Repairing Tirs: Conservation approaches to Niki de Saint Phalle’s shooting paintings

Joy Bloser and Mina Gaber


Exhibitions dedicated to specific series of an artist’s work are a rare moment in conservation to consider our collective interventions and the disparate destinations we each arrive at when faced with singular works in our collection. After they leave our care and are reassembled side-by-side as a series, they lay bare the range of interventive approaches, material preferences, and philosophies of care that span our field of practice at a moment in time.  
French-American artist, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) produced her series of Tirs, or “Shooting Paintings,” over the course of three years (1961-1963). The Tirs are a diverse group of works produced through the artist’s general formula, whereby she would cover assemblages of quotidian objects laced with various containers of paint with white plaster, then proceed to shoot them with a rifle, often in public settings, so that the paint containers would burst and bleed over the pristine white surfaces. The Tirs were sold and placed in collections around the globe with only a few rare instances of a collection owning more than a token one. By nature of their materials and singularity in a collection, they present conservators with a range of instabilities, unknowns, and inherent vices to navigate when preparing them for exhibition, and when aggregated with the dearth of research on the preservation of her work in general, they are daunting to approach.
A selection of Tirs were assembled from international collections, both institutional and private, for the exhibition “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s,” co-presented by The Menil Collection and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2021.  This paper will present reflections on the preservation of the Tirs as a result of the exhibition. We conducted interviews with the artist foundation and exhibition curators to help characterize the essence of these works and the artist’s own notions of preservation, created mock-ups and held a shooting session to better understand the materials and methods of production, treated works from both our collection and the foundation’s, and engaged with conservators who treated works for this show to explore the rationale and range of interventions that occurred in their preparation. Our aim is to compile the disparate conservation approaches to this series as a methodological moment in time to reflect on how we have collectively chosen to preserve the essence and materials of de Saint Phalle’s Tirs.