BY Kate Wolf in Books , Opinion | 03 MAR 22

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Rousing Voice

Nicole Rudick’s new biography weaves together her own writing with that of Saint Phalle, offering a more complex portrait of the artist

BY Kate Wolf in Books , Opinion | 03 MAR 22

In the last decade of her life, the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle set about composing her autobiography. In her book Traces (1999), she revisits her earliest years, growing up in New York as the precocious, restless second child of a lacerating family with aristocratic ties. Harry and Me: The Family Years (2006), published posthumously, details the next stage of her life: namely, her relationship to the writer Harry Matthews, with whom she eloped aged 18, moved to Europe and had two children. The two separated in 1960, partly due to the fact that Saint Phalle wanted to pursue her own path as an artist. Preceding both volumes was the chapter-length Mon Secret (1994), in which, in the form of a letter to her daughter Laura, Saint Phalle revealed that her father had repeatedly raped her when she was 11 years old, during a summer her family spent in a cabin in woods infested with copperhead snakes.

What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle by Nicole Rudick
Nicole Ruddick, What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, 2022, book cover. Courtesy: Siglio Press

‘Writing for me is an instrument to think or unravel something I did not know – unravelling the spider’s web’, Saint Phalle noted in another unpublished manuscript, though her stories were never just contained in books. Her kaleidoscopic, codex-like drawings also often included writing, while the membrane of her life and work porously informed each other. Experience became art in works such as Daddy (1972) – a film that portrays, and eventually kills off, a monstrous father figure.

In What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)Biography of Niki De Saint Phalle (2022), writer and editor Nicole Rudick finds the relationship between the artist’s life and work so complete that it nearly evades the need for conventional biography. ‘What could be closer to an artist’s voice than the artist’s own voice, closer to her sensibility than that produced in her own hand?’ Rudick asks in a brief forward, before stepping aside to allow Saint Phalle to answer in her own words. The book draws on the groundwork of Saint Phalle’s memoirs, filling out the timeline with material taken from her archive in La Jolla – where she lived from 1994 until her death, aged 71, in 2002 – including letters to friends and family that sometimes appeared in her exhibition catalogues, drawings, prints, notes and excerpts from other publications.

Excerpt from Tarot Cards in Sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, published by Giuseppe Ponsio, Milan, 1985
Niki de Saint Phalle, Tarot Cards in Sculpture (excerpt), 1985, published by Giuseppe Ponsio, Milan, from Nicole Rudick, What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, 2022. Courtesy: Niki Charitable Art Foundation and Siglio Press


That this approach is necessarily fragmentary is not beside the point. ‘The negative space around a subject teems with life’, Rudick writes. Many of the details of Saint Phalle’s career can be gleaned here from her letters to her second husband, fellow artist Jean Tinguely, and the museum director Pontus Hultén: she was the only woman admitted to the New Realism group, of which Tinguely was a member, while her Tirs (Shooting Paintings, 1961–70), admired by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Leo Castelli, resulted in her first solo show in Paris at Galerie J. Rudick includes Saint Phalle’s diagrams of inspiration and notes on formal predilection (‘I like roundness, curves, wavy lines […] I don’t like right angles/they scare me’) but less of how the public received her work over time, and only a brief note on her knotty relationship to feminism (she believed in its aims but rejected calls to join the women’s movement). Hazy, too, is the extent of her many illnesses, of both mental and physical origin, including poisoning from the polysytrene she used to make her famous Nanas (1964–73). Also unaccounted for is the emotional toll of being separated from her children when they were young – although ­we know from other texts that the family remained close.

Following Rudick’s logic, however, these omissions are just as revealing. The importance of making art in Saint Phalle’s life reverberates the loudest of all. In an especially beautiful and candid letter written to Tinguely after his death, she conveys the power of an artistic collaboration that outshone an imperfect romantic partnership and outlasted even death. In tribute to his kinetic sculptures, Saint Phalle writes of her wish to have motorized Tinguely’s casket to spin around at his funeral, but she couldn’t figure out the technical details in time.

Untitled drawing, 1961 by Niki de Saint Phalle, published in What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle by Nicole Rudick, Siglio, 2022
Niki de Saint Phalle, Untitled, 1961, from Nicole Rudick, What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, 2022. Courtesy: Niki Charitable Art Foundation and Siglio Press

Of course, biography is not just useful for offering multiple perspectives on a person, but for probing a persona. In the case of Saint Phalle, some piercing of the self-styled mythos she often deployed in describing herself might not be a wholly bad thing. The book seems to question – as Saint Phalle did upon seeing Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashōmon (1951) – whether there exist other truths beyond the scope of one person’s experience, whether she has the capacity to make a dream ‘into a nightmare or a song’? The question of what is real and who determines reality is likely to have been especially critical for someone who weathered such heinous sexual abuse. (Saint Phalle, for her part, insisted: ‘The Garden of Eden [is] right next to Hell. Just a step away.’) Still, especially in light of recent exhibitions and critical writing that have opened the door for contemporary audiences to experience the complexity of her under-exhibited work, the book leaves you wanting more, not less of the artist. Rudick is right: such is the power of Saint Phalle’s voice.

Main image: Niki de Saint Phalle, You Are My Love Forever and Ever, 1968, from Nicole Rudick, What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, 2022. Courtesy: Niki Charitable Art Foundation and Siglio Press

Kate Wolf is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles, USA.