PRINT September 1963

Puerealism: “The End” with Innocence

This week, associate editor Chloe Wyma looks back at Rosalind G. Wholden’s “Puerealism: ‘The End’ with Innocence,” a monographic essay on the work of Niki de Saint Phalle, published in Artforum in September 1963. For the May issue, Johanna Fateman revisits Saint Phalle’s life and art on the occasion of the artist’s first US retrospective at MoMA PS1.

The alleged naivete of Niki de Saint Phalle’s art has long hampered its institutional validation. Fifty-eight years ago, critic Rosalind G. Wholden broached this fraught topic in a perceptive essay titled “Puerealism: ‘The End’ with Innocence,” which attempted to reconcile the “renewed realism” Saint Phalle sought in the art of assemblage with her attachments to grotesque fantasies and “appalling little melodramas” rooted in the artist’s childhood, when her “bizarre imagination thrived in self-conscious delight over its thought-crimes.” Wholden’s prose is a delight to read, its Rococo eccentricities in step with the wanton maximalism of Saint Phalle’s blasted constructions. “Niki’s Punch-and-Judy massacres,” she writes, “embody the disbelief of Tom Sawyer, home just in time to stare at his own funeral.” Saint Phalle's “Puerealism,” the author argues, isn’t an infantile regression, but a comic confrontation with trauma and death: “She conjures last laughs, not last rites.”

—Chloe Wyma

BY HER BIRTH Niki de Saint-Phalle is a Parisienne, but more significantly, she is a Scorpio. As eighth house of the zodiac, Scorpio is the province of death and renewal. Its planetary lord, Pluto, is King of Hades and Tsar of all the Underworld. Niki believes in as­trology because it agrees with her sense of reality. Fundamentally her metaphysics is an acknowledge­ment of the presence of power and she is curious about any system which divines the manifestations of the intractable. Aside from its poetic overtones, astrology is very flattering; there is a certain grandeur in having the whole cosmos mid-wife to one’s fate. No subtle modesty prompted Niki to reprint her as­trologer’s findings in the brochure for her 1962 exhi­bition at New York’s Iolas Gallery: “You will adorn death with the enchantments of childhood.” Which is, of course, true. Niki ties rubber lizards to doll-babies’ bellies, shoots real .22’s at cans, bottles and bladders filled with paint, keeps playing “Fun House” with the utmost artistic seriousness until by assassinating Halloween she creates very Grand Guignol.

When she was three years old, Niki’s family moved to New York City where she blossomed into a stranger, the middle personage separating older and younger brothers and sisters. Educated in a convent, her bi­zarre imagination thrived in self-conscious delight over its thought-crimes; while at the same time she fashioned for herself an adamantine innocence of death’s reality. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote: “Child­hood is the kingdom where nobody dies.” The Saint­-Phalle constructions are amazingly childlike because all the bulleted people: the little girl, the bride, the mother, the Messrs. “K”, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Castro, the grinning harpy and the toothsome Tyrannosauros are not dead. They can’t die. “Gisants” in reinforced cement, their material reality is simply magic armor. They belong to the eternity of “let’s pretend”.

Niki’s eccentricities are concentric, her first en­thusiasm was the theater. As a child she gleefully out­raged her elders by writing and acting-out appalling little melodramas. She displayed so nice an instinct for grotesque detail that her creations were horrify­ingly plausible. Even in 1951, when she went to Paris, Niki was considering becoming a dramatist. A year later she began to paint. But it took direct confronta­tions with Gaudi’s organic metamorphoses and Le Facteur Cheval’s dream castle to show Niki the means by which she might realize the complex demands haunting her figurative imagination. She had to have absolute actuality and absolute fantasy. Assemblage construction was an enticement to renewed realism. It combined the advantages of rapid execution with the necessity for multiplicity. Such a medium could produce materializations of that deep-rooted Gothi­cism which kept leading Niki to the apocalypse inside “pop” objects.

Childrens’ playthings are a very “pop” microcosm; one manufactured by grown-ups for business and eth­nic puposes and from which they exile themselves, except for holidays. The sidewalk toy vendor has be­come a modern rarity seen only by after-theatre crowds, for the spirit of carnival has gone indoors in the U. S. A. Cities sport “Joke Shops” filled with rep­licas of nature’s crawling beasties and men’s mechan­ized lethality. Strange treasures are buried in “break­fast food”. The American child soon learns the prag­matic value of make-believe monsters. A real snake might bring a whipping, a rubber one only a maternal shriek. Niki, who considers herself an American, speaks with pride of this country’s abundant variety of fun stuffs. She found Los Angeles especially cornu­copic, replete with rubber wheels from Free China, Japanese plastic pests, masks from Mexico and Java­nese lizards, not to mention the indigenous mock-or­ange blossoms and king-sized cokes. The urge to as­semblage filled her stare. Chicken wire and a remarka­bly fast-setting cement provided the mortar and bed for her Puerealist imagination.

“King Kong,” built and bulleted this summer under the aegis of the Dwan Gallery, represents a consolida­tion of both thematic and pictorial experiences for Niki. It is her largest continuous narrative, a “Tab­leau Mourant” deliberately engineered for perma­nence. Because Niki de Saint-Phalle has gained no­toriety largely through public acts of destruction, the autonomy of “King Kong” as a finished art object needs to be emphasized. It is a demonstration pic­ture, like Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus.”

Although an actress is supposed to willingly settle for any kind of publicity, it is important to remember that Niki (for the month that she attended acting school), aspired to be a director. She cherishes a sense of personal isolation, derived in part from her infatuation with power. To Niki, who prefers not to ponder illusions, shooting is quite peculiarly non­theoretical. In 1960, inspired by a child’s dart game, she got the idea of inviting people to shoot at ink bottles that would be embedded in her sculpture. At the resulting “involvements” she was a fascinated witness but following each shooting she experienced a curious depression. Finally after devising a way to attach small plastic paint bags to her constructions Niki began shooting at them herself. Exhilarated by both the activity and the sight of the running colors, she had difficulty restraining herself from over-shoot­ing and ruining the works esthetically; but since she pulled the trigger herself, she experienced no ensu­ing depression. Soon a series of public exhibitions found Niki, aided by Jean Tinguely on the mechanics of motion, constructing enormous monsters, crustate cathedrals and mock cities to be used as shooting galleries. Bullets, not the uniquely painted construc­tions, brought Niki de Saint-Phalle international re­pute. Yet she viewed these public events as sacrifices. She had relinquished her final rights as an artist that the people might actively involve themselves in her work. Sullenly she noted how certain persons who shot at a relief could not bring themselves to look at it again. And she knew that no collector ever purchased any work he had seen under fire, much less shot at himself. The ecstasies of destruction are harmonies to Niki, for she is in rhythm with the heady experi­ences of creation. She could not accept other people’s shamefaced post-mortems. Triumphantly aware that in providing the public with the means to violate its inanimate surface, she had inflicted a moment of mor­tality upon her art, her pride rebelled at popular ob­tuseness and ingratitude. The relic of that lived mo­ment would always remain a vivid entity, unlike the deadly after-the-fact poses of battle monuments and history paintings. Concrete mortality was worthy of much more than downcast eyes.

Power is withdrawn from those who cannot accept its consequences. Since the public could not distin­guish the fireworks from the fire, Niki reclaimed the Promethean privilege. “King Kong” from first sketch to final shooting was completely under her dominion.

Niki loves each process in her work. Gaining crea­tive momentum every day she conscientiously labored from 8 to 8, her ivory pallor roseate with the joy of making something well. She was delighted by the perma­nence of wire-enforced cement as a medium for as­semblage. A delicate amber-haired Joan of Arc, her loose-fitting man’s shirt and tiny sneakers exaggerated the contrast between the huge project and its light­-stepping sovereign.

The most successful panel in “King Kong” is the last, where the rockets, skyscrapers and cemetery de­bris have been integrated spatially via a brilliant de­cision to place toy automobiles on the vertical plane between the buildings. While the birth figure and Garden-of-Eden tree are marvelous in themselves, the lower strata of motorcyclist, wedding couple and sub­way scalps are kept disparate by the very paint streaks which were predicated as unifiers. Niki has yet to discover the necessity for esthetic congruence between the figures and their ground, and the value of leaving certain images unwounded. It would also seem in keeping with her growing admiration for the deliberate that should the splatter resulting from a shooting be visually unsuccessful she could paint them out. The woman holding the gun need not be held by it.

As allegories of death the Saint-Phalle construc­tions are a kind of sideshow. Life is precious, short and irreversible. Sometimes the only way to bear the strain of mortality is to try sampling death, as if prac­tice could make perfect. Romanesque “Last Judgment,” Goya’s “Disasters of War,” “Guernica,” even films like “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “On the Beach” are death shows scaled for the adult world; the price of admission to the Big Top is seriousness. Niki’s Punch-and-Judy massacres embody the disbelief of Tom Sawyer, home just in time to stare at his own funeral. She conjures last laughs, not last rites.

Rosalind G. Wholden