was in the middle of the Algerian War!

For the next six months, I experimented by mixing rubbish and objects with colors. I forgot about the spaghetti and rice and started concentrating on making the shooting paintings more spectacular. I started to use cans of spray paint, which when hit by a bullet made extraordinary effects. These were very much like the Abstract Expressionist paintings that were being done at that time. I discovered that when paint fell on objects, the result could be dramatic. I used tear gas for the grand finale. Performance art did not yet exist, but this was a performance.

The smoke gave the impression of war. The painting was the victim. WHO was the painting? Daddy? All Men? Small Men? Tall Men? Big Men? Fat Men? Men? My brother JOHN? Or was the painting ME? Did I shoot at myself during a RITUAL which enabled me to die by my own hand and be reborn? I was immortal!

The new bloodbath of red, yellow, and blue splattered over the pure white relief metamorphized the painting into a tabernacle for DEATH and RESURRECTION. I was shooting at MYSELF, society with its INJUSTICES. I was shooting at my own violence and the VIOLENCE of the times. By shooting at my own violence, I no longer had to carry it inside of me like a burden. During the two years I spent shooting, I was not sick one day. It was great therapy for me. […]

It was late spring 1961 that I met Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. They had already met Jean Tinguely at the time of his Homage to New York at the MoMA. We soon became friends. I found both of them gorgeous and was fascinated by their being a couple. They had a grace that comes with beauty allied with exceptional talent and intelligence. It was electrifying being with them.

I made an homage to Jasper. It was a relief with a target and a light bulb painted in his colors. I asked him to finish it by shooting. He took hours deciding where to shoot the few shots he finally fired at the target. Bob Rauschenberg, however, shot his piece in a few minutes and screamed, “Red! Red! I want more red!” Bob had a particular way of talking about art and its relationship to life that was expressed with such clarity and passion that it would linger inside of me for many years and become a part of me. […]

Why did I give up the shooting after only two years? I felt like a drug addict. After a shoot-out, I felt completely stoned. I became hooked on this macabre yet joyous ritual. It got to the point where I lost control. My heart was pounding during the shoot-out. I started trembling before and during the performance. I was in an ecstatic state.

I don’t like losing control. It scares me, and I hate the idea of being addicted to something—so I gave it up. […] From provocation, I moved into a more interior, feminine world. I started making brides, hearts, women giving birth, the whore—various roles women have in society.

A new adventure had started.

A drawing by Saint Phalle of HON, a large sculpture she constructed with others for the Moderna Museet in 1966. Image by Niki de Saint Phalle. Courtesy Niki Charitable Art Fund.

To Clarice Rivers, wife of artist Larry Rivers

Dearest Clarice,

You asked me what it was like working and making the HON, the BIGGEST NANA I ever made. She was ninety feet long, eighteen feet high, twenty-seven feet wide. Pontus Hultén, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, asked me to go there in the spring of 1966 with Tinguely, [French artist and actor] Martial Raysse, and Claes Oldenburg to build a monumental sculpture in the big hall of the museums. Martial Raysse declined the invitation. Oldenburg couldn’t come at the last moment, and Jean had just started some new work in Soisy and wasn’t in the mood. It looked as though the whole project would fall through, but a secret voice kept telling me that I must go, that it was important. I listened.

[…] My enthusiasm convinced Jean to come also, and many ideas were tossed about by Jean, Pontus, myself, and the Swedish artist who joined us, Per Olof Ultvedt. Pontus suggested we all go to Moscow for a few days (Jean and I had never been there), and either the city or the vodka would inspire us. We were about to buy our tickets when Pontus had a brainstorm. EUREKA! He suggested we build a huge, penetrable Nana that would be so large she would take up the entire hall of the museum. We suddenly became very excited. We knew we were entering the sacred land of myth. We were about to build a goddess. A great PAGAN goddess.

[…] We had six weeks to produce our huge giantess and must have worked sixteen hours a day. We named our goddess HON, which means SHE in Swedish. I made the original small models that gave birth to the goddess. Jean, by measuring with eyes only, was able to enlarge the model in an iron frame and have it look exactly like the original. After the chassis had been welded, chicken wire was attached to the immense surface of the Goddess. I cooked, in huge pots, a mass of stinking rabbit-skin glue on small electric heaters. Yards of sheet material were mixed with the glue and then placed on the metal skeleton. […] When the sheets dried and were stuck to the metal, we painted the body of the goddess white. […]

Pontus worked night and day, sawing and hammering and participating in every way he could with us. Meanwhile, Jean and Ultvedt were occupied with filling the inside of the body of the goddess with all kinds of entertainment. Jean made a planetarium in her left breast and a milk bar in the right breast. In one arm, we showed the first short movie starring Greta Garbo, and in a leg, a gallery of fake paintings (a fake Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, etc.).

The reclining Nana was pregnant, and, by a series of stairs and steps, you could get to the terrace from her tummy, where you could have a panoramic view of the approaching visitors and her gaily painted legs. There was nothing pornographic about the HON, even though she was entered by her sex. […]

She was like a grand fertility goddess receiving comfortably in her immensity and generosity. She received, absorbed, and devoured thousands of visitors. It was an incredible experience creating her. This joyous, huge creature represented for many visitors and me the dream of the return to the Great Mother. Whole families flocked together with their babies to see her.

The HON had a short but full life. She existed for three months and then was destroyed. The HON took up all the space of the big hall of the museum and was never meant to stay. Wicked tongues said she was the biggest whore in the world because she had 100,000 visitors in three months.

A Stockholm psychiatrist wrote in the newspaper that the HON would change people’s dreams for years to come. The birth rate in Stockholm went up that year. This was attributed to her.

The HON had something magical about her. She couldn’t help but make you feel good. Everyone who saw her broke into a smile.

Saint Phalle "became fascinated with the idea of committing the perfect suicide" while living in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Image by Niki de Saint Phalle. Courtesy Niki Charitable Art Fund.

To Marina Karella, Greek artist

Dear Marina,

During these years in St. Moritz, I fell in love with a glacier. I cannot remember the name of it anymore, but I remember exactly what it looked like. Maybe you remember there are many glaciers in Switzerland, and this particular one struck my fancy.

It took about an hour’s walk to get to it. I must have walked there a hundred times. Then I wrote a film script about it. The subject was an artist and his preoccupation with time, accelerated time, metaphysical time, the merging of times.

In the end, the artist walks onto the glacier, knowing his youth there will be both captured and eternal.

I became fascinated with the idea of committing the perfect suicide, the way someone in an Agatha Christie novel would feel fascinated by committing the perfect crime. I would prepare a picnic. I went for days fantasizing about what would be my last meal. I would take great care to wear lots of very warm clothing, makeup, have my hair done in the afternoon. Bring a very pretty blanket, a flashlight, the Duino Elegies and no one would ever know (my plans had to be diabolically clever; otherwise, Eva or Jean or you might guess and feel awful).

It must be beautiful. A work of art.

So into my pocket I would slip in just a few sleeping pills. The glacier would do the rest. I would be found fast asleep and frozen in the morning. And I would look beautiful in the morning when they found me.

My plan was to go out to the glacier around midnight. Have a last meal (I had finally decided on caviar and Dom Perignon), pop the sleeping pills in my mouth, read with the help of my flashlight the “Fourth Elegy,” and join the stars.

Those that loved me knowing how crazy I was about the glacier would just think Niki had gone there for a midnight snack and fallen asleep drinking champagne. They wouldn’t be surprised.

Two days before THE FINAL DAY, I came down with pneumonia and was taken to hospital in Bern.

You came to see me. I couldn’t talk for three days, I was so depressed. My search for infinity brought me to the edge of the precipice.

Living alone high in the Engadine mountains, I spent my time reading Nietzsche and Bachelard.

There was no reason to live alone. I chose this Spartan existence which went against my rather accessible, open, and gay nature, and I started to burn like a fire. My solitude gave me an ecstatic drunkenness. Passion was more than Existence.

Like the phoenix that needs to go through the destructive fire with his body to be reborn, so I tormented myself with my will to go to the end of the experience.

Not only my mind, but my body took fire. Only through suffering and sacrifice did I feel free. I wanted to fly like a bird and discover infinity.

I have always chosen moments of great intensity instead of durability.

My art, as my love, will be sacrificed on the infernal burning altar. Remember? Your hair turned into snakes.

Originally published:
July 15, 2024


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like


Merrill's Last Letters

Writing to the end
James Merrill

Discovering Hélène Bessette

The innovative fiction of a forgotten French writer
Kate Briggs


A Forger’s Art

The photographer who saved the lives of 14,000 Jews
Adolfo Kaminsky


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.