Betye Saar

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Betye Saar
Betye Saar.jpg
Betye Saar at Roberts & Tilton Gallery, Los Angeles, California, 2016
Born (1926-07-30) July 30, 1926 (age 92)
Los Angeles, California
EducationUniversity of California, Los Angeles, Pasadena City College, California State University, Long Beach
Known forAssemblage

Betye Irene Saar (born July 30, 1926 in Los Angeles, California) is an American artist known for her work in the medium of assemblage. She is also a visual storyteller and an accomplished printmaker. Saar was a part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s, which engaged myths and stereotypes about race and femininity.[1] Her work is considered highly political, as she challenged negative ideas about African-Americans throughout her career.

Personal life[edit]

Betye Saar was born Betye Irene Brown on July 30, 1926 to Jefferson Maze Brown and Beatrice Lillian Parson in Los Angeles, California.[2] Both parents attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where they met. Saar spent her early years in Los Angeles.[2] After her father's death in 1931, Saar and her mother, brother, and sister moved in with her paternal grandmother, Irene Hannah Maze in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. The family then moved to Pasadena, California to live with Saar's maternal great-aunt Hatte Parson Keys and her husband Robert E. Keys.[3] Growing up, Saar collected various ephemera and regularly created and repaired objects.[4] Her college education began with art classes at Pasadena City College[5] and continued at the University of California, Los Angeles after receiving a tuition award from an organization that raised funds to send minority students to universities.[3] Saar received a B.A. in design in 1947.[4] She went on to graduate studies at California State University, Long Beach, University of Southern California, California State University, Northridge, and American Film Institute.[6] During her time in graduate school, she married Richard Saar and gave birth to two daughters, Allison and Lezley Sarr. <ref[7]

Artistic career[edit]

Early work[edit]

Saar began her graduate education in 1958, originally working towards a career in teaching design. However, a printmaking class she took as an elective changed the direction of her artistic interests. She credited printmaking as her "segue from design into fine arts."[8]

Saar was inspired to create assemblages by a 1967 exhibition by found object sculptor, Joseph Cornell.[9] She was also greatly influenced by Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, which she witnessed being built in her childhood. Saar said that she was “fascinated by the materials that Simon Rodia used, the broken dishes, sea shells, rusty tools, even corn cobs -- all pressed into cement to create spires. To me, they were magical.”[10]

She began to create work that consisted of found objects arranged within boxes or windows, with items that drew from various cultures to reflect her own mixed ancestry: African-American, Irish, and Native American.[11]. Betye Saar is best known for her art work that critiques American racism toward blacks[12].

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima[edit]

In the 1960s, Saar began collecting images of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Little Black Sambo, and other stereotyped African-American figures 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.[2] The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is one of her most notable works from this era. In this mixed-media assemblage, Saar utilized the stereotypical mammy figure of Aunt Jemima to subvert traditional notions of race and gender.[13]

“It’s like they abolished slavery but they kept black people in the kitchen as Mammy jars,” Saar says of what drove her to make the piece. “I had this Aunt Jemima, and I wanted to put a rifle and a grenade under her skirts. I wanted to empower her. I wanted to make her a warrior. I wanted people to know that black people wouldn’t be enslaved by that.”[5]

Saar’s assemblage is laid inside of a shoebox-sized frame, plastered with Aunt Jemima advertisements. A caricatured sculpture of Aunt Jemima presents a notepad with a photograph of a Mammy with a white baby depicted. The Aunt Jemima sculpture holds a broom and a rifle, subverting her happy servant and caregiver stereotype by way of a militant alter ego who demands her own agency and power. A large, clenched fist, echoing the black power symbol, is collaged over and partially obscuring the Mammy photograph, recognizing the aggressive and radical means used by African American activists in the 1970s to fight for their rights. Aunt Jemima is liberated through transformation from a racist domestic caricature into an image of black power.

Assemblage and installation[edit]

Saar's lifelong habit of scouring flea markets and yard sales deepened her exposure to the many racial stereotypes and demeaning depictions of blacks to be found among the artifacts of American commercial and consumer culture, such as advertisements, marketing materials, knickknacks, sheet music, and toys. Three years later, she produced a series of more than twenty pieces that, in her own words, “exploded the myth” of such imagery, beginning with her seminal portrait of Aunt Jemima. In the 1970s, Saar moved on to explore ritual and tribal objects from Africa as well as items from African-American folk traditions.[14] In boxed assemblages, she combined shamanistic tribal fetishes with images and objects intended to evoke the magical and the mystical. When her great-aunt died in 1974, Saar acquired family memorabilia and created a series of 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 shrine-like boxes to suggest memory, loss, and the passage of time. This became a body of work she referred to as her "nostalgic series."

In the early 1980s, Saar taught in Los Angeles at UCLA and the Otis Art Institute. In her own work she approached a larger, room-sized scale, and created site-specific installations. These included altar-like shrines exploring the relationship between technology and spirituality, and incorporated her interests in mysticism and Voodoo. Through the pairing of 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, working primarily in found object sculpture. 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.

Political activism[edit]

In the late 1960s, her focus turned to the civil rights movement and issues of race. Black women artists like Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, and Barbara Chase-Riboud explored the African-American identities and actively rejected art world racism, while simultaneously being drawn to the cause of women’s liberation.

Saar, in her artistic journey through various artistic and activist communities from black nationalist to black feminist and womanist, maintained a “mobile of identity” that permitted her to interact freely with each group. Saar met with other black women artists at Suzanne Jackson’s Gallery 32 in 1970. The resulting group show was titled Sapphire (You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby). This was likely the first contemporary African American women’s exhibition in California, and included watercolorist Sue Irons, printmaker Yvonne Cole Meo, painter Suzanne Jackson, pop artist Eileen Abdulrashid, and Saar.[3][6]

When asked about the politics behind her art in a 2015 interview with writer Shelley Leopold, Saar stated, "I don't know how politics can be avoided. If you happen to be a young Black male, your parents are terrified that you're going to be arrested -- if they hang out with a friend, are they going to be considered a gang? That kind of fear is one you have to pay attention to. It's not comfortable living in the United States. I'm born in Los Angeles, with middle class parents and so I never really had to be in a situation that tense. My grandmother lived in Watts and it's still really poor down there. People just do the best they can."[15]

Selected solo exhibitions[edit]

Awards and honors[edit]

Selected collections[edit]


  1. ^ Miranda, Carolina A. "For Betye Saar, there's no dwelling on the past", Los Angeles Times, Retrieved 28 July 2018.
  2. ^ a b c "Betye Saar | American artist and educator". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  3. ^ a b c Betye,, Saar,. Betye Saar : uneasy dancer. Mainetti, Mario,, Fondazione Prada (Milan, Italy),. Milan. ISBN 9788887029673. OCLC 959419696.
  4. ^ a b Tani, Ellen Y. (2016-12-13). "Keeping Time in the Hands of Betye Saar: Betye Saar:". American Quarterly. 68 (4): 1081–1109. doi:10.1353/aq.2016.0082. ISSN 1080-6490.
  5. ^ a b Miranda, Carolina A. "For Betye Saar, there's no dwelling on the past; the almost-90-year-old artist has too much future to think about". Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  6. ^ a b Carpenter, Jane H. (2004). Betye Saar. Pomegranate Communications. ISBN 0764923498.
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The Ordinary Becomes Mystical: A Conversation with Betye Saar". The Getty Iris. 2012-01-04. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  9. ^ "Betye Saar | Now Dig This! digital archive | Hammer Museum". Hammer Museum. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  10. ^ Betye., Saar,; 1959-, Lovell, Whitfield,; Tracye., Saar-Cavanaugh,; Stokes., Sims, Lowery; M., Ulmer, Sean; Gallery., Michael Rosenfeld. Betye Saar : migrations, transformations : September 8-October 28, 2006. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. ISBN 1930416377. OCLC 75525110.
  11. ^ Bernier, Celeste-Marie (2009-01-01). African American visual arts : from slavery to the present. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807832561. OCLC 646771766.
  12. ^ "Betye Saar". Biography. Retrieved 2018-05-23.
  13. ^ "Life Is a Collage for Artist Betye Saar". Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  14. ^ "Betye Saar: African-American artist, known for her work in the field of assemblage". MyArtistsList. 2015-04-14. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  15. ^ "Betye Saar: Reflecting American Culture Through Assemblage Art". KCET. 2015-11-13. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  16. ^ "MacDowell Medalists", MacDowell Colony, Retrieved 28 July 2018.
  17. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellows - Betye Saar", John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Retrieved 28 July 2018.

Further reading[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[1]
  • Saar, Betye [entry in] Women artists of color: a biocritical 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.[2] Jones, Kellie et al. Now dig this! : art & Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980. 2011 Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2011.[3]
  • Jones, Kellie (2017). South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s
  • Jane H Carpenter with Betye Saar, The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art: Volume II.
  • Betye Saar, Extending the Frozen Movement.
  • Saar, Betye; Lovell, Whitfield; Saar-Cavanaugh, Tracye; Sims, Lowery Stokes; Ulmer, Sean M. Betye Saar : Migrations, Transformations: September 8-October 28, 2006. New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. ISBN 1930416377. OCLC 75525110.
  • "LA Times" (PDF).
  • "Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima 1972".
  1. ^ Betye, Saar,; Christen, Steward, James; Art, University of Michigan. Museum of; Art, Norton Museum of; Arts, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine (2005-01-01). Betye Saar : extending the frozen moment. University of Michigan Museum of Art. ISBN 0520246624. OCLC 475795090.
  2. ^ Phoebe., Farris, (1999-01-01). Women artists of color : a bio-critical sourcebook of 20th century artists in the Americas. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313303746. OCLC 501018300.
  3. ^ V., Carby, Hazel; Foundation., Getty; Museum., Hammer; (Exhibition), Pacific Standard Time (2011-01-01). Now dig this! : art & Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980. Hammer Museum. ISBN 9783791351360. OCLC 729342146.