by Dena Santoro
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for.
~ Georgia O’Keefe
Betye Saar was born in 1926 (as Betye Irene Brown) of mixed ancestry (African American, Irish and Native American). She grew up in Los Angeles. In 1949, she earned a graphic design degree from UCLA, beginning her career as a designer and later working as a printmaker. After viewing an exhibition of the New York artist Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages in 1968, she began creating assemblage art herself. By her own account, Saar was in her 40s when she began creating her best known work in earnest.
Betye Saar’s assemblage art has roots in her childhood, during which she and her widowed mother lived with a great aunt who collected ceramic figurines that were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These “black collectibles”—as they are euphemistically known—interested Saar, who began collecting them, as well as family trinkets and photos, and items salvaged from yard sales and flea markets.
Saar’s 1972 piece, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” grew into a touchstone. Her work began to appropriate these found images and objects—repurposing them became an act of protest. The work resonates. At once personal and political, there is the light touch of Saar’s relationship to the memory of objects as she discovered them and the impact of their transformation, infused with a profound message about race and humanity.
A curiosity about the mystical
Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.
~ Oscar Wilde
Beyond these themes there lies a second leitmotif, that of the mystical. In an artist’s statement, Saar writes:
There has been an apparent thread in my art that weaves from early prints of the 1960s through later collages and assemblages and ties into the current installations. That thread is a curiosity about the mystical.
I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously. The art itself becomes the bridge.
Mystical imagery—palms, eyes, enigmatic vistas—pervade the work; when Saar appropriates a single color the impact is intensified. Here is red in its myriad connotations: blood, danger, fire, love, passion, wine. Here is dusky blue/gray, where the work imparts twilight and loss, loneliness and an intimacy with melancholy.
Betye Saar’s work is represented in many museums and galleries, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Walker Art Center, MOMA and the Smithsonian. Among many honorary doctorate degrees and awards, she received the 2014 Edward MacDowell Medal, a lifetime achievement award presented by the nation’s oldest artists’ colony in Peterborough, N.H. Winners are selected from seven categories: architecture, visual art, music composition, theater, writing, filmmaking, and interdisciplinary art. The novelist Michael Chabon, MacDowell’s chairman, described Saar’s work as “scale models” that are “inescapably recognizable as our own broken world . . . mapping it with fierceness, a sense of play and . . . wild accuracy.”
My secret heart seeks the dusty, musty forgotten corners.
It constantly haunts, hunts, collects, gathers objects, images, feelings,
It mixes, matches, embellishes, simplifies, camouflages, fabricates to
empower the ordinary, to invent artifacts.
Memory is a shape shifter, heavy and light; tragic and comic, mystical and mundane. Betye Saar is still making art and making waves. Her work offers wistful nods to the remembrance of things past and indispensable caveats concerning the future.
Listen to Betye Saar read her secret heart poem in its entirety during a Netropolitan interview.