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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Betye Saar

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, Betye Saar
I've never known or met and artist who didn't have at least a passing interest in their native heritage and family background. It seems to go with the territory. My mother was into genealogy. I'm not, though I do have my father's fascination with history in general. He was a great Civil War buff, though he never served in the military nor did he have any known ancestors involved in the war. He loved to visit battle sites and watch reenactments. When my mother died, as her executor, I had the job of settling their estate, which, though not all that great in terms of dollars and cents, was exceedingly complex in many other ways (my mother never met a bank she didn't like). Adding to this burden was her accumulation of antiques, some of which were of little value (all but worthless, in fact) while others were quite rare and/or valuable.

Betye Saar Self-portrait
In going through all the "stuff" the night before the estate auction, I chose some of the more attractive items and arranged them into a still-life, which I photographed extensively for future reference in doing a painting of the family heirlooms. Some of them sold the very next day. It was one of the least successful still-lifes I've ever done. The problem was, most items bore little relationship to one another, and all were of approximately equal size and interest. Thus, they competed visually with one another. At best, it looked like a display in an antique shop window. Moreover, there was no cohesive theme or message to tie it all together. In looking back, I wish I'd known the Los Angeles artist Betye Saar. She might have helped me better "pull it off."
The line between assemblage and
collage can sometimes be quite thin.
Sambo’s Banjo,
Betye Saar 1971-1972
Betye Saar seldom paints still-lifes. She makes still-lifes, an art form invented by no less an art icon than Pablo Picasso himself. He coined the word "assemblage" to differentiate such works from their two-dimensional ancestor, "collage" (which he also fathered). When Betye's great aunt Hattie died in the 1970s, she found herself in much the same position as I, going through family photos and other memorabilia, trying to sift the treasure from the trash. She began to turn her talent for assemblage (should we call it sculpture?) toward boxed or framed icons, arranging old photographs, letters, lockets, dried flowers, and handkerchiefs in shrine-like windows to recall memories, lost ones, and the passage of time. Sambo's Banjo (above, left) is a Saar assemblage. The untitled work (above, right) more nearly fits the definition of a collage, though once the piece begins to take on the element of depth, the line between the two art forms can become a matter of opinion.

Eat Seeds n All, Betye Saar
Ragtime, 2005, Betye Saar
Betye Saar first made a name for herself as an artist in the late 1960s when she began her collection of what are euphemistically called “black collectibles”—everyday objects that featured racist caricatures of African Americans. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, these items became the cultural debris of racism she would recycle into art. In 1972, she created her first series of assemblages, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (top). The most iconic of these featured a “mammy” figure standing in a field of cotton backed by a series of images of Aunt Jemima. In the center of her body is an image of another “mammy,” standing before a picket fence, and holding a white baby. 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.” Her Eat Seeds 'n All (above), takes a similar swipe at the black stereotype children's storybook character, Sambo. Saar's Ragtime (above, right) references traditional racial stereotypes having to do with music.

Betye Saar with her artist daughters, Lezley and Alison.
Mother and Children in Blue,
 1998, Betye Saar
Betye Saar was born Betye Irene brown in 1926. She has lived all her life in and around Los Angeles. When her father died in 1931, her mother took Betye and her younger brother and sister to live with her great aunt, Hattie Keys, in Pasadena. Betye began her academic studies at Pasadena City College, later graduating from UCLA with a degree in design. She did her graduate work at California State University while employed as a social worker and jewelry designer. During this time she also married Richard Saar and gave birth to two daughters, Lezley and Allison Saar, both of whom have also become artists. Saar's Mother and Children in Blue (left) from 1998, no doubt reflects her having survived such a hectic period, attempting to balance her own hopes with the needs of her family and the demands of her job.

Tangled Roots, Palmer Museum of Art installation, 1996, Betye Saar
In growing up as a child, Betye often spent summers with her grandmother, who lived in Watts (an eastern suburb of L.A.). Thus she had the opportunity to watch as Simon Rodia's Watts Towers took shape. Along with her mixed African-American, Irish, and Native American heritage, Saar credits Rodia as having been one of her major influences (only on a smaller scale, of course). Her 1996 installation, Tangled Roots (above) suggests this ancestral mélange while Mystic Window #1 (below), from 1965, and The Phrenologer’s Window (bottom), done the following year, reflect her earlier interest in mysticism and Voodoo. In the early 1980s, once her daughters were, themselves in college, Saar taught at the University of California and the Otis Art Institute (now called Otis College of Art and Design). As her work matured, Saar began doing large, room-size, site-specific installations, including altar-like shrines exploring the relationship between technology and spirituality. She paired computer chips with mystical amulets and charms, suggesting the need for an alliance of both the technical and the spiritual. Betye Saar, even at the age of eighty-eight, continues to live and work from her home in Los Angeles.

The Mystic Window #1, 1965. Betye Saar
The Phrenologer’s Window, 1966, Betye Saar.


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