Carla issue 27

Page 10

I Don’t Think I Belong

(her period associated with the New Realists in the 1960s had been over­ emphasized she felt, while her later “romantic, tormented period” had been overlooked).² She wrote two versions of this essay—Saint Phalle was always revising and honing her writing about her life and work—one in the third person and one in the first. The third-­ person draft reads like a parody, as if a critic is trying to claim exclusive access to and understanding of a previously neglected artist. The first-person version Niki de Saint Phalle considered herself feels like a sincere attempt to explain— “a special case. An Outsider.”¹ If anyone to herself and others—why she felt like else had called her that, it would she didn’t fit, and why her work has have sounded condescending, lazy— confounded those who write histories. maybe even a misreading of the folk Critic and editor Nicole Rudick art affinities of her large and sometimes includes the latter version in What Is lounging, matronly-yet-erotic Nana Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: sculptures. Despite her self-proclaimed An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint outsider status, Saint Phalle came Phalle, out in February from Siglio Press. from a well-off family and attended The book reads almost as an artist’s good schools (though she never received book, assembled entirely from Saint a formal fine art education). She also Phalle’s own drawings and writings spent her entire adult life around insid­ about her life, as well as from the letters ers: she and Harry Mathews, the Saint Phalle wrote with virtuosity— experimental poet-novelist-translator drafting and redrafting missives and she married to escape her dysfunctional often including drawings that elabo­ family at age 18, sought out and rated or emphasized certain sentiments. surrounded themselves with avantIt is a visual delight, as there is little garde artists. When Saint Phalle began separation between Saint Phalle’s to paint in her early 20s, her mentor playful, vibrant images and her words— was Hugh Weiss, a well-regarded in fact, words often surround, or American-French surrealist working sit within, drawings of, for instance, in Paris. When she grew out of Weiss’ a voluptuous serpent or an ornate influence, Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, leaning tower with bodies falling from and Daniel Spoerri became her its windows and ledges. Sometimes text mentors—and, in the case of Klein is penned in thought bubbles emanating and Spoerri, her community. So, from the mouths of figures resembling what to make of her self-definition as Saint Phalle’s Nana sculptures. Yet, an outsider? despite being filled with material In the mid-1980s, she wrote created directly by Saint Phalle, What a brief autobiographical essay called Is Now Known is neither autobiography “Niki by Niki”—she was in her 50s and nor artist book, as it was composed working on what would become her not by Saint Phalle but by Rudick. Rudick most ambitious public sculpture project, initially imagined the project as a more Tarot Garden (1998). In the essay, she conventional biography, but after described her life as a “fairy tale full of spending time in Saint Phalle’s Santee, quests” and called herself a “devouring California, archive, she realized that the mother,” hypothesizing that critics had artist had already written about much written about her so rarely because they of her life herself, even if these recollec­ were confused over whether she was tions were not yet together in one place.³ a “twentieth century artist or archaic Rudick chooses to begin the book sculptor,” a New Realist or a romantic with a poignant memory from Saint

On Niki de Saint Phalle’s (Auto)biography


Catherine Wagley

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