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AIDS you can’t catch it holding hands, cover. Niki de Saint Phalle (1987)


Niki de Saint Phalle was one of the first artists to be concerned with questions of gender, race, multiculturalism, and violence in the United States, and to deal with social issues such as the fight against AIDS in the 1980s.

Niki de Saint Phalle social compromise

Several projects that she produced in these years supported people at risk of being socially excluded because of HIV/AIDS, including colorful and striking sculptures in the shape of condoms, painted with skulls and hearts or covered with fragmented mirrors. In these sculptures, the artist’s view of life as fun and joyful is evident, even while attempting to deal with an issue as difficult and devastating as AIDS.

Additionally, Saint Phalle wrote and illustrated a book called AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands, published in 1987 to support AIDS prevention campaigns. The book starts with a letter to her son Philip. Saint Phalle was very fond of writing letters, filled with drawings and symbols, to friends and relatives.


In the book, animals and fantastical characters, the result of the restless mind of the artist, coexist with simple and concise messages like “AIDS is coming” or “Teenagers be careful at parties with drinks and drugs,” written in simple, child-like lettering. These images and handwriting are a recurring theme in Saint Phalle’s work. If you visit the didactic space of the exhibition you will find further information and copies of the AIDS book to peruse.

* Meanwhile you can click here to see the first pages of the book.

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle,
Escondido, California.
©Niki Charitable Art Foundation, Santee, USA

Niki de Saint Phalle public projects—The editions

Niki de Saint Phalle’s public art can be found in city parks and plazas, but mostly they are in open spaces surrounded by nature. There you may find, among fountains, stairways, and slides, large sculptures–architectures created to be visited, even inhabited. In the words of the artist herself, "The general public is my public".

Saint Phalle produced jewelry, lamps, and perfumes, between 1970-80. Some of them (jewelry and perfumes) were produced in limited editions which included vases, in order to partially finance the construction of a park in Garavicchio, Tuscany, Italy; while lamps funded personal health issues: “And so I made a sculpture for a mass-produced perfume, and I finance[d] the garden with the money I ma[d]e from that perfume. I wanted to go back to the thirties and those magnificent bottles designed by artists.” Saint Phalle began building the Tarot Garden (Il Giardino dei Tarocchi) in 1978 and took 20 years to complete it. Opened to the public in 1998, she considered it her dream come true and continued working on it until her death in 2002.


The Tarot Garden was informed by Saint Phalle’s visits to parks like Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Güell in Barcelona, Bomarzo in Italy, Facteur Cheval in Hauterives, France, and Watts Tower in Los Angeles.

The extraordinary combination of architecture, the enchantment of nature, and the spiritual world through the interpretation of the twenty-two cards of the tarot Major arcana inspired Saint Phalle to conceive of a unique landscape, in which the visitor could get lost. The Tarot Garden is a landscape filled with metallic structures created by a large number of local artisans by first covering the structures in concrete and then covering them again with colorful mosaics.


Meanwhile, Saint Phalle continued to work on projects on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2000 she started design work and plans on Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, a sculpture garden drawn from her interpretations of early Californian history, myth, and legend; Native American and Meso-American cultures; and the study of indigenous plants and wildlife. Located in Kit Carson Park in Escondido, near San Diego, it is a powerful tribute to California, the state where Saint Phalle resided during those years, and to a mythological character linked spiritually with this land—the archetypal black Amazon queen Califia, in Saint Phalle’s words, “the woman in power.”

“I had this dream of building a huge sculpture garden, but there are no great patrons any more. So I thought: ‘Why don’t I become my own patron?’ And so I made a sculpture for a mass-produced perfume, and I finance[d] the garden with the money I ma[d]e from that perfume.” —Niki de Saint Phalle, 1985.