Playful sculptor de Saint Phalle

One generally can count on the staff at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery here to start the art season off with a bang -- and this year is no exception. In fact, they've gone even further this time and have assembled an exhibition that is also great fun and proves conclusively that one of Europe's most free-spirited artists is mellowing and improving with age. Niki de Saint Phalle's current show may not be the most important to have opened so far this month in New York, but it certainly is the most delightful. That should come as no surprise, however, especially to those who've followed her career since its inception in the early 1960s, and who have enjoyed both the wit of her smaller sculptures and the warmly expansive, fun-filled qualities of her huge walk-in constructions. To them, the mere mention of her name should conjure up a smile and a warm glow of a ppreciation.

That, at least, has increasingly been my reaction, and all evidence indicates that it's the way I'll respond to her sculpture for a long time to come. At its best, it's so captivating that I continually must remind myself that I am professionally obliged to approach it critically. Fortunately, when I do, I have no trouble with it. In fact, I am more and more convinced that, in her outrageously hedonistic and playful way, de Saint Phalle belongs somewhere in the company of those other marvelously childli ke creators, Calder and Mir'o.

The 12 pieces in this show -- four large sculptures, four small ones, and four wall plaques, all made out of cast polyester and painted with acrylic -- can only serve as the most general introduction to her work. More information is on hand, however, in the exhibition catalog which contains, in addition to drawings and reproductions of several of the items on view, some exterior and interior color photographs of her more recent house-size constructions. These include ``The Magician and the High Priestes s,'' ``The Empress,'' ``The Tower of Babel,'' and ``The Emperor's Palace.'' All exist as much to be walked around in as to be looked at and help establish an environment in which Alice in Wonderland would feel very much at home.

The same kind of delightfully illogical logic that confronted Alice confronts the viewer approaching de Saint Phalle's work. Her brilliantly colored people, birds, animals, snakes, and mythological figures exist in a world that is opulently designed -- a world where forms flow into and away from one another without any harsh separations, where everything is informal, expansive, and good-humored, and where even the worst villains and demons are less frightening than they are fun.

It's a world that hardly anyone dislikes, but that altogether too many art professionals still refuse to take seriously. It's too lightheaded and informal, they argue, or too cartoon-like and trivial. Others find her forms undisciplined, her colors unforgivably garish, and the subjects she chooses too cute. But underlying all these criticisms is the one that's seldom articulated: They feel that her formal vision is too ``feminine,'' too soft and not rigidly enough structured.

Actually, her art is as ``tough'' as Moore's and Caro's -- or any other man's. If that doesn't seem to be the case, it's only because she refuses to accept the age-old notions that structure must be based on logically worked-out geometric principles and that public sculpture should dominate its environment. Why must that be, she asks? Why can't art also be ``natural' and ``organic,'' and try to fit easily and snugly into where it is placed? In fact, why can't art be more open and generous, more ``matern al'' in the broadest sense of the word, instead of always trying to reshape reality according to rigid preconceptions of how things should be?

De Saint Phalle, of course, wasn't the first to ask these questions, but she was the first woman to do so through a style and imagery that challenged modernism's most sacred doctrines of formal purity, and in an art form still largely obedient to the dogma that artistic truth is solid, solemn, and a bit heavy-handed. Others felt much the same way; witness the achievements of Picasso, Calder, Mir'o, Hesse, and Dubuffet, all of whom helped revolutionize sculpture, but one of whom went quite as

far as she in insisting that sculpture be colorfully ebullient, totally free-form, and fun.

One of the most charming things about de Saint Phalle is that she obviously creates with childlike concentration and enthusiasm. There is no irony in her work, no distancing of herself from her subjects to maintain an attitude of adult superiority. In her world, joy, love, and generosity of spirit are all that matter, and children, fanciful birds, flowers, angels, and dragons are every bit as real and important as grown-ups, presidents of banks, and heads of state are in ours.

It's a world Americans deserve to know better, and for that, a major museum retrospective is in order. In the meantime, I recommend this tasty appetizer of a show at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer, 1040 Madison Avenue. On view through Oct. 5.

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