Only some artists are larger than life itself. Niki de Saint Phalle is definitely one of them. Niki’s work is colorful and emotional and was often utilized to discuss her politics, or rather her disdain for the current political sphere. Unfortunately, Niki’s work went unknown in the United States until her later years, showing how even the most influential artists can succumb to the hyper-male-focused art world that leaves women artists in the shadows.
However, one author wants to introduce Niki to a new generation of art lovers. This author wants to showcase her work and vibrant life, which influenced it all.
Nicole Rudick’s What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)Biography of Niki de Saint Phalle explores the life that influenced decades of the artist’s work. It utilizes Niki’s own words and creations to create an (auto) biography about Niki that allows for readers to a get sense of her life, curated by Nicole.
I spoke with Nicole about her journey to Niki’s work and the book’s creation process.
Jess Bond: What led you to Niki de Saint Phalle’s work?
Nicole Rudick: I can’t remember where I saw her work first, but I know it stuck in my mind for a long time, lingering there. Then, I went to college and minored in art history, and from there, I went to graduate school and got a degree in art history and started working at Art Forum Magazine. So, art was very present and forward in my mind for many years, and she was sort of always there. At some point, I circled back to her, which may in part have been sparked by working at the Paris Review, where her work had been published, and threads of her were in parts of the magazine. So, I returned to it and got to know her work a little bit better and understood that I could see that it was highly autobiographical and that by combining text with her images, she was talking about her life, literally writing about it. And so, I knew I could put that work together in some biography/autobiography of her. And then I pitched it to Siglio, and they said yes instantly.
I knew I could put that work together in some biography/autobiography of her.
JB: What were the challenges in creating this narrative of Niki’s life and work?
NR: One of the significant challenges was keeping myself out of it because I write criticism for a living, and her work interests me. So, I have opinions about it, and there are things that I want to point out about aspects of it and to say about it. And so resisting that urge was difficult, but I had to. I wanted the work to speak for itself and for the reader to engage with it in a way or in a sense that they’re putting the narrative together by reading it and making connections. I had a draft of what was then the afterword where I started to doubt my approach.
So, I wrote up a chronology of her life – a bare-bones chronology – and then I interlaced other materials. Elaborating on certain things and including quotes from her was a way of fleshing it out for the reader. And I sent it to Lisa Pearson, who runs Sigilio, and she said, “You’re doing exactly what you didn’t want to do.” And I knew immediately that she was right, so I stripped out the chronology, kept some of the other material, and wrote around both processes and aspects of her life for what became the preface and the afterword.
So, keeping myself and others out of it was the biggest challenge. I initially thought I would interview people in her life and make a more rounded sense, like the traditional autobiographical way. And as soon as I got deeper into her work, I realized that I didn’t want to drown out her voice at all, which I talked about in the preface, because I wanted her voice and her sense of her own life and her work to be paramount.
I wanted her voice and her sense of her own life and her work to be paramount.
JB: Would you say you see a piece of Niki within yourself in your work?
NR: She was an independent woman. You know, she worked collaboratively with other artists and with writers. But above it all, she was liberated. She had a vision of what she wanted to do with her art. She was interested in women’s lives and with color. And those are all things that interest me. And that appealed to me as a human being, as a writer. So, in that sense, that’s what drew me to her in the first place.
JB: What was your favorite memory or part when working on What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)Biography of Niki de Saint Phalle?
NR: It was all a pleasure to spend time in her archive and make discoveries and findings in the larger sense – work that hadn’t been published or rarely seen – and presenting her work in a way that felt honest to the work itself and felt respectful to what she was trying to do by being put together this way. But, thinking deeply about her work was an enormous pleasure, so the whole project was great.
JB: What do you hope for people to walk away with once finishing this book?
NR: My hope is that they engage with it in a way that I had intended, that it be read, that images are read, and the text is read, and an appreciation of the gaps that are there, the things that aren’t said explicitly. I hope they come away with a sense of her voice, which is automatically a sense of herself and, I guess, just an appreciation for what I tried to do and why I tried to do it.
You know, it’s such an unusual kind of hybrid book. It’s neither one thing nor another, yet both. You see, it was always my sense that her work lends itself to this form in a singular way. You can’t do this with every artist, and nor should you. However, she could also easily be the subject of a traditional biography. I hope this comes off as a way to appreciate her life and her own view of it.
© Jessica Bond (1/16/2023) Special for FF2 Media.
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Purchase What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)Biography of Niki de Saint Phalle here.
Visit Nicole Rudick’s website.
Read about Niki’s autobiography Traces in a post by FF2 Media’s EIC Jan Lisa Huttner from 2001!
Check out more FF2 Media articles on Niki de Saint Phalle:
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: “Niki de Saint Phalle statue” by Melanie-m is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.
Middle Photo: Author Nicole Rudick by Matteo Mobilio. Photo courtesy of Nicole and used here with her permission.
Bottom photo: What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)Biography of Niki de Saint Phalle. Book cover courtesy of Siglio.