Betye Saar at The Morgan

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday September 9, 2020


Best known as an assemblage artist over her long career, Betye Saar has created a living history about what she calls ‘national racism” through intimately scaled works in which she combines materials scavenged from swap meets, flea markets, and sidewalk trash bins. The visual dialog she creates challenges viewers to engage with her take on Black icons that were previously figures of fun, such as her 1972 “Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” in which the advertising icon becomes a Black Power, gun-wielding force. link Above: The artist in her studio in 1970, with “Black Girl’s Window.”Credit...Bob Nakamura, via Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

But her work also delves into family history, as seen in a new show at The Morgan Library & Museum, opening September 12th. The oldest of three children, growing up in the Watts neighborhood of LA, she was steeped in family life, church life, and folk art. She says that Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, a colossal installation fabricated from discarded metals, was an early source of inspiration for her as a maker. And that the sewing done at home by her mother, aunts and grandmothers was formative to her later art making.

Starting out as a printmaker, working at home as she minded her young children, she began to place her portraits into frames made from discarded windows. By the mid-1960s, Saar's work had found a solid direction in feminism and activism, as she drew inspiration from the Black Panther movement and found her voice and artistic vision. According to Holland Cotter, writing in the New York Times, she saw an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages in 1967 and with that experience she turned the corner. She started making assemblages of her own, as seen below.

In 1970, on a visit to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, in the company of fellow Los Angeles artist, David Hammons, she discovered the allure of African and Oceanic art—ritual-intensive, spiritually empowered, and closely aligned with her own ingrained spirituality.

Saar is also an obsessive sketchbook keeper, assiduously drafting ideas, sketching formal studies and exploring her thought processes on paper. This show at The Morgan, drawn from the 2019 exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, includes many of these studies on paper, some of which recently were acquired by the museum. In today’s Zoom preview, Curator Rachel Federman presented many of the works that will meet you at The Morgan, on view for the first time.

Betye Saar: Call and Response, opens to the public on September 12 at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, NY, NY Info the Morgan’s popular free Friday evenings, with live music in the Gilbert Court, begins September 11. Info


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