THE EXHIBITION CATALOG that accompanies “Betye Saar: Call and Response,” the artist’s showcase of sketchbooks and related artworks, is a real treasure. Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the traveling exhibition features sketchbooks dating from 1970 to 2015. The show represents an important milestone for Saar, given it is the first exhibition at a museum in her home state of California to address her entire career and the first anywhere organized around her sketchbooks.
A Los Angeles-based assemblage artist whose work explores spirituality, race, and gender issues, Betye Saar is a consummate documentarian. Throughout her artistic career, she has been recording her ideas and concepts in sketchbooks full of text and drawings. Saar keeps notes on potential titles for works and visualizes how individual objects and materials sourced from flea markets, second-hand stores, and swap meets might be assembled into finished works.
“These sketchbooks—small in format, largely spiral bound, with most covers dated by year and pages by day—serve as a wellspring of creativity for the artist,” Carol S. Eliel, writes in the catalog. The senior curator of modern art at LACMA, Eliel organized the exhibition.
Eliel adds: “Only when [Saar] has arrived at a vision of the final work in her mind’s eye—based on specific materials at hand—does she make a sketch.”
Modest in scale and fully illustrated, the exhibition catalog models Saar’s sketchbooks. The interior is spiral bound with a single essay by Eliel woven throughout the book and interspersed with images of the sketchbooks, details of particular pages, and completed works envisioned in the drawings. In many instances, her sketches and the related artworks she realized, are presented side-by-side on facing pages.
ELIEL’S ESSAY IS TITLED “The Mystery Touching the Beauty: Betye Saar and the Creative Process.” At outset, she contextualizes Saar’s practice and her influences.
“She is part of the strong tradition of artists working with found objects in her native Southern California, which included Wallace Berman, Edward Kieholz, John Outterbridge, Alexis Smith, and many others, combining items found on travels as well as in Los Angeles itself into conceptually and physically elaborate creations,” Eliel writes.
“Her sources and influences are as varied as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers; Haitian Vodou; Australian Aboriginal paintings; Byzantine reliquaries; Native American leatherwork; Egyptian artifacts; and African American history, literature, and music.”
Saar’s creative process generally begins with a found object. In 2018, the artist told the author she has “always been interested in objects and the stories that objects tell.”
BETYE SAAR, “The Divine Face,” 1971 (mixed media assemblage). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar, Photo credit by Robert Wedemeyer
A fascinating backstory accompanies each work. We learn about “The Divine Face” (1971) and its connections to artist David Hammons and artist/gallery owner Alonzo Davis. Saar was with Hammons at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago when her work “turned from European mysticism to third-world mysticism.”
The two artists visited the museum’s basement where Saar said they found “all this work from Africa, Oceania, and even China, and Japan—everything that wasn’t European…” She described the works as “strange” and “weird, fetish, magic stuff,” made with organic materials.
Back in Los Angeles, Saar immediately began collecting those same kinds of materials—leather, hair, shells, bones, and the like. Then she got a call from Davis, who owned Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles with his brother Dale Brockman Davis. Saar, Hammons, Dan Concholar, Maren Hassinger, Ulysses Jenkins, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, and Noah Purifoy, were among the artists who showed their work at the black-owned gallery.
Eliel recounts what happened next: “As Saar explained, ‘Alonzo found, came across, or inherited these animal skins—cowhide. One day he called and said, “Betye, I have all these cowhides that I am not going to use, would you like them?” He brought over five or six cow skins.’”
One of those cowhides is the foundation for “The Divine Face,” which hangs suspended from a piece of wood, and also includes bones, a peacock feather, snakeskin, and a macrame technique. Saar said the work is based on an Ethiopian symbol, depicting the face of a sun with the eyes looking “both up to heaven and down to earth.”
Clockwise from left, BETYE SAAR, “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break,” 1998 | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Lynda and Stewart Resnick through the 2018 Collectors Committee, © Betye Saar, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif.; BETYE SAAR (2), Top, Page Jan. 3, 1998, Bottom, Jan. 29, 1998. Both from Sketchbook, 1998. | Collection of Betye Saar, Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, © Betye Saar, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
MANY OF SAAR’S ASSEMBLAGES explore women’s work. The artist’s grandmother used a washboard on her back porch. Inspired by her memory, Saar began collecting the utilitarian objects in the mid-1990s. Combining washboards with other finds, Saar has made assemblages referencing slave labor, morality, strength, and resistance.
The base for “A Call to Arms” (1997) is a washboard. Adding a compass and a pair of spindles, Saar develops meaning. Central to the work’s narrative is a shadow box housing a clock topped by a brush doll with a mammy head and bullets for arms.
All of these elements are indexed on a page in a 1997 sketchbook, including the title, objects brought into the work, and the lettering on the washboard, which is derived from the Langston Hughes poem “Negro”: “I’ve been a victim. The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. They lynched me in Texas.”
Another assemblage work is based an old wood ironing board Saar acquired “from Cedric at P.C.C.” (the Pasadena Community College flea market), according to the artist’s notes on a sketchbook page dated Jan. 3, 1998. The shape of the ironing board reminded Saar of the infamous circa 1787 diagram of the slave ship called the Brookes, illustrating a tight configuration of bodies crammed into the ship’s hold.
In the finished work, “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break” (1998), Saar has transferred the diagram onto the top of the ironing board. The image covers the entire surface and on one end she added an image of a black woman ironing. As Eliel notes, the woman resembles a stereotypical mammy figure. The installation of the work also includes a white sheet hanging behind the ironing board, attached with clothespins to a laundry line. Three letters, “KKK,” are embroidered along the edge of one side of the sheet. Eliel further delineates Saar’s references:
In one of her sketches, Saar describes the iron in I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break as a “Rusted Flat Iron.” She has elaborated that it is “like the old irons my grandmother used to use, where you would have to heat them on the stove,” again drawing on her own family history as a source of inspiration. Here, however, the iron refers not only to female labor but also to the marking of slaves with branding irons. Likewise, the fact that Saar’s iron is chained to the legs of the ironing board—as seen already in the second sketch for the tableau—evokes images of the habitual chaining of slaves, both on the decks of slave ships and while they were in transit to and between owners.
BETYE SAAR, Page Jan. 14, 2010, From Sketchbook 2009–2010 (Overall: 5 1/2 x 4 inches / Sheet: 5 x 3 1/2 inches). | Collection of Betye Saar, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar, Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA
SAAR’S “EDGE OF ETHICS” (2010) illustrates the cover of “Call and Response.” The work features a single black female figure standing inside an elegantly curved hanging birdcage. Chains are wrapped around the figure’s waist and there is an alligator at its feet. Saar wrote about the work in a sketchbook dated Jan. 24, 2010.
At the top of the page, she cited the date of the sketch: “1-14-10-.” Based on her notes, Saar found the “Small dark green cage” from the Long Beach swap meet in 2009. Further down the page, she’s drawn a quick illustration of how she imagines the work coming together. Other notes on the page indicate where she plans to place chains, a fan of black coral, and a vintage glass bottle, and also that she later added a “toy tin alligator for the figure to stand on.”
The symbolism and meaning of “Edge of Ethics” is a challenge to decipher, though. As a hanging object, the work possesses a certain lightness and even beauty, given the colors, the silhouette of the cage, and materials incorporated in the assemblage. Symbolically, however, it’s connected to the display of brutality and indignity. The work directly references enslavement and captivity and speaks of punishment and torture.
A number of found objects show up repeatedly in Saar’s assemblages. She collects old clocks, scales, window panes, ceramic mammy figurines, washboards, and birdcages of varying shapes and sizes, in quantity.
According to Eliel, Saar views birdcages as objects of confinement with broad symbolism. She cites the artist’s words in a Michael Rosenfeld catalog that accompanied a gallery exhibition dedicated to her cage works in 2011. Saar explained that “the cage, an object of containment, for me became a metaphor for many concepts: ideas of limitations, of emotions, of racism, of feminism, of death, of beauty, of mystery, of legends, and superstition.”
BETYE SAAR, “The Edge of Ethics,” 2010 (mixed media assemblage, 10 ½ x 9 ¼ x 5 ½ inches / 26.7 x 23.5 x 14 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar, Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA
Eliel further states that “I know why the caged bird sings!” the last line from “Sympathy” (1899), a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, more commonly associated with the title of Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, informs the Saar’s work, too.
Among the objects Saar collects with abandon, old clocks factor in a largely autobiographical work the artist made in 2005. “Still Ticking” inspired the title for her retrospective organized by the De Domijnen museum in Sittard, the Netherlands, and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015-16. In her sketchbook, Saar describes “Still Ticking” as a “white bookcase filled with old clocks…” In addition to the clocks, the work is rife with personal and familial references.
“Still Ticking is among Saar’s most self-referential assemblages. In the spring of 2004 Saar was looking ahead to her seventy-eighth birthday, and the sketch for this work, dated 3-23-04 includes the parenthetical note “8 Decades” directly below the object title,” Eliel writes.
“The years and astrological glyphs inscribed on the inner left side of the assemblage refer to family and birthdates and astrological signs—Saar’s own on July 30, 1926 (making her a Leo, as identified by its glyph), as well as her daughters’ and others’. The work’s title wittingly refers to both the timepieces in the assemblage—which of course, are not still ticking; indeed they are either frozen in time or missing their hands—and to the artist herself, who is alive and well, still ticking.”
“Betye Saar: Call and Response,” Pages 74-75. Shown, Left, BETYE SAAR, “Still Ticking,” 2005 (mixed media assemblage, 29 1/2 x 19 x 16 inches); Right, Page March 23, 2004, From 2004 Sketchbook
IT’S DISAPPOINTING that the catalog does not include an interview with Saar. What better way to learn more about why she began, and has continued consistently for decades, to keep such a rigorous and formulaic accounting of her materials, ideas, and concepts, then to hear from her directly?
Given the concise nature of the volume, however, it makes sense to limit the format to the single essay. There is no substitute for Saar’s voice, but Eliel thoughtfully and deftly makes use of direct quotes from the artist throughout her essay, sharing countless anecdotes and backstories.
Eliel says she has known Saar since the 1990s, when she led LACMA’s acquisition of “Gris Gris Guardian” (1990-93) in 1996. The curator collaborated with the artist to develop the exhibition, which was three years in the making. In addition, specifically for the Call and Response project, Eliel had at least three conversations with Saar in March, July, and August of 2018, in her studio and home, according to citations and writings in the book.
The substance of those conversations comes through in the curator’s essay, in the level of detail she shares about the artist’s process and the references and meaning embedded in her work. From these conversations we learn significant first-hand insights.
In one instance, we gain an understanding of the artist’s distinction between spirituality and religion. When Saar was commissioned to make a sculpture for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, she decided deliver three “spirit chairs.” The seat backs resemble meandering tree branches and are decorated with bottles at the ends, referencing bottle trees found in the Caribbean and the American South. Whereas Saar generally works with existing objects, for this project, she constructed the chairs using found wood. Eliel writes about one of works, “Sanctuary Awaits” (1996):
Saar describes Sanctuary Awaits as less like a chair and “more like a little altar, like a table with the trees coming from it. I hate to use the word altar, people immediately consider it a religious kind of thing., and it wasn’t created to be religious. It was created to be spiritual. Attracting good and warding off the negative…[a place] for the spirit to stop and rest.”
Another important example, “The Divine Face” and other works Saar made with the cowhides from Davis, were the first she created based “on a Black or African American consciousness or awareness, and recycling it into an art form.”
This represents a profound moment, given Saar’s association with the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles at that time and central role race and the agency of black women have played in her work over the years. The year after “The Divine Face,” she created “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972).
BETYE SAAR, Page from 1970—1972 sketchbook. | Collection of Betye Saar, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar, Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA
PAIRING ILLUSTRATIONS of her sketchbooks and artworks with Eliel’s essay, “Call and Response” makes a major contribution to the documentation of Saar’s practice, and is a fitting complement to the exhibition.
A lovely volume, just shy of 100 pages, the catalog was recognized by the Association of Art Museum Curators with a 2020 Curatorial Award for Excellence. For “Call and Response,” Eliel received the top catalog award in the “Organization with an operating budget over $30 million” category.
After opening last fall, the run of “Call and Response,” which was scheduled to concluded April 5, was cut short by a few weeks when LACMA closed temporarily on March 14, in an effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The exhibition is expected to travel to additional venues: the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City (May 29-Oct. 4, 2020) and Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.
With “Call and Response,” Saar opens up her creative process as it unfolded over a half century, from one sketchbook to the next. Eliel begins her catalog essay, with a quote Saar penned in a sketchbook dated Feb. 6, 1986: “It may not be possible to convey to someone else that mysterious transforming gift by which dreams, memory, and experience become art…but I like to think I try.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Courtesy LACMA
Two publications were recently published to coincide with Betye Saar’s exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. In addition to “Betye Saar: Call and Response,” documenting the LACMA show, “Betye Saar: Black Girl’s Window” is a close study of “Black Girl’s Window,” her 1969 assemblage work from which the MoMA takes it title. Two additional volumes accompany recent major retrospectives” “Betye Saar: Still Tickin’” and “Betye Saar: Uneasy Dancer.”
BETYE SAAR, Page from 1998 Sketchbook, January 22, 1998. | Collection of Betye Saar, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar, Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA; BETYE SAAR, “Supreme Quality,” 1998 (mixed media on vintage washboard and tub, 41 3/4 x 21 1/4 x 11 7/8 inches). | The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Mortimer and Sara Hays Acquisition Fund. © Betye Saar, Photo Courtesy Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, by Tim Lanterman
“Betye Saar: Call and Response,” pages 56-57. Shown, Left, “Colored,” 2002 (mixed media assemblage with hand mirror, 14 1/2 x 30 x 1 1/2 inches).; Right, Top, Page from 2000-20001 Sketchbook; Bottom, Page June 2, 2002, From 2002 Sketchbook
From left, BETYE SAAR, Page From Sketchbook, February 2013 (Overall: 5 5/8 x 3 1/2 inches; Sheet: 5 x 3 1/2 inches). | Collection of Betye Saar, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar, Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA; BETYE SAAR, “The Weight of Buddha (Contemplating Mother Wit and Street Smarts),” 2014 (mixed media assemblage, 19.5 x 7 x 7 inches / 47 x 17.78 x17.78 cm). | The Eileen Harris Norton Collection, © Betye Saar, Photo by Robert Wedemeyer
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