Installation view of “Betye Saar: Something Blue,” Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

THE SMITHSONIAN’S ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART interviewed Robert Colescott about his life and work in 1999. Paul Karlstrom, who spent his entire three-decade career at the archives as West Coast regional director, conducted the oral history interview with the artist. Toward the end of the conversation, the racially and politically charged nature of Colescott’s work came up and Karlstrom invoked Betye Saar‘s name as an example of another artist covering similar terrain. “I don’t know all of her work. I do know her,” Karlstrom said. “I think her papers are going to come to the archives.”

Saar’s papers are not going to the Smithsonian. The 92-year-old artist, who was born in Los Angeles and has lived and worked in the city throughout her career, chose a local institution to house her archives. In September, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) announced the acquisition of Saar’s complete archive, now called “The Betye Saar Papers.” The acquisition was made in conjunction with a $5 million commitment to documenting and preserving African American art history.

The African American Art History Initiative is designed to establish the Getty as a major center for the study of African American art history. The initiative is a comprehensive undertaking involving multiple institutions and participation from a number of respected scholars. GRI is hiring a dedicated curator and a bibliographer; instituting graduate and post-graduate research fellowships; partnering with museums and universities; and conducting oral histories with and collecting the archives of artists, curators, and other cultural figures.

The acquisition was the culmination of a long process. The Getty had been making overtures to Saar for several years and she was interested, potentially, in housing her papers at GRI, but remained on the fence. In the meantime, a few other institutions came calling and approached Saar about her archive. As the years went by and the vision for GRI’s new art history initiative began to take concrete shape over the past 18 months or so, the discussions with Saar began to dovetail with plans for the new project.

“Well, we’ve been talking to Betye,” Andrew Perchuk, acting director of the Getty Research Institute, told Culture Type. “We worked very closely with her on the first Pacific Standard Time and she featured prominently in the exhibition that I organized at the Getty called ‘Pacific Standard Time Crosscurrents in Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970.’ We got to know her, obviously, and we talked to her about her archive for a number of years. But, I think that the launching of the initiative was really an encouraging thing for Betye to make the final decision.”

The establishment of the art history initiative indeed closed the deal. Once the plan was shared with Saar and she came to understand the scope and scale of it, she was sold.

“When we first started the conversations with the Getty, there was never any mention of this in the initial conversations,” said Julie Roberts, Saar’s dealer who represents the artist through Roberts Projects in Los Angeles. She spoke by phone at the end of September from Art Expo Chicago where she was showing works by Saar and other gallery artists.

“Within the last six months or so they informed us that they were developing an African American initiative and how wonderful it would be to have Betye’s acquisition as the first and the most significant archives that will join that initiative.”

Kellie Jones is a curator and Columbia University art historian whose exhibitions and books have explored Saar’s practice. She’s been hired as a senior consultant for the GRI initiative.

“It’s great to start a project like this with the announcement of this is where we’re going with the initiative,” said Jones. “[Betye’s] been on this planet for a while and she has a lot of archives that span potentially from periods of segregation to now and I think that’s a great way to start. She’s worked in so many mediums, she’s worked at different institutions, and she’s shown all over the world. So to start with such a comprehensive and wide-ranging archive is really, I think, exciting.”

[Betye’s] been on this planet for a while and she has a lot of archives that span potentially from periods of segregation to now… She’s worked in so many mediums, she’s worked at different institutions, and she’s shown all over the world. So to start with such a comprehensive and wide-ranging archive is really, I think, exciting.”
— Art Historian Kellie Jones, Columbia University

When the initiative and acquisition were announced, Saar told the Los Angeles Times, “When you’re 92, it takes a lot to get you excited. I paid my dues, and now, I’m reaping the rewards. …I’m very happy that anybody can go [to the GRI] to discover my work, not just the art community. It’s my contribution.”

GRI views the acquisition of Saar’s papers as a major coup. The hope is that it is the first of many and it anticipates that her commitment will encourage other artists to entrust their archives to the institute. Perchuk said talks with several others are underway.

 


Featured in “Betye Saar: Something Blue” – From left, BETYE SAAR, “Shrine of Forgotten Memories,” 2018 (mixed media installation, 21 x 16 x 13 inches / 53.3 x 40.6 x 33.0 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer; and BETYE SAAR, “Evening in Paris,” 2010 (mixed media assemblage, 15.5 x 10.5 x 10.5 inches / 39.4 x 26.7 x 26.7 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 

A PIONEERING ASSEMBLAGE ARTIST, Saar’s practice is defined by second-wave feminist and post­war black nationalist aesthetics. She explores issues of race, gender, spirituality, and history, making work that is by turns autobiographical and reflective of the politics of wider society. Saar was a social worker and an interior designer before she dedicated herself to making art.

Since the 1960s, she’s been collecting found objects such as ships, clocks, scales, bird cages and black memorabilia, often combining them with her own drawings, prints, etchings, and vintage family photographs to form sculptural mixed-media works and conceptual installations. Early on, the direction of her work was influenced by the Watts rebellion in 1965 and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—historic moments in American history that deeply affected the African American community.

News that Saar’s collection has been entrusted to GRI is the latest development in a particularly thriving period for the nonagenarian. While she is actively considering and securing her legacy, she is forging ahead with new art, exhibitions, and projects.

The acquisition announcement followed “Still Tickin’ (2015-2016), her first solo exhibition in Europe; “Uneasy Dancer” (2016) her first show in Italy; “Keepin’ It Clean” (2017), which presented her washboard assemblages dating to the 1990s; and the publication of two major volumes documenting her five-decade practice. It also came in advance of the opening of three exhibitions this fall—solo shows in Los Angeles and New York, and the presentation of her work for the first time in Scotland.

Saar’s archive is the cornerstone of what GRI envisions as a vast resource for researchers. The Betye Saar Papers represent a meticulous and comprehensive documentation of her prolific practice and life as an artist. Spanning 1926 (the year she was born) to the present, the files contain details of her artistic production across mediums; sketchbooks full of her ideas and concepts; prints and drawings; documentation of all of her projects, including exhibitions, catalogs, brochures, and posters; engagements and transactions with museums, galleries, and collectors; and artist statements and letters that shed light on her relationships and collaborations with other artists.

Dozens of ledger books document Saar’s oeuvre. She has kept detailed records of her artworks for nearly 70 years, noting their titles and medium, when they were made, who purchased them, and where they were exhibited. A cherished family photo album that belonged to Saar’s mother, Beatrice Parson, is also part of the collection. GRI purchased the entire archive for an undisclosed sum. The institute has inventoried collection and expects to take possession of it in the coming months.

Dozens of ledger books document Saar’s oeuvre. She has kept detailed records of her artworks for nearly 70 years, noting their titles and medium, when they were made, who purchased them, and where they were exhibited.


Featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” – BETYE SAAR, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” 1972 (mixed media assemblage, 11.75 x 8 x 2.75 inches; 29.85 x 20.32 x 7.0 cm). | Collection of Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, Calif., Purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (selected by The Committee for the Acquisition of Afro-American Art). Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Benjamin Blackwell

 

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, major solo exhibitions have brought to the fore the expanse of Saar’s output. “Still Tickin'” was organized by the De Domijnen in Sittard, the Netherlands, and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona. Addressing three themes—nostalgia and memory, mysticism and ritual, and the political and racial—the retrospective presented work from the 1960s to present across a range of mediums.

“Uneasy Dancer” at the Prada Foundation in Milan also surveyed a half century of her work. The title of the exhibition derives from an expression Saar has used to describe herself and her practice. The reference is quoted in the exhibition catalog.

“I am an easy dancer in a slow dance that is my ninetieth revolution around the sun,” Saar said in 2016. “My work moves in a creative spiral with concepts of passage, crossroads, death and rebirth, along with the underlying elements of race and gender. Mystery and beauty remain a constant force behind my creative energy. This is the energy and the rhythm that spins my spiral, my dance.”

More than 80 works spanning 1966-2016 were featured in “Uneasy Dancer,” including “The Alpha and the Omega” (2013–2016), an installation created specifically for the exhibition. “A circular environment alluding to the initiatory journey and the experience of human life,” the installation is composed of elements representing “the whole of anything, from beginning to end.”

Saar’s ledgers have proven to be essential in planning for exhibitions. Elvira Dyangani Ose, who curated the “Uneasy Dancer,” was interested in particular types of work and the volumes aided in the identification of certain pieces.

“Through those ledgers we were able to locate work that had never been shown,” said Roberts. One example, a window diptych titled “The Phrenologer’s Window” (1966), was included in the Pacific Standard Time exhibition and later featured prominently in “Uneasy Dancer.” It was used to promote the show and appears on the back cover of the exhibition catalog.

The ledgers are part of the Getty acquisition, but Saar is keeping them for now. “I think that is going to be important for any researcher,” Roberts said. “Those ledgers Betye will be holding onto until, as Betye says, her demise. Those are living documents for her and she continually updates them as works are exhibited or acquired or change hands in some way.”

“Those ledgers Betye will be holding onto until, as Betye says, her demise. Those are living documents for her and she continually updates them as works are exhibited or acquired or change hands in some way.”
— Julie Roberts, Roberts Projects


Featured in “Betye Saar: Uneasy Dancer” – BETYE SAAR, “The Phrenologer’s Window II,” 1966. | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 


Installation view of “Betye Saar: Uneasy Dancer,” Prada Foundation, Italy (Sept. 15, 2016-Jan.8, 2017). | Photo by Roberto Marossi, Courtesy Fondazione Prada

 

A STUNNING PUBLICATION was created to accompany “Uneasy Dancer.” With essays by Richard J. Powell (Duke University), Deborah Willis (New York University), and Kellie Jones (Columbia University), it is an exhibition catalog in the traditional sense, but the majority of the volume is dedicated to a 206-page timeline—a detailed journey through Saar’s life and art, from 1926 to 2016.

The meticulous records Saar has kept over the years made the volume possible. Two curators from the Prada foundation were dispatched to the artist’s studio where they set up a desk for about two weeks and mined her archive. Carlo Barbatti and Mario Mainetti went through all of her images, paperwork, and the ledgers. Working with Saar, they created a year-by-year accounting of her life.

The narrative timeline that resulted includes documentary photographs, images of her artwork and countless text entries. Milestones in her personal life and career, including exhibitions, lectures, travels, and awards are intertwined with the significant cultural and political moments that occurred along the way. News events, civil rights milestones, political developments, court decisions, advancements in women’s rights, the opening of museums and arts institutions, and the achievements of fellow artists, are listed in the timeline compiled by Barbatti and Chiara Costa. It’s a virtual march through 20th-century American history.

Saar’s birth is cited, along with the births of her sister and brother, and her three daughters (Lezley and Alison, both artists, and Tracye, a writer). The beginning and end of her marriage to artist Richard Saar (1924-2004), who designed and manufactured ceramics, are also highlighted.

Entries capture when Saar started taking art classes in junior high school (1943); had her first solo exhibition in California at Kozlo Gallery in Encino (1964); participated in FESTAC 77 in Nigeria (1977); was in residence at Skowhegan (1985); traveled to Brazil for opening of “The Art of Betye Saar & John Outterbridge: The Poetics of Politics, Iconography, and Spirituality” at the 22nd Bienal de São Paulo (1994); and exhibited her work for the first time with her daughters in “Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley and Alison Saar” at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, N.C. (2005)

In 1967, a Joseph Cornell exhibition, curated by Walter Hopps, changed the direction of her work. According to the timeline, after seeing Cornell’s show at the Pasadena Museum of Art, “Saar begins working in assemblage and searching through secondhand stores and flea markets to find materials to use in her work.”

In 1967, a Joseph Cornell exhibition, curated by Walter Hopps, changed the direction of her work. …after seeing Cornell’s show at the Pasadena Museum of Art, “Saar begins working in assemblage and searching through secondhand stores and flea markets to find materials to use in her work.”

Saar’s journey is juxtaposed with what’s happening around her. The timeline notes FDR’s creation of the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (1941); the completion of the Watts Towers (1954); first issue of Artforum, which is published in San Francisco (1962); the assassination of Malcolm X (1965); SNCC’s organization of a photography exhibition chaired by Gordon Parks at the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem (1967); the opening of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu (1974); Los Angeles hosting the Summer Olympics for the second time (1984); the eruption of the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the police beating of Rodney King (1992); the inauguration of President Obama (2009); and the murder of Trayvon Martin and the founding of Black Lives Matter (2012).

 


Featured in “Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean” – From left, BETYE SAAR, “Supreme Quality,” 1998 (mixed media on vintage washboard, metal washtub, wood stand). | Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Tim Lanterman, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art; and BETYE SAAR, “Dark Times,” 2015 (mixed media on vintage washboard, clock). | Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 

THESE EVENTS IN THE ART COMMUNITY and wider society provide context for the times in which Saar’s life is unfolding and her practice is developing and are often reflected in her work. The timeline concludes in 2016 and in the years since Saar has continued to make art. Her latest works from 2017 and 2018 are on view in new exhibitions.

At Roberts Projects, “Something Blue” features artworks made between 1983 and 2018, in which Saar utilizes the color blue to explore magic, voodoo, and the occult. The gallery is presenting a complementary exhibition in tandem with Saar’s show. Curated by jill moniz, “Holding Up 1/2 the Sky” includes 14 women artists whose abstract sculptures “operate in call and response” to Saar’s work and “echo the emotional and political tension” of her assemblages. Both exhibitions close Dec. 15.

The New-York Historical Society—where exhibitions about black citizenship, African American voting rights, and women’s history are currently on view—is showcasing Saar’s washboard assemblages. “Keepin’ It Clean” (through May 27, 2019) features works from 1997 to 2017 that invoke washboards as a symbol of the unresolved legacy of slavery, black women’s history of domestic service, and generations of systemic black oppression. The washboards are also a metaphor for a much-needed cleansing in American society. Saar has said: “…the increase of police shootings and the Black Lives Matter protests are examples that America has not yet cleaned up her act.” “Keepin’ It Clean” was organized by the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles where it debuted in May 2017.

Finally, a monumental installation by Saar appears in a group show at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. “NOW: Monster Chetwynd, Henry Coombes, Moyna Flannigan, Betye Saar, Wael Shawky” (through April 28) includes “Mojotech” (1987), which Saar produced while she was in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An incredibly lengthy work realized in the form of a altarpiece, “Mojetech” is composed of found objects and measures more than 24-feet long.

Alice Strang, who co-curated the exhibition, said the work “combines her interest in a variety of spiritual forces with a curiosity about the possibility for magic in technology.” The exhibition marks the first major presentation of Saar’s work in Scotland.

 


Featured in “NOW: Monster Chetwynd, Henry Coombes, Moyna Flannigan, Betye Saar, Wael Shawky” – BETYE SAAR, “Mojotech,” 1987 (mixed media assemblage, 76 x 294 x 16 inches / 193.0 x 746.8 x 40.6 cm). | Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 


Oct. 1, 1973: Betye Saar at the opening for “Betye Saar: Selected Works, 1964-73,” Fine Arts Gallery, California State University, Los Angeles. | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Fidel Danieli

 

Saar’s recent retrospectives, “Still Tickin'” and “Uneasy Dancer,” were particularly notable because the celebrated artist has lived her entire life in Los Angeles and no local institution has mounted a career-spanning survey of her work.

Next fall, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) will come close. Opening in September 2019, “Betye Saar: Call and Response” will examine the relationship between the artist’s preliminary drawings and finished works. Saar has expressed herself in a series of sketchbooks throughout the years. About a dozen of them will also be featured in the exhibition, which will travel to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

The exhibition, features a selection of works produced throughout her career, but it is not comprehensive in terms of offering an in-depth representation of her various bodies of work over the years. Nonetheless, the exhibition, marks two milestones—the first time a California museum is showing work that dates throughout Saar’s career and the first exhibition anywhere focusing on her sketchbooks.

Three years ago, when “Still Tickin'” was on view in the Netherlands, Saar talked to the Los Angeles Times about her local exposure. “I guess it’s always a problem to get recognized in your hometown,” the artist said. Laughing she added: “But they can’t wait and wait because then I’ll die and it’ll cost big bucks. Then they will pay for their hesitation.”

“I guess it’s always a problem to get recognized in your hometown… But they can’t wait and wait because then I’ll die and it’ll cost big bucks. Then they will pay for their hesitation.” — Betye Saar in the Los Angeles Times

In September, when LACMA released its latest advance exhibition schedule, the summary for “Call and Response” described Saar “one of the most talented artists of her generation” and also said, “She is not as well known as her talents deserve, however, no doubt largely because she is a black woman who came of age in the 1960s outside of New York City.”

Saar’s work is showcased in two important group shows “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and “Outliers and American Vanguard Art.” Both touring exhibitions are making stops in Los Angeles. “Outliers” opened at LACMA last month, and “Soul of a Nation,” currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, will travel to The Broad in March 2019.

 


Los Angeles artist Betye Saar provides a look around her studio as she talks about her practice and how she makes work (2016). | Video by Los Angeles Times

 

MARKING HER 90TH YEAR, the Betye Saar Catalogue Raisonné Project + Archives project was established in 2016. In partnership with Fulcrum Arts of Pasadena, the undertaking will result in a scholarly publication and digital archive documenting Saar’s papers and vast oeuvre of assemblage, collage, installations, prints and drawings, including provenance details, along with a comprehensive compilation of her exhibition history, publications, and bibliography.

“It’s very important to protect her legacy and that’s why we are very much involved in her catalogue raissoné project that is coming along very well. …Betye has an incredible memory and I feel it is so important at this exact time to utilize her memory to help her help future generations know about her work,” said Roberts.

“We’re still in the infancy of the project, still in planning stages. We have the database, in next six months to a year it will be formally announced and then we will commence taking submissions.”

Once the raisonné project is officially announced, individuals and institutions who own Saar’s art can aid in the process of tracing her entire oeuvre by submitting images and details about their works. Roberts expects the project to be a 20-year endeavor, noting that completing the catalog raissoné will require fully researching the location of the full spectrum of her works, their complete histories and having them professionally photographed.

“Betye Saar is one of the most innovative and visionary artists of our era. She has also, in many ways, been the conscience of the art world for over fifty years and we are so honored that she has trusted us to preserve her powerful legacy,” Perchuk of GRI said when the acquisition of Saar’s archives was announced.

“Betye Saar is one of the most innovative and visionary artists of our era. She has also, in many ways, been the conscience of the art world for over fifty years and we are so honored that she has trusted us to preserve her powerful legacy.” — Andrew Perchuk, Getty Research Institute

The catalog for “Still Tickin'” features an interview with Saar conducted by Sara Cochran, director and chief curator of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Cochran asks the artist about her legacy—looking back on her career, what does she view it to be. Saar said: “Well, I really feel I do have a legacy. That I have made a contribution. That I have hopefully encouraged more women to be artists. More women who are mothers, women who have families to be artists. More young people, more African Americans, or people from any other race. To go ahead and express how I feel, first of all, as a woman, as a black woman. And also about certain things that maybe aren’t as pleasant to be around, like the whole racial thing.

She continued: “I feel I am living my legacy right now, and I am really happy about it.” CT

 

IMAGE: Top of page, Installation view of “Betye Saar: Something Blue,” Roberts Project, Los Angeles (Oct. 27-Dec. 15, 2018). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer; and Top left, Betye Saar in her Los Angeles studio in 2015. | Photo by Ashley Walker, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

FIND MORE about how the GRI initiative came about

FIND MORE about collector and Getty board member Pamela J. Joyner’s role in initiative

 

BOOKSHELF
Two catalogs document Betye Saar’s recent institutional exhibitions. “Uneasy Dancer” complements her first exhibition in Italy, at the Prada Foundation in Milan. The volume features a comprehensive timeline of Saar’s life and practice with essays from the curators and contributors Richard Powell, Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis. “Still Tickin’” accompanies a major retrospective presented in the Netherlands and Scottsdale, Ariz. Also consider “Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley, and Alison Saar,” which explores the art of the matriarch and her daughters, all accomplished artists in their own right.

 


Featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” – BETYE SAAR, “Rainbow Mojo,” 1972 (acrylic painting on cut leather, 19.75 x 49.75 inches). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 


Featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” – BETYE SAAR, “Eye,” 1972 (acrylic paint on leather). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 


Featured in “Betye Saar: Something Blue” – From left, BETYE SAAR, ” Savage Mystery, 1986 (mixed media collage, 20.25 x 19.5 in (51.4 x 49.5 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 


Featured in “Betye Saar: Something Blue” – From left, BETYE SAAR, “High Stakes,” 2018 (mixed media assemblage, 21 x 16 x 13 inches / 53.3 x 40.6 x 33.0 cm) | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer; and BETYE SAAR, “La Cruz Indigo,” 2018 (mixed media assemblage, 12.25 x 12 x 6.5 inches / 31.1 x 30.5 x 16.5 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, Calif., Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

 

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