Born in Los Angeles, assemblage artist Betye Saar is one of the most important of her generation. Since the 1960s, her art has incorporated found objects to challenge myths and stereotypes around race and gender, evoking spirituality by variously drawing on symbols from folk culture, mysticism and voodoo. Saar’s work can be found in the permanent collections of more than 60 museums, including Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Sola Agustsson is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, Flaunt, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Whitewall Magazine, Alternet, Salon, ArtSlant and others. An excerpt from her novel Pretend I’m Jesus appeared in Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine in 2013. She graduated UC Berkeley and is currently working towards her M.F.A. in Fiction at Columbia University.
An exhibition of Betye Saar’s mixed-media works from 1966-2016, Black White is opening at Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles. The show is the first in a two-part survey of Saar’s career. The name and work included in the exhibition interrogate language—how the words “black” and “white” figure into ideas of race as well as their symbolism apart from it.
When my grandmother turned 90 this year, our family created a tributary artwork that incorporated various symbols she uses in her body of work. It was a garden sculpture loosely based on her piece “Black Girl’s Window” (1969), a female figure surrounded by our copper engravings of symbols including the Siren, the Eye of Horus, the palmistry hand and other common motifs in her work. It seemed fitting to repurpose her iconography in our collective work, as her assemblages recycle everyday objects and metaphysical symbols as well as her ancestor’s possessions. Now a nonagenarian, Betye Saar continues to create artworks with just as much ferocity, drawing on the same themes of race, mysticism and gender from her earlier work.
Betye Saar’s exhibition Black White, the first of a two-part survey of her work, opens at Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles.
Sola Agustsson: Your work deals with recovering memories through everyday objects. What is your relation to objects? How do you find your materials?
Betye Saar: I’ve been collecting things for so long. Every once in awhile, I look out for something alien. But I usually do it by category, searching for a specific object I want. When I find myself attracted to a material that is new, sometimes I end up starting a new series without knowing it.
SA: Collecting is kind of a way our family bonds. When we have a phase or interest, everyone looks out for objects that relate to it.
BS: You are just attracted to certain things, and people know to be on the lookout. I got a box today from a friend that was filled with Black derogatory images. That’s an ongoing collection for me.
SA: Your brother recently died, and you created a new piece, “Tears Are Not Enough,” about his death. Can you elaborate on this?
BS: I did not initially intend this piece to be about his death. That was unexpected. When I was making my new series, I thought, “Tears Are Not Enough,” what a sad title, and later realized why that title was so sad. It didn’t foretell his death, of course, but it predicted my emotions about his passing. A lot of my works are about sadness, which comes from the premature loss of my father and my aunt’s death. The materials I use are also dead, secondhand materials which have been discarded by their original owner. By combining them, they seem to carry the emotions of those who used them before me.
“What can you do when you see that
violence and racism on television? What do
you do with that rage and negativity?
Sometimes people don’t know what to do with it…
I made ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.’”
— Betye Saar
SA: You did that series Record for Hattie which incorporated secondhand materials to memorialize your aunt.
BS: When my great aunt died, she left me a trunk filled with photographs and hats and gloves and I started putting them together in assemblages. I interpreted my memory of her through those assemblages. I very rarely buy new materials. Most of my shopping is done at second hand stores. There’s something about buying an object that’s been handled by another person. It has the ghost of the person, and I can create a new idea about art from these old objects.
SA: How do you feel about making intimate artworks about your family?
BS: I find that a lot of the personal pieces I’ve made for family or friends are a means of expressing grief. When I got the trunk from my aunt, it was sad for me to get rid of those possessions. But it was also a gift for me to recycle her things and tell stories. Sometimes I used her things, such as her old autograph book, in works that weren’t about her. The pieces that are about my family I do not sell, I keep them in my family. They are personal.
SA: But they are made public.
BS: I show and share them in public places. But I don’t want to sell them. I have other pieces that are strong that I don’t want to sell. When my grandchildren turn 21, I give them an important artwork to remember me by.
SA: For the Prada exhibit in Milan, Uneasy Dancer, you speak of the “creative spiral” of life, rebirth and death. How does this manifest in your life and work? Is it a means of processing your experiences?
BS: The “creative spiral” can be interpreted in several ways, but it mainly has to do with how I recycle symbols and objects. When I was a printmaker, I used a lot of metaphysical images pertaining to palmistry, astrology and phrenology. I moved on to using photographs in my collages, but I would still incorporate a hand print, palm chart or astrological signs. I didn’t eliminate these symbols, I recycled them in a different series. I also recycle useful objects, such as washboards and serving trays to interpret my feelings about slavery. Cages were about incarceration. Racism is a cage that still prevails. My scales series came up with the recent police murder of many young Black men, to address how racism still prevails in 2016.