San Diego is a colorful city, and there’s no better way to experience it than through our art scene. Ingrained in the culture are the works of Niki de Saint Phalle, a French-American artist with local ties.
Exploring the city, you’re likely to find the influence of de Saint Phalle because San Diego has the highest concentration of her paintings + sculptures in the US. But these aren’t simply beautiful pieces — they also tell her story. It’s hard to summarize the impact of this avant garde artist, but we’re going to give it a shot.
Who is Niki de Saint Phalle?
Born in France in 1930, the artist spent most of her childhood in New York and became a model at the age of 18. After giving birth to her first child in Boston, she returned to Paris to study theater + acting — and while coping with the stress of her program, found comfort in painting.
In the early 1960s, after a divorce, de Saint Phalle gained recognition for one of her most iconic works: “Tirs” (aka “Shooting Pictures”). For this performative display, she would attach bags of paint to plaster and the public would shoot them, creating a bleeding effect. She literally took shots at the status quo, which helped make her a prominent figure in the Nouveau Réalisme movement.
This colorful bird stands tall as de Saint Phalle’s oldest piece with San Diego roots, and is the first piece commissioned by UC San Diego’s Stuart Collection. The 14-ft “Sun God” statue arrived on the campus in 1983 and watches over the grassy area by the Faculty Club + Mandeville Auditorium. Of course, students have fun with his statue, the “Sun God Festival” has become a yearly tradition.
Themes of feminism are present in most of de Saint Phalle’s works, but nowhere is this more evident than her “Nanas” sculptures. These colorful, god-like sculptures celebrate the female form and challenge conventional beauty standards. The name itself, nana, is a slightly derogatory word for a young woman in French. This style of art can be found at local exhibits, currently on display.
- “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla through Sun., July 17.
- You can visit the “Niki & Mingei” exhibit at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park through Sun., Oct. 2. You’ll also find “La Poete et sa Muse” at the back entrance.
Playing with art
While de Saint Phalle’s work has some serious tones, her fun color schemes invite people to play — and the pieces at local parks invite you to do just that.
- “Nikigator” can be found in Balboa Park outside of the Mingei International Museum — it briefly moved to Liberty Station a few years ago while the museum was undergoing renovations.
- Waterfront Park has three pieces. “Arbre Serpents” + “#19 Baseball Player” fit the fun, sunny environment, but children can actually crawl around the “Large Seal” sculpture.
“Queen Califia’s Magical Circle”
One of the artist’s final works in her lifetime can be found in Escondido’s Kit Carson Park and takes inspiration for mythical tales of California. The 120-ft magical garden features nine large-scale sculptures including: a snake wall, a black + white maze made of mirrored tiles, and “Queen Califia’’ standing on an eagle in the center. The exhibit opened + was dedicated to de Saint Phalle on Oct. 26, 2003; it’s open for free entry on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and some Saturdays.
More Niki de Saint Phalle
The tour isn’t over yet. San Diego is home to a few more pieces to help us remember the legendary artist.
- The “Coming Together” statue can be found in the grassy area at Harbor Drive + Eighth Avenue by the San Diego Convention Center.
- The “Grande Step Totem” is located at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido — 340 N. Escondido Blvd.
- Barbarella Restaurant & Bar in La Jolla takes a lot of inspiration from the artist, but she actually designed the “Pizza Oven.”