The Daily Heller: Niki de Saint Phalle on Time in Space

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Siglio Press was founded in 2008 in Los Angeles by Lisa Pearson, and moved in 2016 to the Hudson River Valley, where Pearson has produced an impressive list of special titles many that are orchestrations of graphics, writing and design.

Siglio publishes uncommon books that “live in the rich and varied space between art and literature,” explains Pearson, adding, “it is a small, fiercely independent press driven by its feminist ethos and its commitment to writers and artists who obey no boundaries, pay no fealty to trends, and invite readers to see the world anew by reading word and image in provocative, unfamiliar ways.”

Siglio books—authored by Joe Brainard, Marcel Broodthaers, John Cage, Sophie Calle, Karen Green, Dorothy Iannone, Ray Johnson, Nancy Spero, Cecilia Vicuña, among many others—have garnered devoted readerships as well as critical accolades from the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Los Angeles Times and Bookforum.

The pandemic has taken its toll on Siglio’s supply chain, but they are thankfully riding out the storm with a strong list of new books, among them What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle by Nicole Rudick. I always enjoy hearing from Pearson, whose passion for art and books is contagious. Here we speak about the press and Siglio’s latest volume.

Before we discuss Niki de Saint Phalle’s book, a question for you as publisher of Siglio press: You’ve published a lot of text/image artists’ books. What is your particular interest in this form?
Dick Higgins wrote, “A book, in its purest form, is a phenomenon of space and time and dimensionality that is unique unto itself.” I share Higgins’ embrace of the book as much more than a transparent delivery device, a “platform,” or a container of “content.” When you think of a book as Higgins does, then “the page” itself offers extraordinary possibilities for the artist-author, but it also invites the reader to engage in unfamiliar acts of reading. It might require a bit of psychoanalysis for me to say why I’m so drawn to image-text works because it’s not a purely intellectual preoccupation. I know that I love that there are two things at once, more than the sum of their parts. I love that this species is elusive, always mutating, eluding categorization but also disrupting and questioning it. I love the challenge of not knowing what something is and engaging it on its own terms, even if (and perhaps because) I cannot fully grasp it. I love that the natural habitat of these kinds of works—at the confluence of the visual and the literary—is often the book, a space simultaneously intimate and expansive.

Among your books is Ray Johnson’s eccentric blend of word and picture. What calculus do you use to determine which authors and what books are right for the press?
Works come to me in all kinds of ways, but I ask the same questions: Do I know what it is? (I really want the answer to be no.) Is there a surprising kind of alchemy in the work—magnetic and inscrutable, subversive and world-restoring, for example? Does it ask me to read differently, to consider image and text as not as illustrative or explicative, but in an unusual relationship? Could I read it again and again? (Because I will.) Is it many things at once, resistant to categories, unwieldy, maybe even “unpublishable”? Can I think of a handful of other, likely small, independent publishers who would be excited and able to usher it into the world? If I can, it’s not a Siglio book. Is it work that is or has been invisible, illegible, misread, marginalized, forgotten, constrained, etc.? Is it something I don’t know quite how to publish—a real challenge? And can I honestly serve the work well while on that learning curve, and given Siglio’s various limitations as a very tiny press? Every book is a deeply collaborative process, so I must ask, will working with the author/artist/editor be a joy? Finally, do I love it—its ambitions, its flaws, the world it invokes? In all, a wholly subjective, entirely idiosyncratic evaluation.

What is the “aha” element that made you select Saint Phalle’s (auto)biography as a perfect Siglio title?
In 2011, Nicole Rudick—when she was managing editor of The Paris Review—excerpted Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, edited by Michael Duncan. Since then, we’ve had an ongoing conversation driven by our mutual interest in the convergence of the literary and the visual, and I’ve come to admire her own personal alchemy: infinite curiosity and acute skepticism. When I edited and published the Dorothy Iannone compendium You Who Read Me With Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends in 2014, Nicole told me she was dreaming of a book of Niki de Saint Phalle’s “illuminated” autobiographical writings, works that have a kinship with Iannone’s. Both artists are autodidacts who use bold color, ornamented first-person image-text narratives; both exalt joy and love as liberating—though they pursued each differently; both were repeatedly dismissed by the “serious” (male) art world; both had the courage and intention to break taboos. The comparison ends there in style and substance; you could never mistake one for the other.

At the time I knew just a little about Saint Phalle and her iconoclastic and exuberant feminist works (the shooting paintings, the Nanas, the Tarot Garden). Learning that there were other, as-yet-unexplored ways to read her work and her life, it was an easy yes. There was no “aha” moment. Really, I had just been waiting for Nicole to come to me with a book she knew no one else would quite know what to do with. And as I trust Nicole’s editorial acumen, her creative thinking and her intellectual rigor, it didn’t matter that neither of us quite knew what this book would ultimately be.

Saint Phalle is known for large, colorful and inflated sculptural figures. How does this book intersect with her “major” art? Or is this a smaller-scale “major” piece?
Those kinds of distinctions are ones I hope all Siglio books, and this one in particular, undermine. That we so often equate import with monumentality. That we lean into “major” for meaning rather than discovering the equally revelatory in the “minor” seems limiting. Saint Phalle certainly understood—and successfully exploited—the grand, theatrical gesture. But her first large-scale, “major” work Hon (in which museum-goers could enter a reclining, fecund, colorfully painted woman through her vagina and find an inviting and detailed world inside) was in fact ephemeral—destroyed once the exhibition was over. Many of her other permanent large-scale works live outside museums, to be engaged in ways one is not usually allowed with art: to touch them, enter them, play inside and around them, even live in them. In our world, this is a kind of secondary art, not what’s exalted, because there’s no repeated sale, no increase in valuation. Many of her works were as much about the process of making them as the end result; they were about (the act of) bringing something into existence. Her work and life were inextricable, and this book, compact and intimate, seeks to open an expansive space to experience both.

Why is this an (auto)biography rather than an edited collection of memories?
How is an autobiography not, at heart, a gathering of the things we remember? Case in point: Joe Brainard’s I Remember is composed of sentence after sentence that begins, I remember. The accumulation of those sentences creates a nuanced, moving, highly detailed portrait of a young gay man growing up in Tulsa, OK, escaping to New York City to become an artist. And just as there’s a space between each sentence or entry, there are all kinds of absences, the things left out, by choice perhaps, but also because they were simply not remembered. In a traditional autobiography, if one were to make the distinction, the author doesn’t admit to forgetting—aspiring, claiming even, to be complete.

Subjectivity is always at work in biography, autobiography, a collection of memories—in any act of writing a life: how the subject remembers and records a moment, how the author of someone else’s story interprets them, and so on. Nicole’s playful but quite pointed use of “(auto)biography” is a way to signal that it is a biography, but one which its subject has agency by being told in the first person. As the author, Nicole has written/constructed this narrative of the artist’s life by selecting and arranging Saint Phalle’s letters, sketches, prints, excerpts from her diaries, and other explicitly autobiographical pieces of writing, many from the archives and previously unpublished. In her foreword, Nicole writes, “An artwork for Saint Phalle was not an object but an act—ritual, performance, public, revelatory of her personal life. Art gave her wholeness. It gave her the ability to talk about loss and pain, mistakes and successes, collaboration and creativity.” Nicole’s intention is to make space for those works to speak so that Saint Phalle’s confessions, declarations, meditations and, yes, memories, not only trace the intimate contours of her life but accumulate into a complex portrait.