Betye Saar’s riveting, 40-object exhibition currently at LACMA offers a fascinating insight into the artist’s process. It’s strong focus on the power of redemptive faith and personal strength in the face of adversity is passionate and compelling — which can be frankly said of all Saar’s work. The exhibition also aches with possibility: Saar is a prolific artist, and as extensive as this exhibition is in terms of an insightful view of her sketchbooks, the longing remains to see more of her finished works, of which there are fewer than 20 exhibited here.
That aside, the exhibition, curated by Carol S. Eliel, senior curator of modern art at the museum, is entirely worthwhile. It leads viewers through the artist’s notebooks from the late 1960s and work from 1971 through the present. While by no means inclusive of all her material, it is a rich collection that reveals her passion for the spiritual, and her material use of household and other found objects. It also touches, with wisdom, on the implicit and inherent racism in American culture. As an artist, Saar’s concerns and motifs have always focused on the spiritual, race, and gender. She is innovative and seminal in the use of assemblage to shape galvanizing, story-telling art that defies convention even as it defines painful social and personal topics in a way that changes them into rites of passage and strength.
The sketchbooks, some 23 exhibited in all, show drawings of objects that she keeps to create her finished images. Travel sketchbooks are more detailed, with watercolors and collages. Viewers can look at the elements that repeat in many of her works: hands, hearts, eyes, and planets among other images. We see her shape these elements from objects, both in sketch and in finished assemblages. The finished works often find Saar owning, and redefining stereotypes, using objects in subversive and triumphant fashion, whether by using birdcages as ersatz prison cells or placing a toy machine guns in the hands of a mammy doll.
The assemblage items that Saar uses in her sculptural works include finds from flea markets and other shops. Drawn to a central object, she combines others with this main piece in order to shape a complete story. When she’s shaped it, she sketches it. When she sketches it — often several times — she creates the finished assemblage or collage.
The exhibition is grouped by both the materials utilized by the artist and her themes. Finished works are beautifully paired with notebook sketches.
“The Divine Face” is an example of the spirituality in Saar’s work. The mixed-media assemblage is paired with a page from her sketch book in the early 70s, which features a detailed drawing in acrylic, ink, and watercolor on paper that is a lovely work in and of itself. Based on an Ethiopian symbol of a sun looking both Heavenward and at the earth, the image is both self-portrait and inspiration. Her sketch features the multi-faceted gaze of the face, and the phases of the moon depicted above the central work. The assemblage is positioned upon a cowhide, and includes macramé, a craft art form often relegated to a disparaging category of “women’s work.”
Both gender and race are the full focus of a more recent piece from the late 90s, as well: “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break.” The work centers around a vintage ironing board that Saar found at a flea market in Pasadena. An old-fashioned flatiron is chained to a leg of the ironing board. Combined with the images painted on the top of the board, the unmistakable connection to the bondage of slavery and female subjugation is shaped in a full-throated, gut-grabbing way that is nonetheless nuanced and graceful. Based on the prelude to the work’s creation viewed in the sketchbook that accompanies it, Saar enlarged and transferred an image of the Brookes diagram, an18th-century print showing Africans crammed into slave ships crossing the ocean. Over the diagram, she superimposes a stereotypical image of a black woman ironing clad in “mammy” dress. While the iron and board and chain indicate bondage, slavery, and devaluation based on racism and gender, it also touches upon the branding of the enslaved. On the white sheet suspended by clothespins behind the iron and board, an applique of the letters KKK refers to the Ku Klan Klan. Saar’s work ultimately remains both defiant and strong. The artist has defined the work as implying that despite the subjugation of slave treatment, a person will bend to do the work required, but their spirit will not break.
Equally strong and defiant is “A Call to Arms,” from the same period. Mixed media on vintage washboard, the work addresses gender and race through the use of guns, a doll, and a compass, along with lines taken from a Langston Hughes poem.
2002’s “Colored” tackles the topic of racial skin tone. Moving from light to deepest black, both sketch and finished assemblage include the use of a wood-framed mirror that is positioned on the wall next to the work itself. The mirror allows the viewer to bring their own shade of skin into the collage work’s mix. The piece uses a found-frame in a crown-shape; inserted into it are photocopies of found photographs depicting various black skin tones. The simplicity and poignancy of the piece meshes perfectly within the crown; the shape of the frame seems to indicate that whatever the shade of skin, each inhabitant has deep value — each person is royalty in a sense.
One of Saar’s most recent works is among the exhibition’s most compelling. 2019’s “Woke Up This Morning, the Blues was in My Bed” is based on sketches created from 2001, 2010, and 2013. The work evokes the Kongo bottle tree, used to ward off evil spirits; the initial notebook sketch connects it to the lyrics of an old blues song, with lyrics that read “woke up this mornin’, the blues was on my mind.”
Using a second-hand cot purchased in Los Angeles — one which she used and reused in two earlier installations, the artist positions vibrantly cobalt-colored bottles on the metal cot which is placed over a bed of coals. The work is lit from within with blue neon. It is both burnished hope and transformative vision; a salve to the fire of persecution, rebellion, and loss — and a tribute to a belief in ultimate redemption.
Viewing Saar’s work is itself a redemptive experience: from simple, even mundane objects comes an unwavering faith in the human spirit.