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Niki de Saint Phalle

3, avenue du Général Eisenhower
September 17–February 15

Niki de Saint Phalle, Horse and Bride, 1964, fabric, toys, steel frame 7 x 9 x 4’.

Spanning two floors of galleries at the Grand Palais, this overdue comprehensive survey of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work begins with the French artist’s early “assemblages” of the late 1950s and ’60s, in which she packed together dolls, trinkets, and other domestic objects into densely textured sculptures of brides on horses, as in Horse and Bride, 1964, and of gigantic women giving birth, as in Bénédicte, 1965. The show is organized thematically, showing the evolution from these pieces to her iconic Gaudi-meets-Botero “Nanas” series from the mid-1960s, three of which rotate below spotlights on a glittering auto show–like platform in a dark room. They are surrounded by her loopy lithographs, tactile tridimensional paintings, and footage of Saint Phalle herself from interviews and performances, including a film of one of her famous “Shooting Pictures,” Daddy, 1972, in which she fires a gun at paint-loaded panels while shouting indictments of male oppression and inviting her audience to do the same.

Only occasionally highlighting Saint Phalle’s role among New Realist artists, this exhibition notably positions the artist as a larger-than-life figure. We are reminded time and again of her great physical beauty—a wall of her modeling shots includes an early ’60s Vogue cover—as well as of the strident social and political beliefs that thread through her work. The “Nanas,” named after the French word for “chick,” are buoyant, lithe, and joyous, contrasting with the darker frustrations evident in her “Shooting Pictures.” Though Saint Phalle’s brand of unruly second-wave feminism may seem quaint today, she was ultimately a daring, even revolutionary, pioneer who always insisted on the autonomy of her voice.

Anne Prentnieks