Powerful Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014

Beer describes her “Anchored Candy” series of benches as “inspired by fashion and hotrods.” The curving, inviting seats feature sleek, jewel-tone automotive finishes, and each bench is grounded by a contrasting raw steel block. She says, “It is furniture simultaneously about desire and structure.”

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Who made it?

Vivian Beer (b. 1977), a New England-based furniture designer, takes inspiration from culture, industry, and the decorative arts “to create handmade, one-off objects that manifest the nostalgia of history, the speed of progress, and the memory of the human hand.” Her forms evoke speed and motion, beauty and power.

For Beer, who grew up in a rural area of Maine, making objects and developing hands-on skills was integral to everyday life. She received a BFA from Maine College of Art in sculpture in 2000 and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in metalsmithing in 2004. In 2014 she undertook a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. There, she researched the design history of American aeronautics and the aesthetic and cultural influences that have shaped airplanes over time.

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

How was it made?

Beer, a former metalworker and blacksmith, incorporates the tools and techniques of industrial design into her furniture. In her studio, she welds, grinds, and builds steel armatures for furniture. Other pieces incorporate concrete, appearing to drape the rigid material into graceful curves. She finishes her furniture meticulously, touching each inch of the surface at least a dozen times. She says, “This attention to detail is very important, because . . . one of the wonderful things about furniture, especially seating, is its intimacy.”

Collection connection

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

In NMWA’s collection, Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain, 2001, also evokes power and beauty through automotive materials. Booker, whose work was featured in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, uses recycled rubber tires as her medium. With varied techniques—chopping, slicing, shredding, and curling—Booker transforms the dense material. To fabricate her largest sculptures, Booker uses computer-aided design software, creates detailed models, and constructs armatures from pressure-treated wood and steel rods. The intricacy of Acid Rain, a wall relief sculpture, belies its imposing 10-foot-tall size. Her use of tires refers to social mobility and progress as well as environmental, political, and cultural issues.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Feminism and Daring: Cataloguing Niki de Saint Phalle

“Very early on I decided to become a heroine . . .” said Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002). “What did it matter who I would be? The main thing was that it had to be difficult, grandiose, exciting.”

That quote, which adorns the back cover of Niki de Saint Phalle (La Fábrica / Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2015), captures the ambition and bravado of the French-American artist. The lush catalogue was published for a recent retrospective of Saint Phalle’s work that was shown at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the RMN-Grand Palais in Paris.

Saint Phalle may be best known for exuberant mosaic sculptures known as her “Nanas,” several of which were showcased as the inaugural works in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project. This retrospective celebrates and contextualizes her Nanas while shedding light on her other work—from paintings to sculptures to experimental films—as well as her boldly cultivated persona and the political and feminist subjects that her art addressed.

In this catalogue, Saint Phalle’s work is presented in four sections—“The Beginnings,” on her formative work; “Shooting, Performances, and Commitment,” which traces her public persona and action-based Shooting Paintings; “Feminine Imagery,” highlighting her vibrant and sometimes aggressive portrayals of women; and “Sculpture and Public Art.” Numerous contributors include Bloum Cardenas, the artist’s granddaughter and trustee of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, and Camille Morineau, lead exhibition curator.

Morineau’s introductory essay asserts Saint Phalle’s status as a feminist and risk-taker with a “mixture of coherence, complexity, and courage which distinguishes great artists.”

All are welcome to look at this catalogue, which is available in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. If you’re touring the museum’s exhibitions, the library is open to the public and makes a great starting point on the fourth floor. In addition to beautiful books and comfortable chairs, library visitors enjoy interesting exhibitions that feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artists’ books. Reference Desk staff members are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“The Past is Palpably Present” on New York Avenue

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is now on view in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project!

At a celebration on September 30, curator and scholar Mary Jane Jacob, a renowned authority on the artist, gave a special lecture on Abakanowicz, including her body of work and her sculptures on view on New York Avenue. These pieces, including Walking Figures and abstracted birds in flight, represent some of the artist’s most iconic work.

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

During Jacob’s talk, she discussed Abakanowicz’s life story, particularly her youth and artistic training in Poland and her experiences during the Second World War. Jacob believes that “the past is palpably present” through the artist’s work. She talked about Agora, a large public installation in Chicago’s Grant Park that, like the Walking Figures on New York Avenue, features a group of larger-than-life, armless and headless human figures.

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Through this motif in her work, Jacob said, Abakanowicz shows that “Art is able to be a means of building links between distant societies” despite differences, due to commonalities and collective memory.

Jacob also described the artist’s abiding interest in nature: “Restoring nature became a theme for Magdalena Abakanowicz. She grew up in nature, and she understood that in war we not only kill others, but we kill the earth. She’s always been drawn to nature.”

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Abakanowicz is especially inspired by unrepeatability in nature—encountering a swarm of mosquitos, for example, the artist was fascinated by the conspicuous individual characteristics among them. Jacob said, “Among her most powerful works are her soaring birds, which take us back to nature, and to a way of thinking not just about how we exist within this natural form, but how natural form itself has amazing variety.”

These works will be on view through September 2015 outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Plan your visit soon to see work by this extraordinary artist both inside and outside the museum.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Her Work

Niki de Saint Phalle, whose work will soon be on view as part of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, worked in varying scale and a range of materials throughout her career. Though Saint Phalle did work in more traditional media such as oil paint, she first gained the attention of the art world in 1961 through her Tirs or “shooting paintings.” Through these works, she expressed her anger toward patriarchal power and conservatism. To create her Tirs, Saint Phalle filled containers with paint and embedded them in plaster assemblages—three dimensional collages. Niki de Saint Phalle and others shot at the works with a rifle, bursting the containers, and sending paint down the surface of the plaster.

Saint Phalle’s Tirs illustrate that destruction can lead to creation, a principle she applied in subsequent mosaic sculptures with pieces of broken glass, ceramic, and mirror. She had discovered mosaic in the 1950s with visits to Antonio Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona and Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval’s Le Palais Idéal in southern France and was inspired by the use of stone and mosaic work but also by their participatory nature. Saint Phalle wrote to her husband and fellow artist Jean Tinguely about Gaudí and Cheval: “They represented the beauty of mankind…without any intermediary, without museum, without galleries.”

Queen Califia's Magical Circle Sculpture Park in Escondido, California

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project will feature four examples of her monumental public sculptures with mosaic done in polyester, mirror, ceramic, and glass. These already exuberant sculptures are further enlivened by the texture and reflection created by their mosaic surface. Some of her mosaic sculptures are single figures displayed along or in small groups but she also created large scale environments. Between 1978 and 1998, Saint Phalle and a team of collaborators worked on the Tarot Garden or Giardino Dei Tarocchi in Tuscany.  Inspired by the symbolism of the Tarot, 22 large scale sculptures were created. Some of the sculptures included interior space, and Saint Phalle lived and worked in The Empress for a period of seven years. In 2000, Niki de Saint Phalle began work on a second sculpture garden: Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido, California. Completed in 2003, a year after the artist’s death, the Garden consists of nine sculptures as well as architectural elements and landscaping “inspired by California’s mythic, historic and cultural roots.”   

You can save yourself a trip to Tuscany or Southern California by visiting the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, opening in late April 2010!

-Anna Allegro is Associate Educator at NMWA.

When NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling visited Queen Califia in 2008, she knew Saint Phalle's work would be the perfect sculptures to inaugurate the New York Avenue Sculpture Project.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Her Life

In Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures, light seems to dance as it reflects off mosaic surfaces made from glass, mirrors, and colored stones. The sinuous curves and massive forms of the sculptures themselves radiate a sense of movement and a tangible dynamism. Saint Phalle’s sculptures are individualistic, coinciding with the care-free attitude of the artist.

Niki de Saint Phalle painting Le Monde, c. 1981 Photo by Laurent Codominas © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

Saint Phalle was born in France and in her early years exemplified her defiant attitude through the creation of her art. While attending a convent school in her youth, Saint Phalle painted the fig leaves covering the classical sculptures on campus red, illustrating an early love of color and a disregard for following the rules. In her late teens, she married writer Harry Mathews, began a career as a fashion model, and also studied to become an actress. But in 1953, she was hospitalized for depression, and it was then that she began to delve into painting and collage.

Saint Phalle was a self-taught artist who experimented with creative techniques that were distinctly her own. Harry Mathews, her first husband, said, “When she found work she liked, she absorbed and devoured it; rather than analyzing it rationally, she remained instinctive and developed her intuitions patiently and observantly.”[1] Due to the unique methods Saint Phalle used to create her “Tirs” (Shootings) works of the early 1960s, she was associated with the Nouveaux Réalistes group in France, whose members included Jean Tinguely, who would become Saint Phalle’s second husband. In the mid-1960s, Saint Phalle began to focus on figures of women. She called these sculptures “Nanas,” which translates to “broads” or “chicks” in English. These works epitomize Saint Phalle’s fascination with both conventional and progressive ideas about femininity. The voluptuous figures allude to historical fertility symbols and are celebratory of the female form.

Niki de Saint Phalle shooting Tir tableau, parking lot on Sunset Strip Blvd., Los Angeles, California, on March 4, 1962 © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. © Photo William Claxton

Saint Phalle died in 2002 but left behind a legacy of unique and fascinating works that explore a number of different themes including Animals, Totems, and Black Heroes. Come see Niki de Saint Phalle’s work at NMWA beginning April 28th. Visit www.nmwa.org/sculptureproject to learn more and find out how you can participate in the Opening Celebration!

Niki de Saint Phalle, Les trios grâces (The Three Graces), 1999 © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved



[1] “Portrait of a Woman; La Hachoir; Face/Self PortraitPortrait of a Woman; il: La Hachoir; il: Face/Self Portrait; Living With Niki.” Tate Etc.(Spring 2008): 44-51. Art Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed March 11, 2010).

About the Author-Breezy Diether is currently an education intern at NMWA.

Contemporary Sculpture Dancing Down New York Avenue!

An artist’s rendering of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project is a bold new art installation that will beautify Washington for years to come. Through an innovative private-public partnership among NMWA, the DC Office of Planning, and the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID), sculptural works will line the medians along New York Avenue, NW, from Herald Square at 13th Street to Mount Vernon Square at 9th Street.

On April 28, NMWA will unveil the first installment of contemporary sculptures along New York Avenue from 13th Street to 12th Street, right in front of the museum. Upon the completion of all four phases in 2015, the sculpture project will provide a unique cultural attraction as the first and only major outdoor sculpture boulevard in the city. Each sculpture will remain on display for one to three years and then will be replaced by another artist’s work. NMWA hopes to create a dynamic space for the works of female artists to be displayed and celebrated.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project will eventually stretch from NMWA at 13th Street to Mount Vernon Square at 9th Street.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project’s goals align closely with the plans established for Washington, D.C., in 1791 by architect Major Pierre L’Enfant. L’Enfant envisioned the city with wide tree-lined avenues that connect open spaces and offer grand vistas. New York Avenue, when lined with important sculptures, will complement L’Enfant’s layout.

The first phase of the project features works from the oeuvre of French-born artist Niki de Saint Phalle: Nana on a Dolphin, 1998, L’Arbre serpents (Serpent Tree), #23 Basketball Player and Les trois grâces (The Three Graces), all from 1999. Each monumental sculpture is a splash of exuberant color that will revitalize downtown D.C. These 12- and 15- foot high figures were created with fiberglass then covered with mosaic glass, mirrors, and colored stones. Saint Phalle’s joyful works celebrate women, children, heroes, cultural diversity, and love.

Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle's Three Graces, 1999

Niki de Saint Phalle’s colorful Three Graces, 1999

Visit www.nmwa.org/sculptureproject to learn more and find out how you can participate in the Opening Celebration!