Kenyon College

Betye Saar (American b. 1926)

January 16, 2015–May 31, 2015  [+]

A native Californian, Betye Saar grew up in Pasadena during the Great Depression. After high school, she took art classes at Pasadena City College, earned a BA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1949, and pursued graduate studies at California State University at Long Beach, the University of Southern California, and California State University at Northridge. While the hometowns of many artists are often just points of departure, Los Angeles has been a constant presence in Saar’s life and an important source of inspiration. In fact, art historian Jessica Dallow has attributed Saar’s unique blend of interests and approaches to the importance of LA in the 1960s and early 1970s as “a site of geographic convergence of feminism, assemblage art, and black consciousness.”

Saar’s grandmother lived in Watts, and in the 1930s, Saar would visit regularly. The trips not only strengthened her connection to her own family history, they also enabled Saar to witness artist Simon Rodia constructing his famous towers. Saar would watch as Rodia sorted through piles of debris, selecting discarded objects to embed into cement over the towers’ steel frames. She once explained, “I think that was the beginning of me becoming an assemblagist or recycler.”Three decades later, Watts would again affect her artistic development. Observing other LA-based artists like John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and John Scott recycle wreckage from the 1965 riots as material for assemblages, Saar realized the power artists had to transform negative events and objects into creative acts of resistance. The upheavals in Watts became the catalyst for several area artists interested in making art with a political thrust to come together as a group.

In the late 1960s, Saar began to acquire what are euphemistically known as “black collectibles”—everyday objects that featured racist caricatures of African Americans and were found in homes throughout the United States. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, this ephemera became the cultural debris of racism that she would recycle into art. In 1972, she created her first series of assemblages, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. In one, a “mammy” figure stands on a field of cotton in front of a series of images of Aunt Jemima. In the center of her body is an image of another “mammy” standing in front of a picket fence and holding a white baby. As Saar explains, “the ‘mammy’ knew and stayed in her place. . . . I attempted to change that ‘place’ . . . . [by turning] a negative, demeaning figure into a positive, empowered woman who stands confrontationally with one hand holding a broom and the other armed for battle. A warrior ready to combat servitude and racism.”She returned to this notion of resisting racism and servitude in such subsequent series as Workers and Warriors and In Service.

Saar voices her political, racial, religious, and gender concerns in her art so that she may “reach across the barriers of art and life, to bridge cultural diversities, and forge new understandings.” Other works have sought to reveal marginalized and hidden histories, ones that are both personal and public. She has examined Asian and African diasporic religions in relation to personal spirituality, the construction of racial hierarchies based on skin tone within black communities, and the ways that objects retain the memories and histories of their owners. A recent series, centered on the theme of mental, physical, and cultural imprisonment, was shown in the 2010 exhibition Betye Saar: CAGE at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Saar has received numerous awards of distinction, including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1974, 1984), a J. Paul Getty Fund for the Visual Arts Fellowship (1990), a Flintridge Foundation Visual Artists Award (1998) and most recently, in 2013, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, presented her with the Distinguished Women in the Arts Award. In 1994, she and artist John Outterbridge represented the United States at the 22nd São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. In 2005, the University of Michigan Museum of Art organized the traveling exhibition Betye Saar: Extending the Frozen Moment, which examined the use of photographic fragments in her work. A role model for generations of women, Saar has raised three daughters, including two accomplished artists (Alison and Lezley). In 2005, the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina presented work by all three Saar artists in the traveling exhibition Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Alison and Lezley Saar.

The work of Betye Saar is represented in numerous museum collections including the Detroit Institute of the Arts, High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.  Her work was prominently featured in eight of the shows that comprisedPacific Standard Time—a suite of twenty-six exhibitions funded by the Getty Foundation that were shown concurrently in museums throughout California in 2011 and 2012. Presently, her work is included in the Brooklyn Museum of Art traveling exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.


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Photo by Jacob Wheeler, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.