THE LOS ANGELES-BASED ARTIST Betye Saar is known for her assemblage works, mixed-media objects that explore race, history, death and rebirth through found objects. Indeed, Saar herself is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. After serving as a resident faculty member in 1985, Saar returned to Skowhegan in 2014 as a visiting artist. Further, the 90-year-old’s exhibition program has been in overdrive since last year with “Still Tickin’,” a major retrospective (2015-16) presented in the Netherlands and Scottsdale, Ariz. Roberts & Tilton, her Los Angeles gallery, is presenting two concurrent shows, and “Uneasy Dancer,” her first exhibition in Italy, is currently on view at the Prada Foundation in Milan.
On the occasion of her Prada Foundation show, Frieze magazine spoke to Saar about her seven-decade career and published the first-person account as told to Jonathan Griffin, a Los Angeles-based writer.
She talks about living in Laurel Canyon for 50 years, her path to art and meeting Charles White. She also recalls Angela Davis stating in 2007 that the black women’s movement started with “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” Saar’s self-described “iconic” work from 1972. Throughout the piece, the artist notes her influences. Five are cited below:
- Death and Rebirth
“I am at a sad place in my life, a crossroads—my brother has just passed away—and I have been thinking about why there is a certain feeling in my artwork that seems grim but really isn’t. The crossroads is about death and rebirth, and how important that is to my practice. I’ve made prints, collages and decorative pieces but the works that I feel are strong and significant are those which revolve around death and rebirth.”
“We would spend our summers with my paternal grandmother in Watts, and there I remember passing Simon Rodia as he was building the Watts Towers (1921–55). Right away, I was curious. …The Watts Towers were a strong influence on my work because Rodia used all sorts to make them: iron and steel for the structure, cement, shards. Everything that was thrown away, he recycled. Making art out of nothing—the Watts Towers were where I learned how to be an artist.”
“The Watts Towers were a strong influence on my work… Making art out of nothing—the Watts Towers were where I learned how to be an artist.”
— Betye Saar, Frieze Magazine
- Interior Design
“I wanted to study art, but the schools were segregated at the time. The Chouinard Art Institute was available to me, but it was private. You had to apply with a portfolio, and that was just one of the things black people didn’t go into—they didn’t study to be artists. I studied design at UCLA, from 1947–49, specializing in interior design. Later on, my interior design work for friends or for my mother—became like making installations.”
“When I first graduated, …I took a job as a social worker—sociology was my minor—and that was my employment until I married. I worked with old-age pensioners. The experience taught me that it’s really no fun being old; many of the people I assisted were living at poverty level, on meagre allowances, and some of them did not even qualify for social security. I learned a lot about being old and about being poor.”
“One Sunday in 1967, my family and I were going to visit my mother for dinner in Pasadena. I said, ‘Let’s go early and we’ll see what’s on at the Pasadena Museum.’ It was a Joseph Cornell exhibition. The galleries were dark; the works were small and carefully spot-lit. They looked like little jewels; they were these magical things. I said to myself: ‘Wow! He just made these out of material he collected.’ I got the catalogue and, from that moment on, I started collecting stuff to make my own assemblages. I spent about three years accumulating material.”
READ ENITRE ARTICLE published in the October 2016 issue of Frieze magazine.
TOP IMAGE: BETYE SAAR, “The Phrenologer’s Window II,” 1966. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles. Photo Robert Wedemeyer | via Prada Foundation
To further explore the work of Betye Saar consider “Betye Saar: Extending the Frozen Moment” and “Betye Saar (David C. Driskell Series of African American Art).” Also check out “Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley, and Alison Saar.” The volume explores the art of the matriarch and her daughters, all accomplished artists in their own right.