In 1930 born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle at Neuilly-sur-Seine, second of five children of Jeanne Jacqueline, nee Harper and Andre Marie de Saint Phalle, a banker Her father looses all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. She and elder brother are separated from parents; they are sent to live with paternal grandparents in the Nievre area of France for the next three years. The family reunited in Greenwich, Connecticut. Summers are spent in France with American maternal grandfather Donald Harper at his chateau "Filerval" with gardens designed by Le Notre. Experience of two ways of life influence her thinking.
In the 1940’s the family moves to New York city. Marie-Agnes, now called Niki, starts school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Her first visual influences are comic books, and visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout her youth she continually questions authority and is sent to a succession of schools. At the Brearly School, she becomes interested in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and the Greek tragedies. Discovers Russian authors; passionately reads all the Dostoevsky. She acts in school plays and begins to write her own poetry and plays. She is dismissed from Brearly for painting the fig leaves red on the school's statuary. Graduates from a private all girl school, Old Field School, Maryland.
Below is a timeline of her career:
1948-mid 50's Works as fashion model for Vogue, Life, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, and other French and American magazines.
1949-51 At eighteen elopes with Harry Mathews. Moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Begins to paint experimenting with different media and style while husband studies music at Harvard University. First child Laura is born April 1951.
1952 Moves to Paris and studies theatre and acting. Husband Harry Mathews continues his studies in music, only later to become a writer, and a founder of the literary magazine Locus Solus. They share the upbringing of their daughter, and travel through France, Italy and Spain visiting museums and cathedrals. She is impressed by the concept of a cathedral as a 'collective ideal' realized through the efforts of many; this later becomes an important aspect in her own work.
1953Hospitalized in Nice with nervous breakdown and paints while recuperating from this crisis. She re-evaluates the direction of her life and begins to seriously consider communicating through her art.
1954-55In Paris, she is introduced to American painter Hugh Weiss who becomes a friend and mentor, encouraging her to remain painting in her self-taught style. Moves to Deya, Majorca, Spain where son Philip was born in may 1955. Reads Proust, visits Madrid and Barcelona where she discovers Antonio Gaudi and is deeply affected by this experience which opens many possibilities of the use of diverse material and object-trouves as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. In particular, Gaudi's "Parc Guell" is a special revelation that makes her determined to one day create her own garden of joy combining mart and nature.
Returns to Paris. Meets sculptor Jean Tinguely and his wife Eva Aeppli for the first time. Both are supportive of her ideas. Asks Tinguely to weld an armature for her first sculpture. Frequently visits the collections of the Louvre. Interested in the work of Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, and Pablo Picasso. Inspired by the postman, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval's architecture "Le Palais Ideal", in Hauterives, France.
1956-58 Lives in Lans-en-Vercors in the French Alps with family. First solo exhibition of paintings in St. Gall, Switzerland in 1956. Paints and explores various collage elements. Meets a number of contemporary writers including John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch through Harry Mathews.
1959-60 Introduced to contemporary art in exhibition at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris that includes works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Raubert Raushenberg and Jasper Johns. Seperates from husband. Children live with their father. Sets up studio and concentrates solely on work. Assemblages take on an angry aspect-a new series 'target' paintings actually have darts thrown at them.
End of 1960 moves to 11 Impasse Rosin, Paris and lives and shares a studio with Jean Tinguely; they will collaborate and assist each other on projects throughout their long association. Constantin Brancusi is a neighbor at Impasse Rosin. Through Tinguely, meets Pontus Hulten then director of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Hulten includes her in major exhibitions organized at the time. Through his foresight, the Moderna Museet will acquire pivotal pieces from throughout her career to form the most comprehensive collection of her work. Because of her bicultural background and the direction in her own art, she becomes a kind of ambassador between the avant-gardes in France and the United States.
1961 Expands on the 'target' paintings with a series of 'shooting' paintings or tirs. It is through acts of destruction that these works are created-the assemblages are shot with a pistol, rifle or cannon by herself or others, producing spontaneous effects and the dispersion of colors. As they evolve, the tirs become larger, more elaborate in concept and include elements of spectacle and performance.
Pierre Restany, founder of the Nouveau Realistes, attends first public tir, and invites her to become a member. Becomes involved in the ideas, festivals and activities of this group which includes Arman, Cesar, Christo, Gerard Deschamps, Francois Dufrene, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Jacques Villegle.
First solo exhibition in Paris at Galerie J with assemblages, tirs, and a public shooting area. Exhibits in group shows in Europe and the United States. Becomes friends with American artists staying in Paris including Robert Raushenberg, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers and his wife Clarice, and will participate in various projects with them over the years. She and Tinguely are introduced to Salvator Dali by Marcel Duchamp. Travels to Spain with Tinguely for celebration honoring Dali, and they make a life-size exploding bull with plaster, paper and fireworks for the arena at Figueras.
1963-64 Major tir "King Kong" created in LA., sponsored by Dawn Gallery; later acquired by Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Her love of horror movies provides source of inspiration for this and other works. Reviews. She and Tinguely find an old country inn outside of Paris to live and work, l'Auberge du Cheval Blanc, Soisy sur Ecole, France. Begins work on figurative reliefs -confrontational depictions of women, some giving birth or vivisectioned. Creates other figurative assemblages including freestanding dragons, monsters and brides presented in first solo show at Hanover Gallery, London. Travels to new York with Jean Tinguely and stays at the Chelsea Hotel, taking part in New York art activities.
1965-66Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarisse Rivers, she begins considering archetypal female figures in relation to her thinking on the position of women in society. Her updated version of 'everywoman' are named 'Nanas'. The first of these freely posed forms, made of papier-mache, yarn and cloth are exhibited at the Alexander Iolas Gallery, Paris, September 65. For this show Iolas publishes her first artist book that includes her handwritten words in combination with her drawings of 'Nanas'. Encouraged by Iolas, she starts a highly productive output of graphic work that accompanies exhibitions -invitations, posters, books and writings. In 1966 collaborates with Tinguely and Per Olof Ultlvedt on a large scale sculpture installation, "hon-en katedral". For Moderna Museet, Stockholm. The outer form of "hon" is a giant, reclining 'Nana', whose internal environment is entered from between her legs.
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