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National Museum of Women Panders with Public Art

Three giant ladies in bathing suits, coming to a town near you (as long as you live in Washington, DC). The National Museum of Women in the Arts is installing new public art by the late Niki de Saint Phalle in front of its headquarters on New York Avenue NW; the sculptures are meant to be “showstoppers, as contemporary as the last splash of pop art, as exaggerated as Las Vegas showgirls.” Just what our nation’s capital needs in the form of cultural institution-approved public art: go-go dancers as seen through a distorted Pop Art lens.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002)

A little background: Niki de Saint Phalle was a French artist who spent part of her youth in the United States (she was dismissed from Manhattan prep school Brearley for painting red fig leaves on statues on school grounds). Marriage and children by her early 20s caused a nervous breakdown; the recommended treatment was that she take up painting. A visit to Spain in her mid-20s instilled a lifelong idolatry of Gaudí, particularly the Park Güell; other artistic influences include her contemporary Jean Tinguely, who would become a collaborator on such projects as a fountain in front of then-President Miterrand’s town hall. (In 1971, she married him.) A particularly notable series of work by Saint Phalle is “Nanas,” life-size dolls of women, such as brides and mothers giving birth, usually dressed in white. In 1998, after two decades of work, her Tarot Garden project opened in Tuscany.

Which brings us to: why would Niki de Saint Phalle be considered as a viable option for a public testament to an American museum touting women in the arts? True, the museum’s scope is actually international in scale. But consider the content. Of the four sculptures, all 12 to 15 feet high, “one represents basketball icon Michael Jordan flying through the air, a hapless opponent unable to stop him.” The Washington Post goes on to say that NMWA “hopes the displays will bring some much-needed zing to its sector of downtown and spark interest in the 23-year-old museum.” (See: even bad press is good press?)

Saint Phalle’s are colorful, yes, and “bold,” in a certain sense, but they require little to no thought beyond the obvious. They certainly don’t represent any journey or progress on behalf of women. The proof? A quote from executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District Richard Bradley, one of the “supporters who are banking on the appeal of the ‘Graces’ sculpture’s voluptuous hips: ‘Excitement and fun shouldn’t be out of our vocabulary.'”

The Grotto in Hanover; detail from the Stravinsky Fountain in front of Centre Pompidou, Paris

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