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Betye Saar: Finding art in found objects

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Betye Saar: Finding art in found objects
“Supreme Quality,” 1998. Washboard with stenciled lettering, soap bar with printed paper label, metal figurine with toy guns, tin washtub, fabric, clock, and wood stand. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar. Photo courtesy Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, by Tim Lanterman.

Los Angeles–based artist Betye Saar, 93, has been making potent art out of discarded objects since the 1960s.  

“Finding something old that has its memory has always been important to me,” says Saar, who jots down notes in sketchbooks as she envisions works that respond to these raw materials.

“Serving Time,” 2010. Metal cage with stand, figures, keys, and locks. Collection of Neil Lane, courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. © Betye Saar.

“Serving Time,” 2010. Metal cage with stand, figures, keys, and locks. Collection of Neil Lane, courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. © Betye Saar.

Betye Saar: Call and Response,” on view through Jan. 31, 2021 at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan and also online is the first exhibition to bring together both Saar’s finished works and the sketchbooks that illuminate what Saar describes as “the mysterious transformation of object into art.”

Originally presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)] last year, the exhibition has been organized for the Morgan by curator Rachel Federman. Its online exhibition rivals walking through the galleries, enabling the viewer to explore each work and its sketchbook close up, along with audio segments and Federman’s brief and incisive texts.

Saar’s rich store of icons draw from various religious traditions, astrology and images of Black servitude. Grinning sambos, mammies, and Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima populate her works, both as rubber-stamped faces and standalone figures. Words, too, are among her found elements, including song titles and lines of poems.

Sketchbook page for “Serving Time,” Feb. 24, 2009. Ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.

Sketchbook page for “Serving Time,” Feb. 24, 2009. Ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.

The daughter of a seamstress, Saar trained in design and printmaking and earned college and graduate degrees in California. Among the many institutions that have awarded Saar with honorary doctorates is the Massachusetts College of Art. Saar’s work is in the permanent collections of more than 80 museums.

Saar has often cited two formative influences. As a young artist, she saw Italian-American construction worker Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers in his free time, elevating his community with a soaring complex fashioned out of scrap metal and shards of pottery and glass. She told “Frieze,” the art magazine, in 2016, “Making art out of nothing — the Watts Towers were where I learned how to be an  artist.”

And on an intimate scale, Saar was captivated by the assemblages of New York artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), whose “shadow boxes” weave dime-store trinkets and vintage memorabilia into evocative visual poems.

Such lyricism is evident in Saar’s travel sketchbooks, with their jewel-like watercolors and collages; her illustrations for a 1978 book of poems by author and activist Ishmael Reed; and dreamy black-and-white collages showing elegant figures in motion, including tea dancers and a figure soaring across the sky. 

In many of her collages and assemblages, Saar deftly recasts racist images into searing social critiques. A vintage christening dress is displayed with labels embroidered with racial epithets aimed at Black children. A trio of dandies in blackface shuffle behind bars in a birdcage in “Serving Time” (2010). In her sketchbook, Saar writes, “uneasy dancers.” 

A 1998 assemblage shows Aunt Jemima as a gun-toting figure standing on a vintage washboard atop a washtub. Saar has said, “When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I reacted by creating a woman who’s my warrior: Aunt Jemima.” 

At 93, Saar is still working, and still of the moment.

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