Art Expanded, 1958–1978


Walker Living Collections Catalogue

Pop Gun Art

Niki de Saint Phalle and the Operatic Multiple

Pop Gun Art

Niki de Saint Phalle and the Operatic Multiple


Taking as her starting point an evening in March 1966, when gunshots rang out in an outdoor courtyard at the Walker Art Center, art historian Nicole L. Woods traces the life of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Untitled from Edition MAT 64 (1964). The work is one of the artist’s iconic shot paintings, made as part of a series of multiples produced by Daniel Spoerri’s publishing outfit Multiplication d’Art Transformable. Contextualizing the Walker’s piece within the series, Woods discusses the artist’s approach to audience activation, collaboration, and catharsis.

Woods, Nicole L. “Pop Gun Art: Niki de Saint Phalle and the Operatic Multiple.” In Art Expanded, 1958-1978, edited by Eric Crosby with Liz Glass. Vol. 2 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015.
Walker Art Center ©2015
Niki de Saint Phalle, Untitled from Edition MAT 64, 1964, plaster, paint, plastic, wood; ed. 22/100, 28 ⅜ x 21 5/16 x 2 13/16 in. (72.1 × 54.1 × 7.1 cm) framed. Collection Walker Art Center, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Nash, 1966, 1966.16.

On March 15, 1966, in an outdoor courtyard at the Walker Art Center and before a small audience of art enthusiasts and collectors, Minneapolis-based artist Hollis MacDonald fired a pellet gun at Niki de Saint Phalle’s plaster-coated painting Untitled from Edition MAT 64 (1964). The following evening, armed once again, MacDonald shot another round at a similar painting, this time in a collaborative effort with Edgar Nash, the president of the Minnesota Collectors Club and the sponsor of both events. As the two men aimed at Saint Phalle’s rough surface, it became increasingly evident that the small bags of red, black, orange, and yellow paint embedded underneath the plaster would not easily release and that successful shots from multiple viewpoints (at far and close range) required utmost focus, endurance, and dexterity.1 Addressing the difficulties of the work’s execution as well as the important questions raised by the antinomies of the modernist art object in the 1960s, the curator for the related exhibition, Jan van der Marck, is quoted in a local paper as saying: “It brings out the ultimate absurdity of abstract art.”2

While almost certainly a clipped version of van der Marck’s longer observations in a lecture he delivered before the shootings, the evocation of the conceptually abstract might be an apt description for the spirit of the artworks presented at the Walker in the exhibition Editions MAT 1964 and 1965. This particular group of works comprised a two-year run of Edition MAT (Multiplication d’Art Transformable): an extensive collection of large and small art objects, sixty-five in total, assembled by Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri in collaboration with Galerie Der Spiegel in Cologne. Spoerri’s collections of multiples and the exhibition they spawned at the Walker included works by several Nouveau Réaliste artists, such as Saint Phalle, Arman, Christo, and Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely as well as American Pop artists Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein.3 The publisher’s first full-scale edition of multiples was produced by Spoerri in 1959 and consisted of fourteen portable objects that were uniquely “transformable” or mobile. Often these objects invited the spectator to alter their dimensions, to change or otherwise complete them, as Saint Phalle’s certainly did. The original 1959 series followed a basic pattern that Spoerri would replicate with later iterations. The invited contemporary artists would create original works, conceptualizing objects that could be copied and reproduced by master craftspeople in an edition of 100 under the umbrella of Edition MAT. Spoerri would then make the works available (on order) to museums, art professionals, private collectors, and general audiences, setting the price equally (no matter the particular status of the artist) and affordably. Ideally, all of the reproductions would include an original signature by each contributing artist inscribed in some way on their respective works.4 As a result of this formulaic process, a typical Edition MAT series entailed a network of objects that were conceived in one location, created in another, and distributed, exhibited, collected, and sold in various others. Victor Vasarely, an early and regular contributor to Edition MAT, signaled the liberating effects of this unusual approach: “Such a work will be intense, durable and generous, freed by its inventor for others or for a machine to recreate.”5

As it was developing in its earliest incarnations, then, the logic of the multiple effectively challenged the auratic quality of art objects and the fictiveness of prevailing modernist narratives, upsetting the ethos of the authentic, unrepeatable work of art.6 In its destabilization of highly regulated zones of cultural and financial capital in the art market, where the reinvention of art as an object (and signifier) was revealed as already in perpetual flux, Spoerri’s positioning of the multiple as a supplement to (rather than an elimination of) preexisting forms and media was a victory of movement over stasis, both economically and aesthetically. Indeed, Spoerri was careful to correct the misconception that editioned originals were intended to utterly supplant the discrete work of art: “The objectual [sic] artwork that is not static but that changes itself, or changes through the cooperation of the viewer, actually conserves, even when multiplied, its uniqueness and originality.”7 With an element of transformation (and, thus, uniqueness), Edition MAT multiples produced original works of art in series—rather than mass-produced art objects.8

Saint Phalle was commissioned to participate in the project in 1964. Solicited by Spoerri to provide instructions for how her multiples should be executed, she responded with a letter written to Spoerri’s collaborator Karl Gerstner enumerating a set of “operating instructions.” Though unequivocally direct, her instructions point to an unusual (though signature for the artist) creative act, one to be explicitly followed by amateur marksmen, museum professionals, art patrons, and other interested parties. They read, in full:

  1. Lean picture against a wall.
  2. Put a strong board behind it (if required, in order to protect the wall).
  3. Take a .22 long rifle and load with short ammunition.
  4. Shoot the color pouches which are embedded in the plaster until they have “bled” (or until you like the picture).
  5. Attention! Leave the picture in the same position until well dried. Then still be careful, as remains of color not yet dry might run over the picture.9

The emphasis Saint Phalle gives here to the procedures for producing the work—the precision implied in choice of gun, ammunition, and effects of drying paint—is noteworthy, though rarely discussed in the Saint Phalle literature, both for its level of detail and for its relative flexibility. The identity of the shooter is not classified by gender or any other parameters, nor does Saint Phalle indicate any specified location for the shooting event. Rather, the “instructions” ultimately remain open-ended: aim and shoot until “you like the picture.”10 As a result, Saint Phalle’s premise for the edition was fascinatingly simple. Her “pop gun” method ensured that the monochromatic white could instantly transform into a polychromatic field of intensity; while the multiplication of the blank plaster canvases provided under the Edition MAT portfolio could offer the experience to unknown others.

In its combination of passion and passivity, its inherent performative element, and its experimentation with unusual forms of making (here, guns and bullets carry out much of the artist labor), Saint Phalle’s Untitled from Edition MAT 64 bridges the artist/participant divide by shifting the terms of art practice vis-à-vis the very trope and paradox of creative destruction. What begins as a pristine white plaster form is irrevocably altered as the black and orange paint sacks spurt, splatter, drip out of the open orifices and down the center of the relief. The violence evoked by these scattered holes provides clear visual evidence of the work’s unorthodox making. Set in the context of Saint Phalle’s larger oeuvre, Untitled from Edition MAT 64 can be read both as a transposition of a personal medium of catharsis, and also, through the lens of its multiplication, as an object whose possibility and potentiality exist unmediated by the artist herself.11 Which is to say, by releasing herself from the task of shooting, and by providing instructions for interested spectators to complete the work on original fabrications, Saint Phalle restages the idea of painting as an operatic multiple—a dramatic, openly conceived set of aesthetic operations predicated on an explicit activation by individual viewers and finalized by an indeterminate set of outcomes.12 Of course, by 1966 the precedence for an art practice grounded in the exploration of chance and indeterminacy, change and technical experimentation, had been set by others. For Saint Phalle, however, this broad engagement with risk and unintended effects was equally grounded in her own formation as an artist—a pre-history of sorts that is worth retelling.

Chance and Gunfire

The result doesn’t really interest me except as a document or a photograph. The only thing which really interests me is the spectacle, the event itself. —Niki de Saint Phalle13

On February 12, 1961, Saint Phalle began shooting at her paintings in a dilapidated alleyway near her studio at the Impasse Ronsin, located in the 15th arrondissement of Paris.14 Enacting a radical shift from her earlier naïve aesthetic expressed through small figurative paintings and drawings that were created during a period of personal self-recovery in the late 1950s, Saint Phalle’s more dramatically rendered surfaces were now packed with found objects, fossilized in white plaster, and attenuated by small sacs of multi-colored oil paint that would burst open upon the artist’s firings from a .22 caliber rifle.15 More than an artistically mature departure from colorfully painted illusions of idyllic scenes set in shallow depth and space, Saint Phalle’s Tirs séances (or “shooting performances”) were fundamental renegotiations of the very boundaries of acceptable art practice—and, indeed, of the relationship between an artist and her public.

Saint Phalle’s shooting events in Paris, and later Nice, Amsterdam, Stockholm, London, and Los Angeles, were well-attended by her most intimate circle of interlocutors. Examining the photographs of these events, many snapped by Harry Shunk, we might find Saint Phalle’s partner, Tinguely; art critic Pierre Restany; gallerist Jeannine de Goldschmidt; poet John Ashbery; her estranged husband, Harry Mathews, and their two children; various neighbors; and artists Daniel and Vera Spoerri, Hugh Weiss, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ad Reinhardt, and Edward Kienholz, among others.16 Since Saint Phalle considered the sessions to be performance events, or “spectacles,” she amplified their theatricality by arranging for their media-documentation in photographs and short films that painstakingly disclose her methods.17 In addition to the before-and-after images of the firings, where Saint Phalle is often pictured striking defiant or bemused poses, other scenes reveal the creative process leading up to the event. These photographs capture the frenetic assemblage of readymade stuff (including toy guns, baby dolls, shoes, crockery, cans, bottles, chicken wire, detritus, bits of ephemera, etc.), the filling of bags of paint and their attachment to the wooden supports, the white-washing of paint over the entire surface, and the ultimate dunk into milky-white plaster. The performative nature of the paintings and the artist’s self-awareness on camera recalls Hans Namuth’s infamous photographs of Jackson Pollock’s dramatic painting process—images that have defined our understanding of his active bodily presence.18 However, in Saint Phalle’s hands, there is an explicit refusal of the terms of abstraction that Pollock and others of his generation perfected—i.e., the expression of exquisite anguish that could be exorcized by subjective brushwork from the singular, heroic male artist. In fact, by inviting participation, Saint Phalle’s shooting performances leverage the sort of aggression evidenced in Pollock and other action painters, but also encourage, if not outright require, an active cooperation and participation that creates a distinct and direct relationship to painting. It is the interested spectator who is invited to pick up the gun and execute the painting alongside the artist, in situ—to join the aesthetic process in a shared effort that unites artist and audience in a specific time and space. As she recounted:

We [would take] turns shooting. It was an amazing feeling shooting at a painting and watching it transform itself into a new being. It was not only EXCITING and SEXY, but TRAGIC—as though one were witnessing a birth and a death at the same moment. It was a MYSTERIOUS event that completely captivated anyone who shot.19

Restany, the promoter and curator who penned the manifesto of the Nouveau Réaliste group, remembers being so enthralled by the “spectacular ritual and metamorphic effect” of the shootings in the Impasse Ronsin that he decided “on the spot” to invite Saint Phalle to join the group’s ranks.20

This spirit of collaborative, even playful complicity with her public came shortly after Saint Phalle’s inclusion in the Salon de Comparisons: Peinture Sculpture exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In the exhibition, Saint Phalle admired a plain white canvas relief on view by Dutch artist Bram Bogart. In a letter penned to curator Pontus Hulten on the occasion of her career retrospective, the artist vividly describes the spark of inspiration that the work ignited:

Looking at [the Bogart relief]—FLASH! I imagined the painting bleeding—wounded; the way people can be wounded. For me, the painting became a person with feelings and sensations.

What if there were [sic] paint behind the plaster? I told Jean Tinguely about my vision and my desire to make a painting bleed by shooting at it. Jean was crazy about the idea; he suggested I start right away.21

However much the Bogart monochrome may be seen as a source of her eventual painting-by-gunshot experiment, by the time of the Comparisons show, Saint Phalle was already incorporating activation (and anthropomorphism) into her pieces. At this exhibition, visitors were invited to throw darts at her work, Hors d’oeuvre (Portrait of my Lover/Portrait of Myself) (1960), a “montage” bisected in half. The top of the work was a painted blue background with a target; while the bottom included a white long-sleeved man’s shirt riddled with small metal objects and buttons of various sizes and colors embedded in plaster. The appropriation of a target, a clear homage to her friend Jasper Johns, carries with it the implications of sight and focus, but also execution, scars, and wounds. As the artist recalled:

When I saw it hanging in the show I was fascinated to see the spectators throwing darts at the construction, and the idea of audience participation attracted me, so I started thinking up a new way of getting the audience to play with the work, and to be involved with the work. I had the idea of putting behind a plaster form some bottles of paint; these would be fired on with a gun, and the paint thus released.22

Another target-painting Saint Phalle made during this time was Saint Sébastien (Portrait of My Lover) (1961). Created for an exhibition of kinetic art, Bewogen Beweging (Art in Motion), held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the canvas is contained by a black wooden frame, the assemblage again forming an ostensible outline of a man’s body (complete with white shirt and tie being “stabbed” by rusty nails), and a black-and-white target located just above the collar (in place of a head), with splattered and stained Pollockian skeins of swirling, dripping paint covering the garment. Underneath the hanging assemblage sat a small table with darts, again explicitly encouraging gallery-goers to take up the task and throw them at the human form. By inviting the audience into active participation, Saint Phalle set up a provocative scenario that serves to transfer and disperse a sense of personal loss (for Saint Phalle, a thwarted love affair) onto the viewer. In referencing the image of an early Christian saint and martyr, Saint Sebastian, and its requisite iconography of piercing arrows, the action encouraged by Saint Phalle’s piece is also reminiscent of Man Ray’s Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed) (1923/1964)—the readymade metronome with a photograph of the eye of “one who has been loved but is seen no more” attached to the arm of the instrument. The viewer-participant, when reaching “the limit of endurance,” is instructed to smash the object in one blow.23

Eager to continue her experiments with the materiality of paint, forms of collage, and the visceral participation of spectators, Saint Phalle organized twelve firing sessions at the Impasse Ronsin and other locations. In June 1961, she prepared a number of new works on the occasion of her solo exhibition Feu à volonté (Fire at Will) at the Galerie J in Paris—the first Tirs séance inside the space of a gallery. At the opening of the exhibition, Saint Phalle summoned visitors to take up her .22 caliber rifle and contribute to a collective firing at the encrusted reliefs.24 Transforming the art gallery into a shooting gallery, the artist equipped the space with a mechanical rotating target created by Tinguely and a staging platform from which her participants could take aim. Among those who seized the weapon were Jean Fautrier, Iris Clert, Restany, Yves Klein, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella. Continuing an anthropomorphic sensibility begun in her dart paintings, Feu à volonté featured two works, Homage to Bob Rauschenberg and Tir de Jasper Johns (both 1961), which Saint Phalle gifted as individual “portraits” to her friends after inviting them to execute the shootings prior to installation.25 Reviewing the show for the New York Herald Tribune, John Ashbery noted the general significance of her intervention, writing, “[She] has invented a new kind of painting that must be finished by the spectator [emphasis mine] with the aid of the rifle bullets fired at the canvas.”26 Indeed, the stance and placement of the participant, their distance from the target, the quality of their aim, and the force of discharge onto the canvas were all unpredictable indicators of the work’s final form. As this early exhibition exemplifies, Saint Phalle’s expansion of the traditional methods of painting and sculpture, her creation-by-destruction aesthetic, and her early adoption of chance and participation secured for her a formidable position within the neo-avant-garde and fortified a subjective awakening which, at least to Restany, can be interpreted as “part-militant” feminism.27

Saint Phalle was not the only advanced artist of the postwar era to invoke a kind of violence or aggression into artworks and performances. Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale–Attessa (Spatial Concept–Expectation) (1964–1965), Yves Klein’s Fire Paintings (1961–1962), Philip Corner’s Piano Activities (1962), Dick Higgins’s Danger Music #2 (1962) , or Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail In (1961/1967), and later, Cut Piece (1964–1965), to name but a limited sampling, all involve some expression of animus. This grouping of works also reveals the extent to which art had expanded to include experiences and objects culled from everyday activities, and in some cases, demanded in turn the artist and/or viewer’s full bodily interaction to complete the work.28 Equally for Saint Phalle, an overlooked pioneer in the genre of performance art, the temporal and contingent nature of the relationship between artist and spectator also took on new urgency and meaning. In particular, what she shared with the New York avant-garde and her Nouveau Réaliste compatriots was a wish to demythologize and democratize art in multitudinous ways by seeking out opportunities for collaborative performances with audiences that were (at least ideally) actively present and engaged.

It was also in 1961 that Saint Phalle joined Tinguely, Rauschenberg, Johns, and David Tudor for a concert of John Cage’s Variations II, organized by Darthea Speyer at the Theater of the American Embassy in Paris.29 In this event, the shooting of Saint Phalle’s prepared assemblage, Tir de l’Ambassade Américaine (1961), was executed by a hired marksman and occurred simultaneously with Tinguely and Rauschenberg’s performances—the former operating a “strip-tease” machine that self-destructed as it moved across the stage, and the latter painting a large canvas, turned away from the audience, equipped with a microphone amplifying the sounds of its making. For much of the event, Tudor played John Cage’s Variations II, while Saint Phalle preferred to sit on the ground next to the piano. The marksman was specifically included to make Tudor feel safer, though his unusual task also unnerved Rauschenberg. For his part, Johns did not perform on stage but rather contributed a target made of flowers he ordered from a local Parisian florist.30 A second performance in 1961 between Saint Phalle and Rauschenberg took place at the Bewogen Beweging exhibition and resulted in the artists unfurling a large canvas onto the museum floor and painting with their feet.31 And a third, iconoclastic performance occurred in spring 1962 when Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Rauschenberg joined Merce Cunningham at the Maiden Playhouse in New York for a rather raucous one-night production of Kenneth Koch’s play Construction of Boston. During that performance, Saint Phalle shot at a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo.32

Despite the artists’ best efforts, the spectators at each of these performances were given little opportunity to openly participate in the happenings as they unfolded, and often responded with confusion or mirrored aggression. In fact, after the Variations II event, Saint Phalle recalls, “The audience, except for Leo Castelli and a few fans, was not nearly as enthusiastic about the concert as we were … they hissed and booed and a lot of people left before the end. We found the hostility and anger stimulating.”33 If not direct action, what Saint Phalle was keen on providing to her public was a spectacle of creative destruction worthy of collective catharsis—even if the release remained in the visual realm.

Performance as Protest

It was a terribly exciting thing because one could get out all of one’s aggressive feelings and you weren’t harming anyone. I was able to get out all of my aggressions and not harm anybody. —Niki de Saint Phalle34

In accounts of Saint Phalle’s shooting performances, the trope of creation through ritualized destruction as a set of aesthetic choices that function as signifiers of her traumatic childhood is the most consistently evoked interpretive framework.35 She certainly encouraged these often over-determined interpretations and asserted that her bellicosity and her interest in participatory experiences had a particular therapeutic aim: they were meant to act first against the suffocating and conservative cultural structures of the era; second, against the strictures of a Catholic Church grappling with modernity; and third, against the destructive patriarchal order of her immediate family. In this regard, it is important to quote the artist’s reflections at length:

…WHO was the painting? Daddy? All men? Small men? Tall men? Fat men? My brother JOHN? Or was the painting ME? Did I shoot myself during a RITUAL which enabled me to die by my own hand and be reborn? I was immortal! The new bloodbath of red, yellow, and blue splattered over the pure white relief metamorphosized the painting into a tabernacle for DEATH and RESURRECTION. I was shooting at my own violence and the VIOLENCE of the times. By shooting at my own violence, I no longer had to carry it inside of me like a burden. During the two years I spent shooting I was not sick one day. It was great therapy for me.

The ritual of painting a relief over and over again in immaculate virginal white was very important to me. The theatricality of the whole performance appealed to me immensely.36

Ritual, death, resurrection, violence, and theatricality: each term deployed by Saint Phalle serves to emphasize the smashing of boundaries (social, cultural, familial) in the context of her own personal traumas via the shooting performances. In returning to her claim that “the result doesn’t really interest me except as a document or a photograph,” we can see that, in Saint Phalle’s hands, participation operates as a form of evidence, of witnessing, of revelation and release.

As vital as her recollections and personal motivations behind the shooting paintings remain, it is also useful to understand these personal dramas within the larger political context of the early 1960s. Indeed, it was against the backdrop of the very real violence on the streets of Paris—as the de Gaulle government was battling a seemingly perpetual theater of war against the Algerians—that Saint Phalle was assembling, exhibiting, and organizing her shooting paintings and performances. The artist even affirmed that the works were at least tangentially related to France’s colonial occupation of Algeria:

Today it seems quite incredible that one was able to shoot freely in the middle of Paris. A retired cop who lived nearby came and watched the shoot-outs as soon as he heard the shooting begin! He liked these events and never asked about a gun permit—this was in the middle of the Algerian war! […] The smoke [of the gun] gave the impression of war. The painting was the victim.37

Moreover, a number of assemblages she created during the French-Algerian conflict included objects that reflected violence, weapons, and destruction, such as a meat clever in Danger (1960–1961) and real and plastic pistols in Duel, Pistolets, Revolution, Roue de fortune, Two Guns and One Knife, Green Sky, and Revolver and Paint Lid (1960–1961). As Pierre Descargues recalled from his experiences with Saint Phalle, her work, and performances:

We shot at the sun, at Heads of State, at bunches of flowers, monsters and Messiahs. It did us good. It soothed a little raging desire to destroy this lopsided civilization we’re glued and paralyzed in. Feasts, sometimes, are funeral feasts, and Saint-Phalle’s [firing] booth was an out and out funeral parlor.38

The “Heads of State” were represented by plastered masks of famous contemporary and historical figures, such as Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Karl Marx, a few of which would later end up in her monumental assemblage relief King Kong (1963–1964). One clear gesture toward the pervasive sense of violence and death is a 1962 altarpiece titled OAS (Oeuvre d’art sacre). In titling this work, Saint Phalle makes cunning (and punning) reference to the Organization Armée Secrète (1954–1962), the nationalist right-wing paramilitary group responsible for staging terrorist actions in protest over Algeria’s fight for independence from French colonial rule. As it were, Saint Phalle’s assemblages and shootings directly connect the experience of urban warfare in the tumultuous period and even provide a gallery-goer the opportunity to take up arms in a kind of protest by proxy.39 When she traveled with Tinguely to Los Angeles in 1962 and 1963, Saint Phalle also referenced the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and civil unrest in gun-toting performances she staged at the Malibu home of gallery owner Virginia Dwan, where she shot at bags and cans of paint to complete King Kong.40 In an increasingly excitable television interview for David Brinkley’s Journal (NBC, 1962), Saint Phalle offered her thoughts on the state of contemporary art and its relationship to death within this environment:

Oil painting is finished. It’s finished now because we are concerned with other problems. We are concerned with death; we’re concerned with objects … we want to find a new way … Making my paintings … the shooting is magic. The shooting is the normative. The shooting is the only thing that lives because everything is dead afterwards … the shooting is that one moment when the miracle happens. Nothing is more beautiful to me as when the shooting takes place and all the bags burst. I mean it isn’t as beautiful as war, it isn’t as beautiful as seeing someone killed, or the atom bomb, but it’s the most that I can do.

My problem is creating. It’s creating now. It’s creating beauty. It’s creating something! It’s creating something, which has something to do with you, with now, with bombs, and everything exploding, and the end of the world! 41

While the polemical nature of her comments falls in line with the historical avant-garde and its tendency to wax rhetorically about the search for exquisite beauty through destruction, it remains important to situate the shootings in the context of the pressing geopolitical realities of the day, including feminist liberation movements.42 Saint Phalle did not specifically identify with feminist politics until much later in life. Yet the act of a woman wielding a gun in a public space, in an embrace of an aesthetic of violence predicated on an ethos of self-preservation, was as daring and provocative as one could be at that time.


If our life lacks brimstone, i.e., constant magic, it is because we chose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in considerations of their imagined form instead of being compelled by their force. —Antonin Artaud43

By 1964, Saint Phalle grew bored and weary from the shootings and began to shift her artistic energies toward a new suite of sculptural works that took the form of voluptuous female goddess figures, mothers, brides, monsters, and the large-scale, brightly colored Nanas. Saint Phalle recalls:

After a shoot-out I felt completely stoned. I became hooked on this macabre but joyous ritual. It got to the point where I lost control, my heart was pounding during the shoot-outs. I started trembling before and during the performance. I was in an ecstatic state […] I wasn’t able to think of a new way to make the shooting paintings and I didn’t want to do the same thing I had already done. IT HAD TO BE NEW OR NOT BE, so I gave up the idea.44

It was at this moment of psychological and creative exhaustion that Spoerri invited her to contribute an idea for Edition MAT. Agreeing to the project immediately, Saint Phalle took her then most recognizable aesthetic brand—prepared relief paintings composed by chance and gunfire—and hereby liberated the role of production, giving the shootings over for others to complete. In this way, the lessons of chance and the exciting temporal experiences of form were not lost on Saint Phalle. She intimately understood that through the shootings, and their extended life in multiples, her art practice did not abandon a subject so much as transfer or exchange it in indeterminate ways. The plastered surfaces of the editioned canvases became sites of transgression. The body of the shooter, activated during the performance, served to materialize and make legible the body as an aesthetic agent, and also the body as violent being. The aggression of this action was projected, literally, toward an unmoving target, but also radiated out toward the non-shooting viewers, who by force of the visual and the tactile were incorporated as participants in the action. The exhilarating though confrontational event was punctuated by sonic vibrations of a gun fired in rapid succession, demanding the attention of the viewers and embroiling the performance-as-spectacle to include all those present. As Antonin Artaud might have it, this kind of work gave the viewer “everything that is in crime, love, war, or madness.”45

If Edition MAT was predicated on the changeability of objects, their dispersion and democratization, and not simply on the replication of art through mechanical means, then Saint Phalle’s contribution fulfills Spoerri’s ultimate fantasy of the “uniquely transformable” work of art. No matter the shooter, each performance would always yield dramatically different results. As such, the paintings made under the auspices of Edition MAT are a more radical grappling with notions of autonomous production and authorship than even the original Tirs assemblage paintings fired on by Saint Phalle, precisely because they operate best as proposals for action rather than mere vessels for looking. Whatever the final aesthetic outcome (we will recall that each was subjected to the “laws of chance” and accident), there is something alluring about those burst holes that evoke both personal devastation and capital violence–a gesture toward a temporal surrendering to the pain of all that is monstrous in the world.

Ultimately, Untitled from Edition MAT 64 speaks to Saint Phalle’s personal background and artistic innovations, while harboring an uneasy parallel to the violence that was erupting in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, in the emerging student liberation movement in France, in the decolonialization struggles across the African continent, and in the devastating war in Southeast Asia.46 Perhaps the political and personal implications of Saint Phalle’s work were not known or apparent to Hollis MacDonald and Edgar Nash as they took a pellet gun to Saint Phalle’s Untitled in the Walker’s outdoor courtyard. Certainly, photographs of the evening’s events reveal a sense of exuberance and merriment shared by the participants and onlooking patrons. Yet by taking up arms to complete Saint Phalle’s work, these participants also take on her destructive-creative duality, enacting (perhaps even fetishizing) violence associated with political terror. In this way, Saint Phalle’s work enacts a subtle conflation between besieged urban spaces caught in battles for desegregation, political emancipation, and the like; and the corresponding but isolated hermetic spaces of contemporary art. For Saint Phalle, practice, space, and reception are already overloaded with political, historical, economic, social, and cultural content; her participatory aesthetic actions carry with them the implications of the artist’s biography and the political context of their making even through the process of multiplication and dispersion. By making the mechanism of creation-through-destruction visible and available for others to explore, Saint Phalle’s pop-gun multiple exists not only as an indexical trace of Hollis MacDonald’s or Edgar Nash’s artistic efforts via the artist’s invitation to shoot. More significantly, it emphasizes the possibility of art as an instrument for political consciousness and serves as a reminder of the bewildering, ubiquitous violence that binds private and public.

Nicole L. Woods is an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches modern and contemporary art history, criticism, and theory with a focus on the neo-avant-garde, performance, and gender studies. Her current book project, Alison Knowles, Fluxus, and the Provisional Work of Postwar Art, is the first in-depth study of the diverse art objects, performances, environmental works, visual poems, and publishing activities of American artist Alison Knowles. She is also working on a second project that examines the convergence of feminism, political radicalism, and expanded media practices in the 1960s and 1970s. Her essays and criticism have appeared in publications such as X-TRA: A Contemporary Art Quarterly, Performance Research, and Radical Philosophy.