Saturday, August 18, 2012

One of the major points of inspiration for Catherine Cabeen and Company’s upcoming production, Fire!, has been Niki de Saint Phalle’s first major body of work, the provocative Shooting Paintings.  In these works, produced between 1961 and 1963, painting was accomplished with a .22-caliber rifle. When Saint Phalle and others took aim at these works, the gun’s bullets would penetrate a plaster surface, finding bags of paint and other items that had been embedded beneath. Once pierced, these contents erupted and fell unpredictably down the work’s surface. As Saint Phalle described it, it was creation through destruction.
Niki de Saint Phalle
Film Still — From Daddy 1972
All rights reserved 2007.
Positioned in opposition to postwar expressionism and the notion of an artist-genius, the Shooting Paintings were aligned with a number of early 1960s strategies aimed at a critique of authorship. These included the use of found and mass-produced objects, as well as compositional methods embracing chance and collaboration. In these respects, the Shooting Paintings were closely tied to the production of Saint Phalle’s fellow New Realists, a label that brought together a diverse group of artists, among them Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely.

Saint Phalle, however, was the only female member of the New Realists, and in this body of work there was also a forceful proto-feminist element. The artist’s aggressive act was not only a way to comment on the violence of the times, but a personal assertion of power. With gun poised, she became the ultimate phallic woman. The use of the gun was of course ironic (a caricature of abstract expressionism, much like Tinguely’s metamatic machines), but it was also done with sincerity and urgency. The Shooting Paintings eventually took the form of distinct targets, religion and men in particular. Saint Phalle expressed a desire to “trespass into the world of men”--to experience their power and freedom.* With gun in hand, she not only trespassed into their world, but also played a part in their destruction.

Saint Phalle was captivated by the power that the gun gave her--by the transformation it created (she called it exciting, sexy, and tragic all at once), and also by the attention it focused on her. Between June and September of 1961, more than fifty international newspapers and magazines had reported on the scandal of her Shooting Paintings. In the press, she became an Amazon, a vampire, and an ardent women’s rights activist.  

Today we view these works fifty years after they were made. Many things have changed, although inequalities and double standards persist. How, where, and when do women assume power in today’s world, and what happens when they do? Fire! urges us to ask.

*More of Saint Phalle’s commentary on this subject can be seen in “Letters,” in Niki de Saint Phalle, ed. Pontus Hultén (Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1992). 

-Nancy Stoaks, Fire! Dramaturg

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