Los Angeles

Niki de Saint-Phalle

Dwan Gallery

About the most encouraging conclusion concerning the works of Niki de Saint-Phalle is that she is not really such a bad shot—for a woman. In fact, she is a very attractive shot. She is also an excellent dramatist, a superb scavenger, a diligent worker, and a woefully misunderstood artist. The use of the word “artist,” however, is intended only in the broadest sense, for the only time there is any evidence of her visual apparatus is at that brief moment when she lines up the sights of her rifle to blast the already decomposing corpses she has created.

Herein lies her genius and the crux of her oeuvre, for she has recreated in the 20th century what may well be one of the most instinctive origins of the art idea. That is, art not necessarily conceived as an object, but as an act. Yet de Saint-Phalle’s ritualizing is a totally different sensibility from action painting, which invariably arrived at a visual conclusion. De Saint-Phalle amazingly, arrives at no artistic resolution whatsoever. In spite of occasional overbearing size and “interesting” found things, there seems to be a general agreement that once that final cartridge is spent, long before the dripping black paint hardens, there is nothing more to be said, felt, or even looked at.

De Saint-Phalle’s work begins not with life, but with death itself. And if there are primitive overtones of ritual, it is not that of the hunter symbolically destroying the image of a deer he hopes to kill—that is a process of life. Nor is there any tradition of the sacrifice, for that too is a symbolic gesture of procreation. What this artist (and it is doubly astounding because she is a woman) has accomplished with death is not an act of violence, but a dreadful act of adornment, a stubborn refusal to dignify the corpse with the final rite of burial, but to freeze its putrefaction in the material of art.

Yet de Saint-Phalle, as unrelated as she is to art as history, art as vision, art as creation or art as enlightenment, epitomizes an important concept of our time—and that is art accepted as pure, unresolved and untransposed neurosis. It is anything but innocent.

Clair Wolfe