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Outsize and Outrageous

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Trying to fit Niki de Saint Phalle’s work into one of the art world’s standard categories is a bit like stuffing your cat into a cage for a trip to the vet. Just as you think you have the cute little fellow under control, he bites your finger, pokes out a paw and stops you from closing the door, then gathers all his strength and blasts off to a secret hiding place.

Sweet-tempered and lovable as Saint Phalle’s art may appear, it’s the product of deep conflicts and convictions. Her fantastic animals, Tarot characters and trademark “Nanas"--you know, those gigantic bathing beauties who shamelessly flaunt their bulbous breasts and thunder thighs--are the work of a disarmingly unpretentious artist who confesses to being motivated by guilt and a need to prove herself.

Her resume is equally paradoxical. An internationally renowned artist--and one of a very few women known primarily for monumental sculpture--she has created major public projects in Europe and executed large private commissions in the United States. Yet she’s sometimes seen as a rather marginal artist whose work is too playful to be taken seriously.

Although she’s a self-taught outsider with little regard for the art world’s hierarchies and conventions, she collaborates with the top echelon of artists, architects and curators, many of whom are longtime friends. Apparently unconcerned about honing a “high-art” image, she shows her work in offbeat venues--including the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art in Balboa Park, which opened a large Saint Phalle exhibition last week--but she also has been honored with retrospective exhibitions in mainstream art museums in Europe.

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Sixty-seven and plagued by asthma and emphysema--caused by inhaling fumes from petrochemicals and plastics used in her work--Saint Phalle is a high-spirited survivor of ill health and hidebound traditions. She’s also an enormously productive workaholic, as her current exhibition attests. “Niki de Saint Phalle--Insider/Outsider--World Inspired Art” features about 100 sculptures, paintings, reliefs, graphic works and maquettes made during the last 15 years, and it only skims the surface of her output.

Outside the museum are enormous, wildly imaginative animal sculptures destined for Noah’s Ark Sculpture Park in Jerusalem, a work-in-progress that she has designed with Swiss architect Mario Botta. Among the beasts are a gorilla, a bear, a spider, an elephant/giraffe, a stacked pair of camels and a prehistoric monster--all covered with brightly glazed ceramic tiles, mirrors and stones, and made for climbing.

Inside the museum is a bonanza of vividly colored artwork. There’s a chair in the shape of a coiled snake; a fountain filled with four voluptuous women; a mountainous, gray-haired woman in a pink dress preparing to do her hair at a messy dressing table; a group of phallic obelisks; a devil with a gold fig leaf; and mechanized wall panels with components that light up or move when visitors walk past them.

Suspended from the ceiling of the rotunda, and presiding over the entire show, is a 20-foot angel, which has gold wings and bright blue skin, wears a red bathing suit and holds a gilded vase in each hand. Called “Temperance” and conceived as “guardian of the elixir of life,” the angel appears to pour the elixir--symbolized by a band of neon--from one vase to the other.

What’s not to like about this art? Very little, it would seem, unless one is offended by images of sexuality and unconventional representations of angels. Indeed, Saint Phalle’s work is so approachable that it tends to be viewed as entertainment.

“Most people don’t see the edginess in my work. They think it’s all fantasy and whimsy,” she said in an interview at her home and studio in La Jolla, where she has transformed a rambling Spanish-style house into a light-filled live/work space. Furnished with her own creations--brightly tiled tables and snake-backed chairs--and those of her artist friends, it’s a cheerful environment that reflects Saint Phalle’s artistic sensibility and the intensity of her engagement with her work.

But beyond the exuberant forms, splashy colors, glittering mirrors, shiny surfaces and functional designs is a fairly complicated artistic sensibility.

Some of Saint Phalle’s works send hopeful messages about reducing racial tension. She frequently depicts black people, and occasionally mixed-race couples. In the San Diego show, each of the four women in “Nana Fountain” has a different color skin: black, yellow, orange or chartreuse.

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“Eventually, we will all turn into one gorgeous color and stop this fighting,” the artist said confidently. But then she asked, “How long do you think that will take?”

The inevitability of death is also on her mind, so she invites her audience to grapple with that, too. A 10-foot-tall, walk-in sculpture in the shape of a grinning human skull presents death as a meditation chamber or playhouse. A small skull on the old woman’s dressing table makes her vanity seem pathetic, if not ludicrous, but Saint Phalle said she herself will probably be fixing her face and hair when the Grim Reaper comes calling. Saint Phalle’s best-known works, the monumental female figures, or “Nanas,” are generally interpreted as jubilant celebrations of women’s freedom and power. But they evolved from a series of sculptures based on roles women play, including brides weighed down by tradition, mothers in labor and prostitutes.

One sculpture in the show, “Devouring Mother,” depicts a benign, lumpy woman holding dainty silverware, but the title of the work implies that she is about to eat her children.

Even Saint Phalle’s enchanting animals are vaguely ominous. “I wouldn’t want to see that spider walking around and coming after me,” she said of the sprawling sculpture with a bright red head and multicolored appendages. “Or the gorilla, even though he is smiling. So there is that edge, but kids love to be scared.”

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Sometimes adults have to be persuaded of that fact, however, as was the case with “Golem,” designed in 1972 for a neighborhood park in Jerusalem. The towering creature has three long red tongues that descend from a cavernous mouth and function as slippery slides for children who climb to the top of the animal and zoom back to the ground.

“When I first presented the ‘Golem’ project, I had to go in front of a commission,” Saint Phalle said. “They turned it down because they thought it was too scary for children. Teddy Kollek, who was the mayor--really the king--of Jerusalem, told the commission to vote again. Then he told me to defend my idea.” Drawing upon psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s writings about fairy tales, she argued that--presented in an appropriate context--"scary things are good because they help children conquer their fears.”

Saint Phalle appears to have been born with an enormous amount of energy and the courage to follow her own muse. She admits to having “a basic confidence” and “a certain kind of independence,” but also speaks of having a tremendous need to distinguish herself.

“I had to prove that a woman could do something important,” she said. “I wanted to make some of the really important things of my generation and some of the biggest. I wanted to show that we were capable of doing more than needlework.”

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The artist was born Mary Agnes de Saint Phalle in 1930 in a suburb of Paris, the daughter of a French banker and his French-American wife. The bank had failed the year before Niki’s birth; the family moved to New York when she was 3 and got a fresh start. Their fortunes fluctuated, but she was raised in a privileged milieu and was educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart and the elite Brearley School.

Her teachers at Brearley introduced her to art and poetry and inspired her to “get out there and do something as a woman,” she said. “I was very rebellious and always doing things to get attention, but I was brought up to find a husband. That was the defining thing; you had to get married. And I did get married like everybody else because, first of all, you couldn’t make love unless you were married. Your parents weren’t going to let you do it in the next room, like now. Everything was different.

“I married a very good American writer, Harry Mathews.” The couple’s daughter, Laura, was born in 1951 while they were living in Cambridge, Mass. and Niki was trying to find her style as a painter. Their son, Philip, was born four years later in Majorca. “We were pre-hippies, so we went to Europe to escape our WASPish family influences and to explore the world,” Saint Phalle said. “Harry had a little bit of money, and we lived very inexpensively in Majorca. There was no toilet or anything, but it was fun.”

While bumming around Europe, they became acquainted with the international intelligentsia. In Barcelona, at 25, Saint Phalle discovered the work of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi, whose organic buildings and sculptures have had a strong influence on her art. “That was the big thing in my life; I knew that one day I would make things like that,” she said.

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About five years later, she left her husband and children to become a full-time artist. “I wanted a total commitment to my art, but separating myself from them was the most difficult thing in my life. Harry looked after the children while I wandered around the world,” she said.

Among her new circle of friends was Jean Tinguely, an innovative Swiss sculptor known for kinetic works made of found objects. They began living together as friends, but the relationship turned into a love affair and an artistic collaboration.

“Harry was pretty sore because he thought I was going to be alone, and then suddenly I wasn’t alone,” Saint Phalle said. “But we managed to get a nice friendly divorce. At least the kids say they never heard us say anything bad about each other. Recently, after my daughter helped me set up a show, she said, ‘Mother, you did right.’ But it was a real trauma.

“Still, I think one of the things that made me work so hard was the fact that I felt so guilty. The trauma gave me wings as an artist. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing. So guilt was a great motivator.”

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Saint Phalle lived with Tinguely for 11 years before marrying him in 1971. They separated two years later but maintained a close relationship. After his death, in 1991, she established a museum of his work in Basel, to which she donated 55 important pieces from her collection. Museum Tinguely, designed by Botta, opened in 1996.

Saint Phalle rose to prominence in the 1960s with “shooting paintings,” or “tirs,” created by using rifles to shoot bags of pigment attached to papier-mache constructions or plaster panels. But after a few years she began making the sculpture for which she is best known.

Her most ambitious project to date is The Tarot Garden, a sculpture park in Garavicchio, Italy, near the Tuscan town of Orbetello. Consisting of 22 monumental structures based on characters in the card game, some of which are living spaces, the garden has been in process for the past 20 years. She now spends about one month each year at the park, which is open from May 15 to Oct. 15.

Saint Phalle moved to La Jolla from Paris four years ago “for health reasons,” but she claims to be perfectly at home here and to have benefited from living in Southern California. She has incorporated local stones and images from the landscape in her work. She is also making use of computer technology to design her sculpture.

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“I have entered the 20th century in California,” she said. “I’m taking great advantage of being near L.A., working with people who can help me make my things bigger more easily. For me, it’s mind-blowing to try out all these new techniques.”

“Sun God,” Saint Phalle’s first large outdoor work in the United States, was installed on the campus of the UC San Diego campus in 1983. The 14-foot-tall bird perched on a 15-foot-tall concrete arch was the first work commissioned by the Stuart Collection.

But now she has a plan for an entire sculpture park of her work in Southern California. With an eye on some agricultural property near Julian, she has conceived of a garden based on California mythology and cultural history. Inspired in part by John McPhee’s book “Assembling California,” she hopes to build a large sculpture of Queen Calafia.

“She’s a legendary queen of California, a black Amazon queen who rode griffins,” the artist said. “I want to make a big place where people can go and bring her offerings, so she won’t be angry anymore and she will stop making the earth quake.”

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If the plan comes to fruition, the artist will finance the project herself, as she did The Tarot Garden. “That gives me freedom to do it,” she said. “But if you want to help me, great.”

Meanwhile, locals and tourists alike can get an overview of her work at the Mingei. As to why her exhibition is at a folk art museum, Saint Phalle said it all began when she rented a house from Martha Longenecker, founder and director of the museum. They became friends, the artist went to see exhibitions at the museum, and “it just seemed natural,” she said. “ ‘Folk’ is the wrong word; Martha shows the world’s soul.”

Longenecker also sees the show as a good fit for her institution. It’s the museum’s first exhibition of a French artist and thus fills out the international roster. Saint Phalle’s work draws from a global array of sources and her functional pieces complement the museum’s program of contemporary crafts and design, she said. The exhibition--sponsored by Audrey Geisel, a Mingei patron and widow of Theodor Geisel, author of Dr. Seuss children’s books--also is expected to build the museum’s audience by bringing in the traditional art crowd as well as children and folk-art aficionados.

“Niki is self-taught and highly intuitive,” Longenecker said. “She works from the inside out, but she is so well-known that she has become an insider.”

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“Niki de Saint Phalle--Insider/Outsider--World Inspired Art,” Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Ends Jan. 2, 1999. Adults, $5; children 6-17 and students, $2. (619) 239-0003.


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