Monday, November 26, 2012

The Body as a Target

Catherine Cabeen
photo by: alan kimara dixon
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings became increasingly performative in their second year. Capitalizing on a background in both theater and modeling (she had graced the covers of Life and Vogue as a teenager in the late 1940s), the artist was well positioned to add even more bite to already-provocative works.

Saint Phalle began to engage in a highly orchestrated performance of her public self, aided in no small part by her new “shooting costume”--a form-fitting white body suit that became the defining garment for all shooting sessions. In her white suit and black boots, Saint Phalle was the exaggeration of femininity--virginal yet simultaneously sexualized. The femme fatale aspect of her public persona, meanwhile, was often heightened in staged photographs in which the artist, with bright red lips, aimed her gun directly at the viewer. Speaking of the Shooting Paintings in a 1966 Vogue interview, she acknowledged this manner of dressing as a deliberate strategy and went so far as to call her body a constructed visual creation like her sculpture.
Catherine Cabeen
photo by: alan kimara dixon

The spectacle of her body became a dominant component of the work.

Comments in the popular press and arts journals revealed the extent to which the artist’s beauty was a central preoccupation: “Miss Saint Phalle cut a sharp figure in her ‘shooting’ bit” (Art News); “Through the room stalked the attractive white-suited figure of Niki de Saint Phalle, booted, paint-flecked (perfectly)” (Arts Magazine); and “Pow, Bam-Bang, Zip, went the beer and pressurized paint cans as comely virgin-garbed Niki de Saint Phalle pulled the trigger...[in her] calculated discreetly feminine shots” (Beverly Hills Times, also featuring an image with the revealing caption “Niki de Saint Phalle creating (sic)”).

While Saint Phalle indeed capitalized on her body in a way that some later feminist artists reacted against, Saint Phalle celebrated it, using the clash between her beauty and the violence of the Shooting Paintings to confront accepted notions of femininity. As Saint Phalle moved on from the Shooting Paintings, women’s bodies continued to be an interest for her, but her focus shifted away that of her own body and towards rotund, mid-frolic sculptural figures she called the Nanas. Her work calls attention to the troubling aspects of beauty and sexuality, tied as they are with power and the pressure to conform to certain societal ideals. 

Fire! gives us an opportunity to contemplate the links between this historical body and body-of-work and the world of dance, where criticism continues to have a particular interest in the body and beauty of the performer. 

- Nancy Stoaks, Fire! Dramaturg  

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