Alison Saar on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. | Video by LACMA


CONTAINED IN A DISPLAY BOX, the figure is at once elegant and rough hewn. “She’s a strong, intense female figure …She’s got her one hand up doing this kind of shimmy thing. She is just out there and strutting her stuff,” says artist Alison Saar, in the video above. “I think that is also what attracts me to wood carvings in general. It’s immediacy. You just need a log and a couple of tools. You can still see how the figure is pressed against the boundaries of the log that she’s kind of contained in.”

Composed of painted wood, the sculpture is feminine with a distinctly African silhouette. “Dancer with Necklace” was made in 1910 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a German expressionist painter. The work is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which has launched a new video series inviting local artists to engage with its collection. Artists on Art features 10 Los Angeles-based artists, including Saar, her mother Betye Saar, Catherine Opie, John Baldessari, Thomas Houseago, and Mario Ybarra Jr., among others.

The project echoes the Artist Project, a similar effort at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which over a period of six seasons explored “What artists see when they look at The Met.” For that project, 60 artists from around the world, including Mark Bradford, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu, and Mickalene Thomas, talked about particular artists and works that they were particularly drawn to in the Met’s collection.

Carol Eliel, curator of modern art, created the project at LACMA and asked artists who visit the museum often to participate because she knew “works in the collection have been important touchstones” in their creative development. Most of the artists, including the Saars, are also themselves represented in the museum’s collection.

“As a curator, I always think of artists as one of LACMA’s most important and discerning audiences, not just for our exhibitions but also—and particularly—for the richness and diversity of our permanent collection. It seems very logical to be curious [about] what they come to see at the museum, and why,” said Eliel, in a statement from the museum.

“As a curator, I always think of artists as one of LACMA’s most important and discerning audiences… It seems very logical to be curious [about] what they come to see at the museum, and why.”
— Carol Eliel, LACMA Curator of Modern Art

Alison’s practice is centered around African American culture and history, including the legacy of slavery, spiritual traditions and the generational experiences of black women. Her work was recently on view at L.A. Louver, and earlier this year “Bearing,” an exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco considered the female form. The show of 26 sculptures and installations was described as exploring “the ways in which the legacy of history bears on the body, and how this history both shapes and guides the way society conceptualizes identity. Her interest in the body, specifically the mothering body, present both the corporeal and cultural endurance of African American women.”

In admiring “Dancer with Necklace,” Alison is undoubtedly reminded of her own work. Kirchner’s figure is “a jubilant embracement of the body,” she says. “I don’t know. It’s very beautiful.”


Betye Saar on Ceremonial Board. | Video by LACMA


FOR MORE THAN SIX DECADES, the elder Saar has created expressive works of art from found objects. “Betye Saar: Still Tickin’,” a retrospective of her work, was organized by the Museum Het Domein in The Netherlands and earlier this year traveled to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. This fall, Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles is presenting a pair of solo exhibitions featuring her work.

Political, spiritual, and historical, her mixed-media works and installations explore racism, sexism, African American identity and cross-cultural connections. This latter element has compelled her to return on many occasions to a lower gallery at LACMA where art from the Pacific is on view.

Betye says she is “intrigued” by the work because it has so much “mystery.” She is particularly moved by a ceremonial board from Papua New Guinea, which she discussed for the Artists on Art series. Beautifully shaped, with an interesting color combination, she says it resembles a shield. Early on, she says her practice was greatly influenced by such work.

“I responded a lot to Oceanic art and other places. It was something that I wanted to integrate into my own work, either by shapes or by symbols, or by materials. And that’s when my work began to change mostly from print making and collages into making art objects,” Betye says.

The museum intends to continue the project. The next installment includes Aaron Curry talking about Pablo Picasso, Ed Ruscha discussing Marcel Duchamp, and Pae White on designer Christopher Dresser. CT


To further explore the work of Betye Saar and Alison Saar, consider “Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar.” Also take a look at “Betye Saar: Extending the Frozen Moment” and “Betye Saar (David C. Driskell Series of African American Art).” A digital catalog was produced for “Silt, Soot, Smut,” Alison Saar’s recent exhibition at L.A. Louver. The Saars are a creative family. “Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley, and Alison Saar” explores the art of the matriarch and her daughters, all accomplished artists in their own right.


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