What is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle

What is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle
by Nicole Rudick
Siglio Press, 2022
267 pages
Reviewed by Lisa Seidenberg

Somewhere in the hazy valley between the twin peaks of biography and autobiography, there exists an unexplored space called (Auto)biography. Arriving to occupy that space is a new book by Nicole Rudick, What is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined, An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle. Taking its enigmatic title from a quote by poet

William Blake, it’s a prodigious work that aims to reveal a deeper, psychological portrait of Niki de Saint Phalle, a French-American artist with a Feminist perspective, known for a variegated body of work from the 1960’s and ‘70s; especially noteworthy were her vibrantly colorful and large-scale sculptures of women she called “Nanas”, an exuberant celebration of the female form as mother and goddess.

In later years, she realized an immense artistic project — a massive construction called The Tarot Garden, a sculptural environment in central Tuscany, often described as fantastical or visionary; it encompasses 22 monumental Nana figures built of reinforced concrete with polyester resin, collaged with mirrors and brightly painted mosaics. Among the figures was the “The Empress” which could be entered and indeed, the artist lived inside it (or her) for months while in the process of working on the other enormous pieces. It was a labor of passion and sadly, one that may have caused her demise at the age of 71, as the artist struggled with emphysema likely developed as a result of the toxic chemicals used – and breathed in daily – in her art work.

The book is recently published by Siglio Press, a small publishing company run by Lisa Pearson, which, according to the Siglio website, selects works “that live in the rich and varied space between art & literature…driven by its feminist ethos and its commitment to writers and artists who obey no boundaries, pay no fealty to trends, and invite readers to see the world anew by reading word and image in provocative, unfamiliar ways…”

Among Siglio’s other stylistically unconventional books, is “Memory” by Bernadette Mayer, Karen Green’s “Frail Sister” and “The Hotel” by conceptual artist Sophie Calle. Works by artists roaming the edges of the avant-garde but who also manage to tap into the au courant sensibilities of the presiding zeitgeist.

It seems useful to know this in order to process this unusual book. It is at first disorienting, even disappointing, that we are not getting more of an actual biography of the artist whose life was a roller-coaster ride of personal turmoil from a young age, including mental breakdowns and who, as an artist of her time, was actively involved in the political and cultural winds of the day, all of which would be absorbing reading.

What we are offered instead is a rich compendium of drawings, painted scribbles, and diaristic entries detailing her feelings towards her well-to do parents (she was born in France to a French father and American mother), her marriages, childbirth, and social encounters with culturati of the day – she finds Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to be “gorgeous” together and more tellingly, is deflated by American abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell and “her painter friends’ who regard Niki de Saint Phalle as merely “a married woman who was painting” and so driven “to prove to them that I existed”.

Some of her writing is deeply personal, intimately revealing the development of the artist’s persona. Briefly a fashion model before rejecting that world and that of her bourgeois upbringing, she married twice, the second time to Jean Tinguely, a Swiss-born sculptor known for his kinetic constructions. Together, they embraced the explosive creative atmosphere of the sixties – a concept she interpreted literally, by firing a rifle at certain of her paintings as a kind of artistic “happening” or performance, which was motivated by an anger, her troubled personal one, and no doubt fueled by the growing Feminist militancy in the bohemian milieu she embraced. The artist wrote that she “wanted to see them bleed” – and bleed they did, as red paint had been cleverly cached inside the canvases.

In her writing, she describes the “shooting paintings” (as they are most commonly known) as not only shooting at art but expressing rage at men, at her father (who may have abused her), as well as the church and a long list of other targets. To understand Niki de Saint Phalle, is to see her evolution from an ingenue through a period of mental breakdown to emerge as a strong-willed grounded artist.

“I shot,” she writes, “because I was fascinated watching the painting bleed and die. 

I shot for that moment of magic. ECSTASY…READY AIM FIRE  the painting is crying the painting is dead, I have killed the painting.”

Elsewhere in the book, we learn more of her inner life:

“I don’t feel like I belong to any society. I feel rootless. I was born French. I was brought up in America, and I’ve no spiritual or emotional tie with the family that raised me…the milieu that suits me is one of people who have done something with themselves, no matter what. They might be artists, filmmakers, or butchers. The point is they are people who have put everything into it…and who have had the courage to pack up and move on. That’s what I did.”

Reading her words, it is hard not to wonder why this book, described by author Rudick as a kind of collaboration with the artist, includes no photos of the artist herself. One presumes this was a decision guided by the desire to adhere to a strict thematic aesthetic, but arguably Niki de Saint Phalle was a self-aware artist (former fashion model, after all) who also engaged with performative activities as well as visual,  and therefore the writings might be better understood, if not enhanced, to see images of the artist in the making – or performing – of her work.

Finally, there is another question raised by the publishing of personal writings and doodlings. Niki de Saint Phalle died of emphysema in 2002, while working on the sculptures at Tarot garden and other works. So we can not know what she might have thought about this publication. On the one hand, an artist strives for recognition – certainly true for this one who made no secret of her struggle for acceptance in the fiercely competitive and patriarchal art world in which she found herself. As for the other hand…were these bits and pieces meant to be private, and not form part of her artistic legacy?

Despite these concerns, Niki de Saint Phalle is an under appreciated artist who deserves wider recognition for the scope and strength of her body of work, prior to the Nana sculptures. If this book contributes to furthering her reputation, then it is a valuable addition to the other books and monographs of her work and life, including two autobiographies of her own. Those new to her work, should not stop with this one, nor perhaps, start here either.