New Niki de Saint Phalle Exhibition at Charlotte’s Bechtler Museum

by Daniel Haim

The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art presents Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology now through October 3, 2011. The Bechtler worked with the Niki Charitable Art Foundation to select pieces that would celebrate the artist’s extraordinary appetite for myths and legends as interpreted through dynamic and often provocative sculpture, paintings and prints. The Bechtler presents 55 works inside the museum and five, large-scale outdoor sculptures in the Wells Fargo public park across the street, in addition to the Firebird sculpture by de Saint Phalle permanently installed on the museum’s plaza.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology is made possible with a generous grant from Wells Fargo Private Bank.

“Wells Fargo Private Bank is pleased to be the presenting sponsor of this compelling exhibition,” commented Madelyn Caple, Wells Fargo Private Bank Regional Director. “Niki de Saint Phalle’s approach to art was both intellectually rigorous and playful all at once. Her work is appealing and intriguing to both adults and children, established and novice museumgoers and those with a natural curiosity about modern art. The installation at The Green, a Wells Fargo property, will allow the public to engage with the art seven days a week through fall of this year in a beautiful outdoor space.” Caple adds, “This unique installation is a natural way for us to continue our already significant investment in the development of Uptown Charlotte’s cultural facilities.”

About Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki, as she preferred to be called, was one of the most significant and unconventional female artists of the 20th century. She burst upon the art world in the 1960s as a provocative and wildly independent artist whose life and work were equally flamboyant. She became the only female member of the avant-garde Nouveau Réalistes, a contemporary of America’s Pop art movement, and collaborated with leading artists of the day including Yves Klein, Christo and Jean Tinguely, whom she later married.

She is best known for her series of “Nanas,” voluminous female forms often constructed in joyful, dance-like poses, and large-scale installations such as the Stravinsky Fountain near the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tarot Garden in Tuscany. Niki’s work often reflected her life and revealed her opinions about femininity, mythology, fairytales, violence and personal anxiety. She died in 2002 of pneumonia, her lungs damaged by decades of breathing polyester fiber used in the creation of many of her works.

Exhibition Focus

The works in Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology range from the whimsical and wondrous to dark and serious. The exhibition relies on a handful of interconnected ideas and opinions to reveal the intellectual depth and reach of Niki’s engagement with the worlds of myth, legend, religion and cultural archetypes. Many works by Niki are set in fantastic surroundings—dreamscapes populated by strange creatures, combinations of animals out of place with each other and their environment, sometimes threatening, other times benevolent and peaceful. Niki passed through various stages in her evolution as an intellectual, an artist and a woman and viewers will see several of these stages throughout the works in this exhibition.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology provides intellectual inquiry mixed with a sense of provocation, joy and delight. The exhibition marks the first time the Bechtler has displayed works from outside its collection. Fifty-nine of the 60 works are on loan from the Niki Charitable Arts Foundation. The whimsical and boldly colored sculptures, prints and tableau éclaté (kinetic wall sculpture) represent five decades of the artist’s career.

Outdoor Sculptures

Niki’s outdoor sculptures are admired by audiences across the globe. Her playful, larger-than-life creations are constructed from fiberglass, colorful stones, glass, mirrors and ceramic tiles. The total weight of the five sculptures included in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art exhibition is 13,046 pounds. In partnership with Wells Fargo, which owns the 1.5 acre landscaped park atop a four-level parking structure across the street from the Bechtler, five works have been strategically placed throughout the space based upon the weight of each piece.

Visitors are encouraged to touch the outdoor works. The artist especially enjoyed seeing children climbing on her animal sculptures. Cat, on view in the Bechtler’s exhibition, is meant to be explored from the inside out as is La Cabeza, the brightly colored skull that sits along the Tryon Street side of the park.

Also included among the outdoor works are sculptures of Miles Davis and Tiger Woods (Golf Player), two figures from Niki’s Black Heroes series, which portrays famous African-American musicians and athletes.

Currently, audio commentary for only the Miles Davis and La Cabeza sculptures is accessible by mobile phone. Audio for the remaining three sculptures will follow at a later date. The phone numbers will appear on the exhibition label for each artwork.

Exhibition-related Programming
Jazz at the Bechtler (April 1). This popular music series moves outside and across the street to The Green for a tribute to Miles Davis performed near Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculpture of the musician. 6 to 8 p.m. Admission fee to be determined.
Film (April 15). Monster in the Forest: The Story of the Cyclop is an art-house film about the collaborative efforts of Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle in the creation of the Cyclop, a monumental sculpture located on the outskirts of Paris. Museum video gallery, 6 p.m. Free with museum admission.
One Work lecture (April 18). Vive Moi, a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, will be the focus of a discussion led by museum President and CEO John Boyer. Fourth-floor gallery, 6 p.m. Free for members and $10 for non-members.
Music and Museum Series (April 29 and May 1). Performances of Chamber Music and Jazz: The Fusion Cabaret will feature music composed by Claude Bolling and William Bolcom paired with artwork by Niki de Saint Phalle. Lobby, 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for museum members, $20 for non-members.
Family Day (May 7). Kids of all ages can experiment with methods and materials addressed in the Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition. Activities will be held on the museum plaza, in the lobby and across the street in The Green, noon to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free for those under 18 years old; all others receive a discounted ticket price of $4.
The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is dedicated to the exhibition of mid-20th-centry modern art. It is named after the family of Andreas Bechtler who assembled and inherited a collection created by seminal figures in modernism. The museum is located at Levine Center for the Arts,420 South Tryon Street, Charlotte, N.C.