Niki de Saint Phalle
Cologne, Germany: Edition MAT, 1964
72.2 × 54.5 × 7 cm.
Edition of 100 signed and numbered copies
In the early 1960s, Niki de Saint Phalle created a series of works called Tirs (fire or gunshot, in French): bullseye target paintings influenced by the work of her friend Jasper Johns. She then began embedding found objects onto plaster covered boards - household items such as knives, scissors, eggbeaters, baby-doll arms, religious statues and toy guns. These were accompanied by bags filled with paint, cans of spray paint, or perhaps a tomato. She would then take aim at the work with a pistol or rifle and the liquids would bleed or spray out onto the board.
Her first staged public shooting event, in February of 1961, was attended by Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, and Pierre Restany, the founder of the Nouveau Realists. After the performance Restany invited Saint Phalle to join the group. Other members of the collective included Yves Klein, Arman, and Christo. Saint Phalle became the first and only female member.
Two years prior, Spoerri had founded Edition MAT, one of the first publishing outfits for artists' editions. MAT stood for "Multiplication d’Art Transformable", as the works were created in editions of 100 and were often sculptural pieces that changed optically, electrically, or through the buyer's physical interventions. Saint Phalle's contribution to the series involved the latter, inviting the owner to shoot at the purchased painting with a rifle.
She outlined exactly how the works should be activated:
Lean picture against a wall.
Put a strong board behind it (if required, in order to protect the wall).
Take a .22 long rifle and load with short ammunition.
Shoot the color pouches which are embedded in the plaster until they have “bled” (or until you like the picture).
Attention! Leave the picture in the same position until well dried. Then still be careful, as remains of color not yet dry might run over the picture.
"On March 15, 1966, in an outdoor courtyard at the Walker Art Center and before a small audience of art enthusiasts and collectors, Minneapolis-based artist Hollis MacDonald fired a pellet gun at Niki de Saint Phalle’s plaster-coated painting Untitled from Edition MAT 64 (1964). The following evening, armed once again, MacDonald shot another round at a similar painting, this time in a collaborative effort with Edgar Nash, the president of the Minnesota Collectors Club and the sponsor of both events. As the two men aimed at Saint Phalle’s rough surface, it became increasingly evident that the small bags of red, black, orange, and yellow paint embedded underneath the plaster would not easily release and that successful shots from multiple viewpoints (at far and close range) required utmost focus, endurance, and dexterity. Addressing the difficulties of the work’s execution as well as the important questions raised by the antinomies of the modernist art object in the 1960s, the curator for the related exhibition, Jan van der Marck, is quoted in a local paper as saying: “It brings out the ultimate absurdity of abstract art.”"
Other artists (all writers, actually) who would later employ the same technique as Niki de Saint Phalle include William S Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson and Dick Higgins.
Burroughs popularized Brian Gysin's Cut Up writing techniques, would could be seen as analogous to the buckshot painting method, and Thompson profiled the counter culture, first coming to prominence for a book on the Hell's Angels. Both had a dangerous interest in firearms, literally: Burroughs shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951, and Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in 2005.
Citing Jackson Pollack, but not Saint Phalle, Burroughs described his shotgun art in an interview with Gregory Ego:
"There is no exact process. If you want to do shotgun art, you take a piece of plywood, put a can of spray paint in front of it, and shoot it with a shotgun or high powered rifle. The paint's under high pressure so it explodes! Throws the can 300 feet. The paint sprays in exploding color across your surface. You can have as many colors as you want. Turn it around, do it sideways, and have one color coming in from this side and this side. Of course, they hit. Mix in all kinds of unpredictable patterns. This is related to Pollack's drip canvases, although this is a rather more basically random process, there's no possibility of predicting what patterns you're going to get."
In both cases these works feel like ways that writers with a cult following can profit from their notoriety. Thompson's paintings sold for ten grand, likely more than all but his most successful books earned him. With rich admirers like actor Johnny Depp (who reportedly spent three million dollars to disperse Thompson's ashes from a canon) the draw to monetize the cult-of-personality must've been strong. Given his invention of the game "Shotgun Golf", it may be safe to assume that for Thompson the shotgun of his shotgun paintings was more important than the painting.
Dick Higgins created The Thousand Symphonies by firing into spray cans in front of sheet music, and then have musicians interpret the score (not unlike Christian Marclay's Graffiti Composition, many years later). The work was documented in Source Magazine in 1969 (featuring actual bullet riddled pages) and on a posthumously released record, in 2010.
The works of Saint Phalle, Burroughs, Thompson and Higgins use the randomness of the rifle blast to create uncontrolled compositions (visual, and in the case of Higgins, musical compositions). Other artists have employed the rifle more directly, such as Lawrence Weiner's 1969 work A WALL PITTED BY A SINGLE AIR RIFLE SHOT, in the permanent collection and recently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.
Doug Waterman, for his 1971 exhibition at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design fired a single pellet into every oblong invitation card, which featured an image of the artist pointing a rifle at the target.
On January 5, 1973, at 8 AM, Chris Burden fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747. Photographer Terry McDonnell captured the performance on black and white film. The work is titled 747.
Shoot, from two years prior, features the artist himself as the target. Burden instructed a friend to shot him in the arm with a .22-caliber rifle.