Walk into the east wing of Houston’s Menil Collection, and you might be forgiven for thinking, just for a moment, that you’ve entered a grisly murder scene. The “victims” hang in the first two galleries of the landmark exhibition “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s,” on view through January 23. They’re the Tirs, or “shooting paintings,” of a French American artist who literally gunned her way into the male-dominated art world of the early 1960s with a .22-caliber rifle, unloading on canvases that held concealed paint in bags, tubes, and cans. When hit, the works bled, splattered, and sprayed. Saint Phalle’s explosive technique makes the famous drips of Jackson Pollock seem like docile child’s play.

The following gallery holds a terrific display of the works Saint Phalle unleashed next: figurative assemblages of monstrous brides and her Nanas, the playful, resin-coated sculptures that would become her signature. Named after the French slang word for a bold young woman, the Nanas channel rage into playful, joyful, and disarmingly menacing expressions of feminine power. You can’t help but smile.

Never heard of Saint Phalle? Not surprising. The only prominent woman among Europe’s inventive nouveau réalisme movement of the 1960s, she also belonged to New York’s avant-garde art circles. She is much better known in Europe; only recently, two decades after her death, has she started to get the critical respect she deserves in the United States. Menil Collection founders Dominique and John de Menil, French émigrés to Houston, were among her first champions. Curator Michelle White spent years negotiating the show’s many loans of fragile works from Europe. Now, in the #MeToo era, it feels right on time. The first exhibition on this side of the Atlantic devoted to Saint Phalle’s most experimental decade, the show is co-organized with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where it will travel next year. 

The Tirs on view include three works that the de Menils bought from Saint Phalle’s first New York gallery show. Recognizing her massive, black and white, Godzilla-inspired Gorgo in New York as a masterpiece, the couple initially offered it to the Museum of Modern Art. The director there declined, and—luckily for Texans—donated it instead to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

“This was a sweeping gesture to make, all of these acquisitions,” White says. “The de Menils believed in her work early on, when very few people did.”

Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s at the Menil Collection in Houston
A Menil visitor ponders two of Saint Phalle’s Nana sculptures: Madame, or Green Nana with Black Bag, from 1968, left, and Clarice Again, from 1966–67.Sarah Hobson

Saint Phalle was the romantic and artistic partner of the de Menils’ close friend Jean Tinguely, the Swiss kinetic artist, whose work the de Menils also supported financially. But the friendship wasn’t just built on patronage; the couples were extended family.

The de Menils loved being in the artists’ orbit. Who wouldn’t have? Saint Phalle and Tinguely were Europe’s Frida and Diego, only a lot more fun. “They were a real couple, full of repartee,” says Francois de Menil, one of John and Dominique’s five children. He recalls lively dinners with Saint Phalle and Tinguely at his parents’ homes in Paris, New York, and Houston. Saint Phalle was confident and racy—“a little bit of a provocatrice,” he says. “She’d talk about how the world would be better off if it were a matriarchy, but without being antagonistic. She was always finding things funny.”

A letter that John de Menil typed to Saint Phalle and Tinguely in 1971 reveals their shared warmth. “Once in a while, an envelope comes in—it is big and covered with graffiti—and even before we open it we know that Niki and Jean are faithful friends, and I mean affectionate friends, not just hand-shakers,” he wrote. “Usually we don’t answer because that’s the funny way we are, but through the telepathy system . . . you receive our message back and you know that we love you . . . WE DO.”

The two couples were compatriots, says Menil archivist Lisa Barkley. “I think they felt like they were rebels together.”

Still, Saint Phalle was shocked and impressed that Dominique, a devout Catholic, appreciated the importance of Reims, a creepy black and white Tir she made as a rage against God, depicting the historic French cathedral as a structure of devils.

The artist often exorcised demons, but her humor is there, too. You could spend days sussing out the toy weapons, dolls, monsters, animals, and larger found objects that populate the Tirs’ complex, emotional compositions on plywood supports. Saint Phalle poured white plaster over the assemblages to create blank-but-not-blank canvases before target practice commenced. Along with a rifle, she “painted” with pistols and the occasional small cannon, varying her weaponry to produce a range of dazzling splotches and splashes. 

Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s at the Menil Collection in Houston
Tir, séance 26 juin 1961, from 1961.Paul Hester

Saint Phalle liked to say that she could have been a terrorist instead of an artist, but her destructive acts were also births. “It’s creating beauty; it’s creating something,” she insists in one of the show’s archival videos. “Something that has to do with you, with now, which has to do with bombs and everything exploding at the end of the world!”

Her showmanship made it easy for critics to dismiss the seriousness of Saint Phalle’s work. White, the Menil curator, wants to change that. “In the past everyone has seen her as an outsider artist doing her own thing, being an angry female, shooting against the patriarchy—versus working next to Robert Rauschenberg and thinking about avant-garde tendencies of participation and performance, and how her work is a very early critique of painting,” she says.

Like many of her contemporaries, Saint Phalle aimed to upend traditional painting. Her symbolically loaded assaults took place in public, unfolding as participatory performance art. Guests usually took the first shots. Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella took part in some sessions. The show’s almost minimal Tir de Jasper Johns incorporates some of Johns’s signature motifs, including a target, a clothes hanger, and a light bulb. Johns signed the piece after taking his turn with the gun. It looks like somebody was not a great shot. There’s a good chance it was Saint Phalle who hit the bull’s-eye.

The beautiful and self-aware Saint Phalle also honed her skill with less conspicuous weapons. In the early photos and videos on view, she comes off as a badass, manic tomboy. But she knew how to seduce a camera, having worked during her late teens as a model for French Vogue, Life, and other major magazines. When the shooting paintings made her an international celebrity, she started wearing a form-fitting white pantsuit that amped up the gutsy glamour. Her timing was good: American Westerns were at their peak, and any image of a woman with a gun was titillating. One newsreel dubbed her “art’s Annie Oakley.” 

That tough image belied a life marked by trauma and suffering. Born in a Paris suburb and raised in New York with four siblings, Saint Phalle didn’t grow up in a happy home. She wrote in her memoir Traces that her father, an aristocratic French banker, raped her when she was 11. Although she was determined not to endure the same domestic entrapments as her mother and aunts, Saint Phalle married her first husband, Harry Mathews, at 18; had the first of her two children at 20; and suffered a nervous breakdown at 22. She made paintings and collages to recover, scoring her first gallery show three years later, in Switzerland.

By 1960, at thirty, she was all in. She left Mathews and the kids to concentrate on her art and move in with Tinguely. The Menil show includes one of their many collaborations: a motorized, skeletal monster.

The assertive Nanas that enliven the show’s biggest gallery can make a gal giddy. One titled Clarice Again charms with russet legs as solid as ancient tree trunks and butt cheeks that protrude farther than her ample, round breasts. (Those parts are painted as naive, oh-so-sixties flowers). Madame, or Green Nana with Black Bag is the room’s commanding anchor, suggesting a hefty linebacker in a green floral dress, with spider veins as thick as fishnets on her legs. Smaller Nanas of various materials cavort in two corners of the room. They’re frozen in dance poses, resisting gravity.

The mother of all Nanas was Hon – en katedral (She – a cathedral), a wildly provocative, temporary sculpture commissioned in 1966 by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. A collaboration between Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and the Swedish artist Per Olof Ultvedt, it depicted a pregnant figure on her back, with her legs spread and bent. Made during the early days of immersive installations, it was two stories tall, about eighty feet long, and thirty feet wide. Visitors entered through an oval door between the legs to explore an interior of strange, dark rooms: a hybrid ship engine–movie projector–art gallery–delicatessen, everything crudely handmade. A motorized sculpture pounded glass bottles from the bar, adding noise to the visual chaos. 

The Menil has displayed Saint Phalle’s scale model for Hon beneath a monumental, hand-painted photograph of dressed-up viewers entering the installation. Two display cases of ephemera hint at the excitement it generated. (The Menil will screen Francois de Menil’s films about Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Hon on November 10, followed by a talk between him and White.)

Hon points toward the architectural heft of Saint Phalle’s work from 1970 on, when she produced monumental Nanas around the world with a more maternal eye, to engage children. The masterpiece is her Tarot Garden in Tuscany, a fanciful playground of immersive mosaic structures. No slouch with marketing and promotion, Saint Phalle also designed inflatable soft sculptures and a perfume to help finance her most ambitious projects. She often wore feather-embellished outfits, projecting the aura of an uncaged bird.

White, the curator, says it’s too early to know how Saint Phalle’s legacy will play out long term, because her work still isn’t widely known in the U.S. The exhibit is a jolt even to some of White’s fellow art historians, she says. “It would be so amazing to watch how this show transpires. Hopefully it can inspire younger artists. That would be the greatest gift.”