AN ASSEMBLAGE WORK by Betye Saar set a new artist record at auction recently. “ABCD Education” (2001) sold for $81,900 at an online sale hosted by Sotheby’s. The result was nearly three times the high estimate ($20,000-$30,000) setting a new benchmark.

Saar’s work can be read as a meditation on Black education that comments on how young African American students are regarded and how that regard informs the quality of the schooling they have every right to receive and are guaranteed under the law.

The mixed-media work employs the basic tools of a primary education (chalkboard, ruler, and alphabet blocks) and draws on the double meaning of the letters ABCD. The ruler serves as a metaphor for measuring academic performance. Saar uses the alphabet starters in reference to the terms “African, Black, Colored, and Darkie,” citing ancestral origins, cultural descriptors, and derogatory names for African Americans that span generations. The work sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction: Online, which was held Nov. 18


Lot 289: BETYE SAAR, “ABCD Education,” 2001 (photo and map collage, chalk, ruler and wooden blocks on chalkboard, 13 3/4 x 17 1/2 inches / 34.9 by 44.4 cm.). | Estimate $20,000-$30,000. Sold for $81,900 fees included


A Los Angeles-based assemblage artist, Saar’s work explores race, gender, and spirituality issues. She sources objects and materials for her mixed-media works from flea markets, second-hand stores, and swap meets. Over the course of her career, she has collected materials locally and during her travels.

“ABCD Education” is centered around a sepia-toned photograph, a century-old class photo of young Black students. Proud and serious, wearing dark jackets and cotton dresses, the boys and girls train their eyes on the camera. The markings on the image provide some identifying information: “Douglass School, Class 2, May 1911, Photo by Tomlinson.” A U.S. map focused on the Southern states is displayed on the reverse, inserted in the back of the frame.

Many schools in Black communities are named for Frederick Douglass. The photograph that anchors Saar’s work may depict students at a Southern school, or perhaps one in the Midwest. Founded in the home of a Black reverend in 1858, Douglass Elementary joined the Cincinnati, Ohio, public school system in 1870 and dedicated its first schoolhouse in 1872. In 1911, a new Frederick Douglass School was built in the city’s Walnut Hills community, helping to serve the influx of African American students that accompanied the Great Migration of Blacks from the rural South in the years following.

Saar’s found image dates to a time when separate but equal, state-sanctioned racial segregation was the legal doctrine in America’s schools. Decades later, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision in the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated public schools, declaring separate but equal unconstitutional, although de facto segregation continued and has persisted in school districts throughout the country.

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was intended ensure equal opportunity for all students. Half a century later, the federal law was reauthorized in the form of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, a controversial measure that tied federal education resources distributed to states to student performance on standardized tests. Proposed by Bush in 2001, it was passed by Congress at the end of the year and signed into law by the President in 2002. The action, which education experts argue was a failure, may have prompted Saar’s 2001 work.

“ABCD Education” came to auction from a private collector who also sold another work by Saar. Titled “Honey” (2001), the mixed-media collage on paper sold for $44,100. Saar’s second-highest result at auction.

Prior to the online sale, Saar’s previous auction record was set in 2018 at Swann Auction Galleries when “Adori” (1973), a mixed-media work housed in a hinged shadow box, sold for $42,500. CT


FIND MORE Writing in The Art Newspaper, Maxwell Anderson explains Why American artists should benefit from the resale of their works


Two publications coincide with recent exhibitions focused on Betye Saar. “Betye Saar: Call and Response,” documents the Los Angeles County Museum of Art show. The first exhibition to explore Saar’s sketchbooks, “Call and Response” traveled to The Morgan Library & Museum in New York, where it is currently on view. “Betye Saar: Black Girl’s Window” is a close study of “Black Girl’s Window,” the 1969 assemblage work from which her solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York took its title. Two additional volumes accompany major retrospectives: “Betye Saar: Still Tickin'” and “Betye Saar: Uneasy Dancer.” Saar’s work was also featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”


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