Niki de Saint Phalle’s secret jealous lover (her work)

"He is tall, elegant, and like Count Dracula wears a black cloak."

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Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002)

Last week, I admitted to feeling jealous of my New York friends who are able to go see the Alice Neel retrospective now on view at the Met. This week, I thought I’d continue the theme: I’m also jealous of folks getting to see the Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective now on view at PS1!

Like Neel’s portraits, Saint Phalle’s sculptures exhibit an exuberance and a larger-than-life quality that seem appropriate to this moment of reemergence. Though she first gained notice for her “shooting paintings” (see video below), and then worked primarily in sculpture, Saint Phalle gradually expanded her practice to create, in the words of the PS1 curators, “charged spaces of imagination from which she envisioned experimental societies emerging, places ‘where you could have a new kind of life, to just be free.’”

That last quote strikes me as a beautiful sentiment for a season in which many of us are returning to quasi-normalcy, with joy and relief and gratitude—but, at the same time, finding the old normalcy to be as limiting and problematic as ever.

Born near Paris, Saint Phalle spent most of her childhood on New York’s Upper East Side, which sounds luxurious but was, in fact, hellish: Saint Phalle’s mother was physically violent and her father sexually abused her for years. As a teenager, she began working as a model, appearing on the cover of Life at 18. At the same age, she married Harry Mathews; over the next few years, he would study music at Harvard and then commit to writing, she would take up painting, and they would have two children and move the family to Paris. In the second book of Saint Phalle’s two-volume autobiography, there’s a charming passage describing their lifestyle as new arrivals in the City of Light:

It was the first time that I had a big studio and it was great. It was an attic with skylights and I really loved that room. It served many purposes, functioning as our living room and dining room as well. Harry and I slept in a small bedroom off to the side of it. It was a wonderful feeling for me, this feeling of a “real” studio. I had all of my paintings, stacked one behind the other and I was very happy there. While I was up in my studio painting Harry was down in his little room writing.

We got this crazy idea while living there (which doesn’t sound so crazy by today’s health standards.) Harry had read somewhere that it was good to eat yogurt only for one day out of every month and to then stay in bed the whole day doing nothing. So for one day a month, Harry and I fasted on yogurt only, while remaining in bed all day. I think we indulged in this ritual for about six months.

Unfortunately, the cozy family dynamic couldn’t last forever. After a cutting remark by the celebrated painter Joan Mitchell—she said to Saint Phalle, “So you’re one of those writer’s wives that paint,” a remark that hit the younger painter “as though an arrow pierced a sensitive part of my soul”—Saint Phalle decided to leave Mathews and their two children, ages nine and five, so that she could “live her artistic adventure to the full.” Though the break did allow her, for the first time, to put art-making at the center of her life, the decision haunted her for decades afterward. In her autobiography, Saint Phalle wrote:

I felt that I had done such a terrible thing in leaving my family that I buried myself 100% in my work for the rest of my life to make up for it. I needed to prove that what I had done had not been in vain and had been worthwhile. It was like a motive force for my work, like being propelled by a canon… into total slavery to my work, which became number one and remained so after Harry and I separated.

Elsewhere, Saint Phalle compared her relationship to her work to that between a bloodsucking vampire and its victim:

My secret jealous lover (my work) is always there and waits for me. He is tall, elegant, and like Count Dracula wears a black cloak. He whispers in my ear that I don’t have much time left for what I have to do. He is jealous of every moment I don’t spend with him. He is even jealous of my closed bedroom door. Sometimes he flies through the open window of my room at night, in the shape of a giant bat. I tremble when he embraces me with his wings. For a moment I defend myself in my long white nightshirt. His teeth sink into my soul. I am his.

Sounds about right!1 Or are Saint Phalle and I being overly dramatic? As always, feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments section below.

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Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life is on view at MoMA PS1 until September 6.


MORE CAVIAR!

Last week’s newsletter included a glimpse of Alice Neel’s breakfast, circa 1977: “orange juice, Brie cheese, whole wheat bread, black coffee, and Russian caviar ladled from a five-pound can.”

Looking through Saint Phalle’s autobiographies, I discovered that she was also a fan of caviar, though she enjoyed it in very specific circumstances:

There was always and there still is something to get excited about. If I get into a bad slump my enthusiasm can always get me out. I know this and can use it. If something awful happens that is the time to go and buy a new dress go and eat caviar. What’s the use celebrating when everything’s going fine? It’s much better to usher in new good waves by celebrating the bad times.


PARUL SEHGAL ON LORRAINE HANSBERRY

Don’t miss Sehgal’s review, in the New York Times, of a new Lorraine Hansberry biography. The review is a beautiful piece of biographical writing and analysis in its own right, studded with vivid details and quotes, like this one:

“We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together,” Nina Simone wrote of Hansberry in her memoir. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.”


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Come to think of it, as a writer, I feel more like the vampire, always prowling for a fresh infusion of vitality, always worried that I’m going to run dry…