Evocative Artworks pt 2: More Betye Saar

Continuing from our previous post about the works of Betye Saar, we wanted to share a few more powerful pieces.

“The Long Memory”

“The Long Memory” by Betye Saar, 1998.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. ©️ 1998 Betye Saar courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, NYC

“Slipping From Paradise”

“Slipping From Paradise,” a large-scale hand-made paper piece combines Saar’s interest in the process of hand-made paper and the iconography of the occult. Such universal symbols as lightening, the crescent moon, the planet Saturn, a snake, an open palm, and the four card suits are depicted in vivid colors. – Curatorial notes from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

“Slipping From Paradise” by Betye Saar, 1986.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. ©️ 1986 Betye Saar courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, NYC

Two views of “Guardian of Desires” — Verso and Front, 1988

One of Saar’s altar structures, in this piece “a strangely ominous figure stands [on the front], mummified with a half cat, half skull face. The background is made from a circuit board that resembles the night sky with stars and a variety of constellations. Yet, despite the works apparent whimsy, it is also dark and mysterious. Like many of Saar’s works, “Guardian of Desires” can be viewed from the front or the back; the rear of the sculpture revealing a more sinister narrative with small silver body parts hanging like limbs from the trees. There is an obvious association with the lynching of young black men in the South, yet there is also a deeply spiritual sensibility at work here as these shapes, as with the human souls lost during that horrendous and bloody time in our human history, are fortified through loss which is emblematic in the tarnishing of the silver.” — Africanah.org

“Guardian of Desires” Verso, by Betye Saar, 1998. Part of the 2020 online exhibition, MIT and the Spiritual Component of Technology, via Roberts Projects LA
“Guardian of Desires” Front, by Betye Saar, 1998. Part of the 2020 online exhibition, MIT and the Spiritual Component of Technology, via Roberts Projects LA

Evocative Artworks pt 1: Betye Saar

We’re really digging works by contemporary artists — like the performance of Grief Objects from last week — and have been exploring resonances between various artworks’ subjects and the characters within the play. The dramaturgy team will be sharing images in a series of posts as a way to continue to provide new pathways into the emotional topography of the play and its story. Enjoy!

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In the rehearsal room, we’ve been thinking a lot about ancestral knowledge/blood memory as a counter to ancestral trauma. Our conversations brought the work of Betye Saar to mind, especially her 1969 assemblage “Black Girl’s Window” (see below).

Artist Jasmine Weber writes in the online journal Hyperallergic: “‘Black Girl’s Window,’ Saar says, is a self-portrait. ‘It tells about my past, present, and future,’ she explains. ‘Inside of each pane, I put something that I felt had to do with my life. Her complicated thoughts about destiny, fate, and the internal conflict of her Black and white ancestry are imbued in the imagery behind the black silhouette.”

Betye Saar, “Black Girl’s Window” (1969), Wooden window frame with paint, cut-and-pasted printed and painted papers, daguerreotype, lenticular print, and plastic figurine, 35 3/4 × 18 × 1 1/2″ (the Museum of Modern Art, New York.) © 2019 Betye Saar, courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. Digital Image © 2018 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, photo by Rob Gerhardt)

On the occasion of Saar’s retrospective at MOMA in late 2019, Weber/Hyperallergic returned to the topic. Weber notes, of the currently-95-year-old artist (emphasis mine):

Saar has been equal parts philosophical, mystical, and political since the nascence of her artistic career. At 40 years old, Saar began her foray into assemblage — the aggregation of objects into the shrine, totems, and sculptures that she is best known for — after a visit to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), where she first encountered the sculptures of Joseph Cornell. His artworks […] piece together paper, found objects, and gems into surreal cornucopias.

Already studied in design and graphics, Saar soon began to fasten her own fantastical dioramas in picture and window frames. She treated them as open portals into which she could build new, dimensional worlds out of objects with personal, spiritual, and historical charge. Saar finds great inspiration in her heritage, embedding tokens of her Black, Irish, and Native American ancestry alongside symbols of astrology and mysticism (the artist’s astrological sign, Leo, appears consistently throughout the exhibition), metaphysically juxtaposing the inner and the outer self, the earthly and the celestial.

A definitive presence in Saar’s work is the legacy of antiblackness; she names the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the stimulus for her political artworks.


About this particular artwork, Jasmine Weber continues:

Framed by a worn wooden window, nine small boxes create stages for nine small scenes: two young Black children embracing; stars and moons; an aged daguerreotype of Saar’s maternal grandmother; a lion. The silhouette of a woman with a close-cropped afro, a stand-in for Saar, peers out of a whispy curtain. Her eyes, made of a lenticular, shift and blink, oscillating between intimate and external. It’s all in the eyes; the shifting, gazing, reflecting eyes.

It’s tempting to not snap the window’s latch and let it all out; it hums with energy. This is an artwork that’s living. It has a soul in the most literal sense — each of Saar’s assemblages carries a bit of her. Many Black women, myself included, can see themselves in this work.