Art

Six Decades of Betye Saar’s Personal, Political, and Mystical Art

Installation view, 'Betye Saar: Still Tickin'' at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
Installation view, ‘Betye Saar: Still Tickin” at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There are few artists who have been able to become a household name in the art world and still maintain a modesty to their person and in their work. To produce art that is profound, impactful, and unassuming in its beauty. African American artist Betye Saar’s new exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) is not heavy-handed in its curating, using minimal didactics and wall text, thereby allowing the work of this seminal artist to been seen unfiltered. Tackling issues of spirituality, race, equality, familial relationships, and autobiography, Still Tickin’  has a grace and resonance that can be difficult to find in an art world often fueled by cynicism and critique.

Portrait of Betye Saar (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)
Portrait of Betye Saar (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

The exhibition, which traveled from the Netherlands, is a six-decade retrospective of the artist’s career. In partnership with SMoCA, the show was curated by Roel Arkesteijn, curator of contemporary art at De Domijnen (formerly known as Museum Het Domein) in Sittard, with assistance from Saar and SMoCa Chief Curator Sara Cochran.

Saar, a Los Angeles native who turns 90 this year, began her work in the visual arts as a graphic designer and costume maker — a trade that is deeply personal to Saar, as her mother was a seamstress. The artist then turned to printmaking, a medium that was a natural extension from graphic design. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the Watts Riots, Saar found that her work beckoned a more three-dimensional medium and began taking commonplace objects and instrumentalizing them into works that referenced the world she lived in. Turning to assemblage, Saar was greatly inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell. She began collecting objects by going to flea markets throughout Los Angeles and buying items that stood out to her that had prevalent themes of nature, children, and the metaphysical.

Installation view, Betye Saar, "House of Fortune" (1988), table and four chairs, table 27”H x 30” x 30”, four chairs, each 39” x 17-1/4” x 16”
Installation view, Betye Saar, “House of Fortune” (1988), table and four chairs, table 27”H x 30” x 30”, four chairs, each 39” x 17-1/4” x 16”

The exhibition, Cochran explained, is laid out thematically, as opposed to chronologically, and looks at three major themes explored over Saar’s long career: “Nostalgia and memory,” which redresses the artist’s life and biography; “mysticism and ritual,” which explores narratives on spirituality; and “the political and racial,” in which Saar takes a piercing look at race in the US through the reclamation of derogatory African American ephemera.

Walking into the main gallery, you enter through a long, purple hall; the richness of the color has a transportive quality. In the “nostalgia and memory” portion of the exhibition, the walls are saturated with a deep sea gray-blue, setting a pensive and introspective tone. The piece, “House of Fortune,” which Saar first installed in 1988, is comprised of a table painted with palms and adorned with four purple candles, directly referencing the practice of a seance, entering into one of Saar’s key themes — that of metaphysicality. In each manifestation of this piece, Saar utilizes natural flora from the geographic region in which it is being displayed. In the Netherlands, at De Domijnen, the piece was installed with mossy branches of pine and deciduous trees; in Scottsdale, with tumbleweeds, bringing in a familiar element for the viewer.

Installation view, Betye Saar, "The Alpha and The Omega" (2016), dimensions vary (click to enlarge)
Installation view, Betye Saar, “The Alpha and The Omega” (2016), dimensions vary (click to enlarge)

Progressing deeper into the exhibition, you encounter the autobiographical portion of the show. The piece “The Alpha and Omega” is an entire room of works comprised of a baby cradle filled with glass balloons, referencing the artist’s experience as a mother, echoed by the faux finished walls painted blue and tan, creating a dreamy nursery environment. A boat suspended from the ceiling, illuminated by neon lighting, draws to mind the notion of freedom, or travel, of passing through this life to the next — which is present also in the title — the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. This room represents the commencement and ending of life, and the journey one takes through that terrain.

Installation view, Betye Saar, "A Loss of Innocence" (1998), installation: chair, dress 50" x 12" x 12"
Installation view, Betye Saar, “A Loss of Innocence” (1998), installation: chair, dress 50″ x 12″ x 12″

Progressing to the final portion of the exhibition, it’s difficult to select which works to discuss. The rooms are saturated with the weight of 60 years-worth of work in the realm of art as activism. A major theme in this politically and racially charged section is Saar’s collection of scales. They come in various shapes and sizes, from a myriad of different time periods, and adorn tables and shelves, many carrying the weight of derogatory representational figures of African Americans. The racist ‘mammie’ figure, placed on top of a scale references the weight of racism in society and on the human psyche. The black-faced figures, with swollen red lips and handkerchiefs tied around their heads, were initially created during the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, and were specifically for a white audience, as comical conversation pieces. Saar reclaims agency over these racist representations by turning their meaning towards awareness of racial and civil rights.

Betye Saar, "Someones in the Kitchen with Dinah" (2014), mixed media assemblage, 16 1/2" x 6" x 10 1/2"
Betye Saar, “Someones in the Kitchen with Dinah” (2014), mixed media assemblage, 16 1/2″ x 6″ x 10 1/2″

The exhibition is monumental in its scale, occupying nearly the entirety of the Scottsdale Kunsthalle. At times, it feels like too much space for some works, and not enough space for others. The spirituality room is by far the largest portion of the exhibition; however, it is the space with the most intimately sized works. Conversely, the “Red Room” which lies in the “political and racial” portion of the exhibition, feels like a crowded add-on to the end of the exhibit. Perhaps the idea behind the “mysticism and ritual” section was to give its ambiguous and porous subject, that of the metaphysical, room to swim. Unfortunately, as a viewer, the work seems swallowed up by the space, drowning almost in too much room.

Still, the exhibition is poignant, evocative, and emotional, illustrating the thematic threads that Saar has woven throughout her oeuvre, and how they have evolved throughout time in response to social and political climates, as well as her own life. While choosing themes with contemporary relevance, Saar’s work is always looking to her past and a greater history of violence, oppression, and spirituality, making Still Tickin’ an exhibition well worth the time.

Betye Saar: Still Tickin’ continues at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 E 2nd St, Scottsdale, Ariz.) through May 15.

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