Betye Saar

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Betye Saar
Born (1926-07-30) July 30, 1926 (age 90)
Los Angeles, California
Nationality American
Education University of California, Los Angeles, Pasadena City College, California State University, Long Beach
Known for Assemblage

Betye Irene Saar (born July 30, 1926 in Los Angeles, California) is an American artist, known for her work in the field of assemblage.[1] Saar was a part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s, challenging myths and stereotypes. In the 1990s, her work was politicized while she continued to challenge the negative ideas of African-Americans. One of her better-known and controversial pieces is The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,[2] depicting a "mammy" doll carrying a broom in one hand and a shotgun in the other, and placed in front of the syrup labels. Her work began with found objects arranged in boxes or windows. The items would reflect her mixed ancestry.

Early life and education[edit]

Born Betye Irene Brown to Jefferson Maze Brown and Beatrice Lillian Parson, Saar spent her early years in Los Angeles, spending summers with her paternal grandmother in Watts, California.[3] During these summer visits, she saw the slow creation of the Watts Towers by artist Simon Rodia, huge sculptures made of glass, bottle tops, and junk; an influential experience for her artistic practice later on.[4] After her father's death in 1931, Saar, along with her mother and younger brother and sister, moved in with her maternal great-aunt Hattie Parson Keys and her husband Robert Keys in Pasadena, California.[5] Saar's college education began with art classes at Pasadena City College[6] and then moved to the University of California, Los Angeles in 1947, where she received a B.A. in design in 1949.[7] Saar went on to graduate studies, from 1959-1962, completing work at California State University, Long Beach, 1958-1962; University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1962; California State University, Northridge, 1966; and American Film Institute, 1972.[8]

Artistic career[edit]

After graduating in 1949, Saar worked as a social worker in addition to pursuing her interest in art. A partnership with enamel jewelry artist Curtis Tann brought Saar into Tann's circle of black artist friends and patrons. In the course of their business they also entered state fairs and community art competitions, one of which led to Saar meeting her future husband, Richard Saar, whom she married in 1952. Shortly thereafter, she quit her job as a social worker and set up a small home studio, creating enamel jewelry and designing greeting cards. During this period she gave birth to two children, Lezley Saar in 1953 and Alison Saar in 1956,[9] both of whom grew up to be artists in their own right. Saar began her graduate education in 1958, originally working towards a career in teaching, to teach design in high school and junior college.[10] However, a printmaking class she took as an elective changed the direction of her artistic interests.[9] Saar credits printmaking as her "segue from design into fine arts."[11]

Her interest in assemblage was inspired by a 1967 exhibition by Joseph Cornell,[12] though she also cites the influence of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, which she witnessed being built in her childhood.[13] She began creating work typically consisting of found objects arranged within boxes or windows, with items drawing on various cultures reflecting Saar's own mixed ancestry: African-American, Irish, and Native American.[13]

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)

In the 1960s, Saar began collecting images of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Little Black Sambo, and other stereotyped African-American figures[14] from folk culture and advertising of the Jim Crow era. She incorporated them into collages and assemblages, transforming them into statements of political and social protest.[15] The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is one of her most notable works on this theme. In this mixed-media assemblage, Saar utilizes the stereotypical mammy figure of Aunt Jemima to subvert traditional notions of race and gender.[16]

In the 1970s Saar shifted focus again, exploring ritual and tribal objects from Africa as well as items from African-American folk traditions. In new boxed assemblages, she combined shamanistic tribal fetishes with images and objects intended to evoke the magical and the mystical.[17] When her great-aunt died in 1974,[18] Saar acquired family memorabilia and began making more personal and intimate assemblages that incorporated nostalgic mementos of her great-aunt's life. She arranged old photographs, letters, lockets, dried flowers, and handkerchiefs in shrinelike boxes to suggest memory, loss, and the passage of time. This became a body of work she refers to as her "nostalgic series."[19]

In the early 1980s, Saar taught in Los Angeles at the University of California and the Otis Art Institute now called Otis College of Art and Design. In her own work she began using a larger, room-size scale, creating site-specific installations, including altar-like shrines exploring the relationship between technology and spirituality, and incorporating her interests in mysticism and Voodoo. Pairing computer chips with mystical amulets and charms, these monumental constructions suggested the need for an alliance of both systems of knowledge: the technical and the spiritual.

Saar continues to live and work in Los Angeles.[20] She has been awarded honorary doctorate degrees by California College of Arts and Crafts, California Institute of the Arts, Massachusetts College of Art, Otis College of Art and Design, and San Francisco Art Institute.[21]

Selected solo exhibitions[edit]

Awards and honors[edit]

Selected collections[edit]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Paysour, F. "Wonders of the House of Saar." International Review of African American Art vol. 20, no. 3 (2005), pp. 51–3
  • Willette, J. S. M. "Stitching Lives: Fabric in the Art of Betye Saar." Fiberarts vol. 23 (March/April 1997), pp. 44–81
  • Van Proyen, M. "A Conversation with Betye and Alison Saar" [interview]. Artweek v. 22 (August 15, 1991) pp. 3+
  • Etra, J. "Family Ties." ARTnews vol. 90 (May 1991), pp. 128–33.
  • Saar, Betye, et al. 2005. Betye Saar: extending the frozen moment. Ann Arbor; Berkeley: University of Michigan Museum of Art; University of California Press. ISBN 0520246624.
  • Saar, Betye [entry in] Women artists of color: a bio-critical sourcebook to 20th century artists in the Americas. Phoebe Farris, ed. Westport, Connecticut: 1999. Pages 333-339. Entry includes biography, selected exhibitions, 41-item bibliography, and biographical essay. ISBN 0313303746.
  • Jones, Kellie et al. Now dig this! : art & Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980. 2011 Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2011. ISBN 9783791351360.
  • Bernier, Celeste-Marie (2009). African American visual arts : from slavery to the present. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0807832561. 

Film and video[edit]

  • Betye and Alison Saar [videorecording]: Conjure Women of the Arts. by Linda Freeman and David Irving. c. 1996, 28 minutes, Color. Chappaqua, New York: L & S Video.


  1. ^ Hillstrom, Laurie Collier et al., ed. (1999). Contemporary women artists (2nd printing ed.). Detroit: St. James Press. pp. 581–582. ISBN 1558623728. 
  2. ^ Reilly, Maura (February 1999). "New York: Betye Saar at Michael Rosenfeld". Art in America. 87 (2): 112. 
  3. ^ Carpenter, Jane (2003). Betye Saar. San Francisco: Pomegranate. p. 2. ISBN 0-7649-2349-8. 
  4. ^ "Betye Saar". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 19 March 2016. 
  5. ^ Carpenter, Jane (2003). Betye Saar. San Francisco: Pomegranate. pp. 4–6. ISBN 0-7649-2349-8. 
  6. ^ "Betye Saar". Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. Retrieved 19 March 2016. 
  7. ^ Carpenter, Jane (2003). Betye Saar. San Francisco: Pomegranate. p. 6. ISBN 0-7649-2349-8. 
  8. ^ Driskell, David C.; Bontemps, Arna Alexander; Joslyn Art Museum; Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, Illinois State University, eds. (1980-01-01). Forever free: art by African-American women 1862-1980. Alexandria: Stephenson Incorporated. 
  9. ^ a b Carpenter, Jane (2003). Betye Saar. San Francisco: Pomegranate. p. 7. ISBN 0-7649-2349-8. 
  10. ^ "2004 CWA Annual Recognition Awards". College Art Association. 
  11. ^ Guerra, Juvenio. "The Ordinary Becomes Mystical: A Conversation with Betye Saar". Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  12. ^ Steward, James Christen (2005). Betye Saar : extending the frozen moment. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art. p. 15. ISBN 0520246624. 
  13. ^ a b "Biography" (2001). The Legacy Project. URL accessed on Mar. 4, 2006.
  14. ^ Miranda, Carolina A. (12 November 2015). "Betye Saar's art on race couldn't be timelier. So why aren't more museums showing her work?". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 19 March 2016. 
  15. ^ Farrington, Lisa E. (2005-01-01). Creating their own image: the history of African-American women artists. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. p. 164. ISBN 019516721X. 
  16. ^ Farrington, Lisa E. (2005-01-01). Creating their own image: the history of African-American women artists. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019516721X. 
  17. ^ "Betye Saar". Walker Art Center. Retrieved 19 March 2016. 
  18. ^ Harder-Montoya, Maya (1 March 2016). "Betye Saar talks about her retrospective in Arizona". Art Forum. Retrieved 19 March 2016. 
  19. ^ Miller, Lynn F.; Swenson, Sally S.; Bourgeois, Louise; Brodsky, Judith K.; Neel, Alice; Spero, Nancy; Stevens, May; Donnell, Radka; Freedman, Deborah S. (1981-01-01). Lives and works: talks with women artists. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810814587. 
  20. ^ Montagne, Renee (28 December 2006). "Life Is a Collage for Artist Betye Saar". NPR. Retrieved 19 March 2016. 
  21. ^ Saar, Betye; Steward, James Christen (2005-01-01). Betye Saar: extending the frozen moment. Ann Arbor : Berkeley: University of Michigan Museum of Art ; University of California Press. ISBN 0520246624. 
  22. ^ University of Michigan Museum of Art Retrieved 19 March 2016.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  23. ^ "Medal Day 2014", The MacDowell Colony, retrieved April 17, 2014.

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