Betye Saar’s Never-Before-Seen Sketchbooks Offer Deep Insights

Betye Saar, “Sketchbook” (1970–1972), overall: 6 x 4 1/4 inches (collection of Betye Saar, courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, © Betye Saar, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

LOS ANGELES — Last week a video of two strangers in a store harmonizing Cheryl Lynn and Luther Vandross’s timeless classic, “If This World Were Mine,” went viral and stole the hearts of R&B music lovers everywhere. The singers smoothly traded vocal riffs in a beautiful, soul-soothing moment that captures the spiritual essence of music as a powerful healing force in weary times. The oral tradition of call and response has roots in African cultural traditions that survived the horrors of slavery, later transforming into the distinctly American music genres of gospel, jazz, and blues. In this unique form of musical alchemy, a question is asked by one and answered by another. 

Betye Saar’s exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), titled Call and Response, is like a visual rendering of this practice. It places Saar’s personal sketches — on view for the first time — in conversation with her completed works. A preeminent assemblage artist, Saar harnesses the power contained in found objects, transforming material and giving it new meaning. Her practice represents the call and response between an object and the completed work, and in a musical sense, her sketches reveal all the lovely notes, melodies, and harmonies in between. They add layers of context, giving viewers insight into how Saar’s practice evolved over time. 

Installation view, Betye Saar: Call and Response at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (© Betye Saar, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

Betye Saar, born Betye Brown in Los Angeles in 1926, spent her early years in Watts before moving to Pasadena, where she studied design. In 1949, Saar graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with an Interior Design degree. In the 1950s, she dabbled in enamel work, designing jewelry and other accessories with Curtis Tann. Inspired by a chance encounter with a printmaking studio, Saar’s artistic practice evolved into printmaking and mixed media collage, where she began to explore the connections between spirituality, power, and objects. During this time her work had pronounced ties to the iconography of mysticism and cosmology. 

Saar creates her assemblages from a personal trove of found items that include cages, ravens, dice, dolls, scales, and spiritual talismans she collected over her seven-decade career. She combines these objects with one another in three-dimensional menageries that have become powerful symbols of protest, deeply personal meditations on grief, and timeless commentaries on human nature. 

Call and Response, curated by LACMA’s Carol S. Eliel, presents Saar’s process as one heavily influenced by time. The introductory wall notes that Saar feels that “objects have stories to tell.” That object may relate to an issue, a memory, or a historical event, and her body of work shows how the various iterations of her themes have been shaped by time.  

Installation view, Betye Saar: Call and Response at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (© Betye Saar, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)
Betye Saar, “Sketchbook” (2013), overall: 5 5/8 x 3 1/2 inches (collection of Betye Saar, courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, © Betye Saar, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

Between 1968 and 1975 a series of important events would have a major influence on Saar’s work. The first was the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that compelled her to create “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) for Berkeley’s Rainbow Sign, a Black cultural center that was an inclusive hub for artists, writers, and musicians in the 1970s. In the seminal work, a figurine of a mammy stands on a cloud of cotton holding a broom in one hand and a shotgun in the other. The mixed media assemblage — credited by Angela Davis as the work that launched the Black Women’s Movement — was Saar’s first overtly political piece. With this work, Saar began to harmonize her earlier themes of spirituality and mysticism with these newer, more urgent concerns of race and gender.  

Betye Saar, “The Divine Face” (1971) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 1970 another influential event took place that exposed Saar to the power and energy of objects: Together with her friend, the artist David Hammons, she visited Chicago’s Field Museum. The objects in the museum’s African and Oceanic collection, and all their connections among different cultures, inspired Saar to travel across Africa, Asia, Europe, Brazil, Haiti, and Mexico to explore these cultural linkages. In Call and Response, Saar’s travel sketchbooks contain watercolors and brightly pigmented ink drawings that capture the themes, ideas, and images that she incorporated into her final works. In “The Divine Face” (1971), a portrait of the sun framed in cowhide is adorned with a peacock feather and braided, knotted tendrils of light brown wool. The assemblage echoes the rendering that graces the cover of one of Saar’s sketchbooks on display under glass. Slight variations of the concept of time, represented here by the phases of the moon, are the common threads that connect many of the 40 objects and sketchbooks to one another in the show. These specific connections are particularly compelling when considering yet another important event that shaped her work.

Sketchbook page from 2000 (facsimile) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Saar’s great-aunt Hattie Parson Keys was like a grandmother to her, and when she passed away in 1975, the artist acquired one of her trunks that included the lace handkerchiefs she later incorporated into a series of neutral-toned collages created between 2001 and 2002. While some were portraits of her maternal family, other works touch on very distinct issues of colorism within and beyond the Black community. In Call and Response, the most striking evidence of her artistic grappling with the byproducts of Jim Crow are found in the sketches she created between 2000 and 2002. In one from the year 2000, a colored pencil sketch of four portraits features subjects by skin tone, from light to dark, who are drawn on an arched wooden frame and shelf. In the center of the frame are the slightly embellished lyrics of Big Bill Broonzy’s 1945 blues song about Jim Crow segregation called “Black, Brown, and White”: 

If you’re white you’re alright

If you’re yellow, you’re mellow

If you’re brown, stick around

If you’re black, get back (get way back)

Below the portraits rests a long, rectangular-shaped sewing spool containing shades of thread that match the tones represented in the portraits and the text. Saar revisited the original drawing in 2002, creating a new sketch that culminated in a piece called “Colored” (2002). The final work has two distinct modifications: she removed “(get way back) from the text and added, “(but black don’t crack).” The addition of that one line reframes the sting of the song’s biting commentary on colorism that equates skin tone to acceptability and instead makes an important, affirming acknowledgement of Black beauty. 

Betye Saar, “Colored” (2002) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Page from 2002 Sketchbook (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Saar isn’t afraid to sit with an idea until the material’s energy and physical properties match the subject she’s dealing with. Her use of time allows many of her works to occupy multiple places of interpretation, offering broader readings of the work. The show isn’t presented chronologically; rather, it’s more thematic in nature, grouping work together that spans 50 years in one section of the exhibit, while pairing other pieces by material composition in others. Saar’s presentation of captivity in her birdcage works is particularly sobering when viewed through the prism of Jim Crow segregation and a modern-day lens of mass incarceration. For Saar, time doesn’t just shape the object, it also influences how a piece is interpreted. This process invites another form of call and response between the artist and the viewer. 

Betye Saar, “The Edge of Ethics” (2010) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Since time is an important through line in her work, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment that Los Angeles has yet to show a retrospective that includes the full span of Saar’s career, including her seminal works like “Black Girl’s Window” (1969), which will be on view in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in October, or “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” While the LACMA show claims to “cover the span of Saar’s career,” it’s narrow scope leaves some gaps. Other Los Angeles exhibitions have also opted to present deep dives into specific bodies of work, the most recent being the Craft Contemporary’s 2017 show Keepin It Clean, an extensive examination of Saar’s Washboard Series. Additionally, the Getty Research Institute’s acquisition of Saar’s artistic archive in 2018 will yield additional curatorial opportunities. In Call and Response, LACMA chose to present Saar through another unique lens, and while this is an important, yet overdue corrective, the lack of local museum attention is a head-scratching omission that hometown Saar fans have been bemoaning for years. As such, Saar also deserves a thoughtful, comprehensive career retrospective in Los Angeles. The institutional oversight among Los Angeles museums remains a belabored, yet necessary critique that bears repeating. 

Betye Saar, “Cream” (2001) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Betye Saar: Call and Response continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through April 5, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Carol S. Eliel.

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