The elegant, enigmatic, politically engaged assemblages and installation pieces of Betye Saar have invited individual reflection and public debate on issues of gender, race, and aesthetics for most of her six decades as a working artist. Call and Response, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), provides a window on Saar’s creative process and the visual language she has developed over the years to express it—a language blending memorabilia, political slogans, occult symbology, and racist iconography.
Call and Response is Saar’s first solo show at her hometown’s premier art institution. The 40 or so works do not constitute a retrospective; nevertheless, they track the arc of her career from the 1970s to the present—culminating in an installation of new work by Saar, who turned 93 this year, designed specifically for LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion.
Of particular interest is the exhibition’s pairing of several of Saar’s completed works with the sketches she drew as she made them. Each page displayed documents a phase in the slow transformational process Saar employs to repurpose found objects and recycled trash into exhibition-quality objets. By design, artist sketchbooks possess the intimate spontaneity of a diary. Every false start, wayward line, digression, and redaction reveals new potential for discovery. Unlike the sketchbooks of Cézanne, say, who included shopping lists amid his portraits and landscapes, or Van Gogh, whose workbooks record favored poems and even drug prescriptions, Saar’s sketchbooks are devoted to the ideation and execution of artworks.
Saar doesn’t begin, as many artists do, with a sketch of an idea percolating in her brain; she starts with a physical object—a discarded, commonplace artifact picked up while exploring flea markets and thrift stores. She calls this phase of her process “the hunt.”
Since she can ruminate for months, even years, on the meaning and positioning of a found object in a piece, by the time an idea reaches the sketchbook stage, the finished look of the work as well as its significance are established in her mind. As a result, the sketches reveal no hesitancy. Along the borders of each page, Saar includes notes critical to the piece’s construction: “Add extra lace,” she reminds herself in a note at the bottom of a study for A Loss of Innocence, her sumptuous 1998 meditation on the ever-lurking vulgarities of white supremacy. The sketchbooks are displayed in glass boxes—vitrines—lit and positioned in proximity to the works they inspired.
The show’s title speaks to “the relationship between the sketches, the finished works, and the found objects she starts with,” says Carol Eliel, curator of modern art at LACMA. “In a certain sense, her whole process is a call-and-response. The object calls to her, she responds to it in her head, she makes a sketch, and then she responds to the sketch by making the finished work.”
Discarded objects have been calling to Saar since she was a girl. During summer visits to her grandmother’s home in Watts, she roamed the railroad tracks and deserted fields with her siblings, searching for treasure. Watts, for Saar, was a realm of enchantments. There she witnessed Simon Rodia building what she called his “magical” towers—a masterpiece of folk sculpture. It was after her family moved to Pasadena in the early ’30s that she had her first demoralizing encounter with racism. As a student at Pasadena City College in the ’40s, she won honorable mention in a competition to design a float for the Rose Bowl. When parade organizers realized that the fair-skinned Saar was black, they rescinded the award. The mysteries of the natural world and the immorality of racial injustice have been abiding motifs in her work ever since.
WHAT’S LEFT BEHIND
In the mid- to late 1960s, art collectives that promoted the neglected work of women and communities of color began to form across the Southland. Painter Suzanne Jackson opened Gallery 32, spotlighting politically charged new works by African American artists, particularly women. Brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis opened the influential Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park, exhibiting the work of Timothy Washington, Noah Purifoy, David Hammons, and Saar, among others.
In 1965, as the fire and fury of the Watts riots cooled, L.A.’s black artists began recycling the charred rubble and detritus left behind. They considered the ruination heaped along their streets to be a powerful metaphor for disenfranchisement, resistance, and revolt. Saar first experimented with assemblage boxes in 1967, after seeing the work of sculptor Joseph Cornell, who arranged assorted artifacts and jewelry in glass containers he called shadow boxes. Using standard techniques of collage and sculpture, Saar and her contemporaries elevated assemblage into three-dimensional statements of searing political commentary. Saar emerged as one of the most formidable and prolific artists of this movement.
Though not in the show, her most important, and controversial, work of this period, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, pointed the way to all that would follow. That 1972 assemblage features a notepad and pencil holder depicting Aunt Jemima, an example of the derogatory “mammy” caricature, as a fat, coal-black servant. The grinning figure holds a symbol of her servitude: a broom. Tucked under her arm, though, is a pistol. In the other hand, where a pencil might go, Saar places a rifle. A black power fist rises before her. The effect is startling. The once-passive figure, now armed to the teeth, prompts the question: Who carries a rifle into my perfect white kitchen? Certainly not the meek, mute, and debased maid.
The earliest completed work in the exhibition is The Divine Face (1971), which showcases Saar’s early preoccupation with craft and design. Its sculptural elements are minimal, based on an Ethiopian sunlike symbol, and Saar points to it as one of her first works informed by “a Black or African American consciousness.” Her installation I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break (1998), on the other hand, illustrates the subtlety and wit of more recent works.
The latter piece presents a charming scene of domestic tranquility. An antique ironing board stands poised for the day’s labors. A bedsheet strung along a clothesline frames the board; a rusted flatiron rests near the board’s base, attached by a chain. The quaintness and serenity of the composition provide its most subversive effects. Moving in, one discovers that the contours of the ironing board match the contours of a boat. Saar has overlaid the form with a pattern evocative of the grids dividing the chattel stalls in the hold of a slave ship. Stitched into the bedsheet like a monogram on a business suit are the initials KKK.
Saar manipulates the rhetorical and visual attributes of her sculptural objects in ways that underscore their inherent incongruity or allure. As a result, her works call upon the viewer to engage with the questions, delights, and contradictions that they invoke.
Emory Holmes II is an L.A.-based journalist and short-story writer. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Sentinel.
BETYE SAAR: CALL AND RESPONSE
• Through Apr. 5, 2020
• Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
Get to know three other artists who’ve looked from the outside in
Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story: The exhibit at L.A.’s Getty Center presents the stark, unsettling 1961 photo series that photographer-filmmaker Gordon Parks made (on assignment for Life magazine) about a severely asthmatic 12-year-old boy living in extreme poverty and scavenging for supplies amid the violence of Rio de Janeiro’s slums.
Watts Towers Art Center: Over 33 years, Sabato “Simon” Rodia created his soaring complex of 17 linked spires—their coiling rebar surfaces coated with mortar, tile, bottle caps, glass, and stone—as a valentine to Los Angeles, a city he immigrated to from Italy in 1921. In 1959, the International Conference of Museum Curators designated the towers “the paramount work of folk art in the 20th century in the United States.”
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am: Directed by the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a longtime friend of Morrison’s, this 2019 documentary uses the late writer’s own words to reflect on her life and legacy, analyzing the potent themes of intolerance, identity, racial equality, and the transformative power of literature, which were foundational to her worldview.