Artist Spotlight: Betye Saar

February 6, 2020

Betye Saar: Fragments of the Past

A California native and key figure in the Black Arts Movement, Betye Saar (b. 1926) weaves layers of memory and resistance into her prints, collages, and assemblages.

Saar graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1949 with a degree in design, which she parlayed into a greeting card line and an enamelware company. At this point, she had no aspirations of becoming an artist and instead had set her sights on interior design. In the late 1950s she went back to school with hopes of becoming a teacher, but a chance encounter with Cal State Long Beach’s print workshop redirected the course of her career. She worked primarily in drawing and printing, as typified by the 1964 print with ink additions, Dog Bones (Lot 84), until a Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum inspired her to also take on assemblage.

This medium shift very quickly led Saar to accumulate racist memorabilia, such as ‘mammy’ jars, that she would then adorn with symbols of defiance. In the early 1970s, trips to both the Field Museum in Chicago and to Haiti drew her to begin artistically considering the intersections of black culture with magic and mysticism. Reportedly interested in the “visual ways in which magic could be conveyed,” Saar started replacing Eurocentric references in her work with African symbols.

Within the African-American tradition of magical realism, inherited myths are used to restore identity. In mobilizing the opposing forces of magic and “the real,” the objectivity of histories, often authored by enslavers, is undermined and renders the personal narratives of the enslaved more visible. Through her use of scavenged photographs, documents, and personal mementos, Saar crafted “a surreal blend of autobiographical reference and cultural history,” that visually appropriates this form of magical realism. She connected objects with ancestors to both document her own version of past events and stake a claim on a modern identity.

This “mood” of memory and longing was further buttressed by the passing of Saar’s great-aunt in 1975. Among the decades-worth of personal belongings left behind by her aunt, Saar found a portrait of a slower time when “people still collected memories.” In response, she recycled her aunt’s memories through her work as a spiritually imbued method of reinventing a personal and communal narrative. As seen in both Lot 82 and Lot 83, Saar embraced “the soul” of her objects and the “untold stories” of the characters she assigned as their owners. These “fragments of the past,” inevitably conjure notions of death, which the artist has identified as a “transitional state” linking the past to the future.

Now in her 90s, Saar continues to mingle the personal, political, and magical in her robust output. Evidencing her ever-expanding national and international profile, Saar recently received a solo exhibition at the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art, New York, “Betye Saar: The Legends of ‘Black Girl’s Window,’” and she is currently the subject of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Betye Saar: Call and Response.” In addition, her works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Carpenter, Jane H. Betye Saar. Pomegranate, 2003.

Miranda, Carolina A. “For Betye Saar, There’s No Dwelling on the Past; the Almost-90-Year-Old Artist Has Too Much Future to Think About.” Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr. 2016.

Wall text for Black Girl’s Window, by Betye Saar. Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window, 21 Oct. 2019-4 Jan. 2020, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Wall text for Keep for Old Memories, by Betye Saar. Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window, 21 Oct. 2019-4 Jan. 2020, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Lot Information:

Lot 82
Betye Saar
Mixed-media assemblage
Signed and dated to underside
Closed: 2.25″ x 3″ x 1.25″; Open: 2.75″ x 3″ x 2.625″; (Closed: 6 x 8 x 3 cm)
Provenance: Gary and Caroline Kent, Los Angeles, California (gifted directly by the artist)

Estimate: $2,000-$3,000
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 83
Betye Saar
Mixed-media collage on handkerchief
Inscribed “Betye Saar” to frame; retains unknown information label frame verso
Handkerchief: 9.75″ x 10″; Frame: 13.5″ x 13.25″; (Handkerchief: 25 x 25 cm)
Provenance: Josine Ianco-Starrels, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the artist); Thence by descent

Estimate: $4,000–6,000
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 84
Betye Saar
Dog Bones
Print with hand additions in ink on paper
Titled lower left; signed and dated lower right
Composition: 13.875″ x 18″; Sheet (vis.): 14.375″ x 18.375″; Frame: 21.75″ x 25.75″; (Composition: 35 x 46 cm)
Provenance:  Josine Ianco-Starrels, Los Angeles, California; Thence by descent

Estimate: $2,000–3,000
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

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