What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined

An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle

Nicole Rudick

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  • Double Tête, circa 1999
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Known best for her exuberant, often large-scale sculptural works that celebrate the abundance and complexity of female desire, imagination, and creativity, Niki de Saint Phalle viewed making art as a ritual and a performance—a process connecting life to art. This unconventional, illuminated biography, told in the first person in Saint Phalle’s voice and her own hand, dilates large and small moments in Saint Phalle’s remarkable life as an artist who pointedly challenged taboos.

In a kind of collaboration with the artist, Nicole Rudick has assembled a gorgeous and detailed mosaic of Saint Phalle’s visual and textual works from a trove of paintings, drawings, sketches, and writings, many rare or previously unpublished. These confessions, declarations, meditations, and musings trace the most intimate contours of Saint Phalle’s life. In some works, Saint Phalle articulates herself with startling candor and self-examination; in others, she carefully and slowly unwinds her secrets as she herself wrestles with them. Throughout, her agency in telling her own story is paramount.

What Is Now Known But Was Once Only Imagined is an erudite, insightful, and generous construction of Niki de Saint Phalle’s life that, despite the recognizability of her work, has remained mostly obscured, until now.


Born in France, NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE (1930–2002) was raised in New York and began making art at age twenty-three. Self-taught and prolific, she pursued a revelatory vision informed both by the monumental works of Antonin Gaudí and the Facteur Cheval and by aspects of her own life. In addition to her Tirs (“shooting paintings”) and Nanas and her celebrated large-scale projects—including the Stravinsky Fountain at the Centre Pompidou, Golem in Jerusalem, and the Tarot Garden in Tuscany—Saint Phalle produced a major body of writing and works on paper that delve into her own biography: childhood and her break with her traditional family, marriage to Harry Mathews, motherhood, a long collaborative relationship with Jean Tinguely, creative support from the curator Pontus Hultén, numerous health crises, and her late, productive years in Southern California. Saint Phalle has most recently been the subject of retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in 2015, and at MoMA/P.S.1 and the Menil Collection in 2021.

NICOLE RUDICK is a critic and an editor. Her writing on art, literature, and comics has been published in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Artforum, and elsewhere. She was managing editor of The Paris Review for nearly a decade. She is the editor of a new edition of Gary Panter’s legendary comic Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise (New York Review Comics, 2021).