Betye Saar Retrospective

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Betye Saar turns 90 this summer so the title of her retrospective, Still Tickin is wise and wicked, just like her art. One might think that Saar, one of LA's most admired African American artists, would be having this important show at one of Southern California's many contemporary art museums. Instead, it is on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, which organized the show with De Domijnen in Sittard, the Netherlands, through May 1. Congratulations go to them.

Annoyed by what seems to me an astonishing oversight, I went to Scottsdale to see it. (Hey, it's only a few hours east of La Quinta.)

Betys Saar, "Still Ticking," 2005
Mixed media assemblage, 29 ½ x 19 x 16 in.
Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California
© Betye Saar

This African American artist may be best known for her break-out 1972 assemblage and collage pieces using the image of Aunt Jemima, then portrayed as a chubby black servant advertising pancake mix. As Saar prowled flea markets and garage sales, she collected dozens of Aunt Jemima artifacts, replicas in metal, plastic and wood, the smiling black face reproduced on signs and graphics. Saar freed Aunt Jemima from her slavish status by giving her a weapon of her own: a gun. In one assemblage, Jemima's hair is covered by her trademark red and white polka-dot scarf but her apron is an American flag. She holds a broom in one hand but a shotgun in the other. A pair of black crows flank her and the word "liberation" is printed in black, the whole piece framed by the outline of a red washboard.

Betye Saar, "Liberation (washboard)," 2014
Mixed media assemblage, 19 x 8.5 x 2.5 in.
Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California
© Betye Saar

Saar has produced the Aunt Jemima pieces over many decades since her initial burst of anger over the assassination of Martin Luther King. This show includes a number of recent pieces, including the above mentioned, Liberation (washboard),(2014) evidence that the issues that drove this work over forty years ago are still in operation. At SMoCA, most of the Jemima pieces are installed in a gallery painted entirely red, the color of blood but also the color of Jemima's clothing, a foil to her shiny black skin, the black of crows once used as stereotypes, now repositioned in service of her message: "Tellin' It Like It Is."

Saar was born into a middle class black family who lived in Watts when it was still rural and Simon Rodia was in the process of building his towers. But her father died when she was only six. After that, she was raised by her mother and an extended family of other women, whose images appear periodically in her art. After studying design at UCLA, she worked for a period making decorative arts in enamel and then in printmaking. After marrying Richard Saar, who was white, she had three daughters. Lezley Saar and Alison Saar are both successful artists.

After Saar's divorce in 1968, she felt personally challenged to work through the conflicts of the society in her own life as well as her art. Political struggle was only one part of her solution and this exhibition clarifies the importance of memory, mysticism, African and Oceanic art as well as Western European culture.

Betye Saar, "Cradle of Dreams," 2013
Tableau: metal cradle and glass balls, 44.5 x 30.5 x 12.25 in.
Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California
© Betye Saar

Early in her career, Saar worked as a set designer and the use of theatrical space remain instinctual. She has not shied away from the spiritual connotations in altars and symbols drawn from the occult, astrology and tarot. In Alpha and Omega, a gallery painted a deep blue and filled with Saar's more poetic pieces, there is an old metal child's bed filled with beautifully decorated glass balls. Dead flowers can be seen poking out from under the bed: A Cradle of Dreams (2013).

Betye Saar, "Weight of Persistent Racism (Patented)," 2014
Mixed media assemblage, 25 x 9 x 7 in.
Courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California
© Betye Saar

In a gallery labeled Bridge of Memory, bird cages abound, filled with glass objects, figurines, many replicas of birds. There are old clocks of every shape and size perched on shelves, in tableaux. Everything echoes a long life concerned with creativity and conscience. Yet, issues of social injustice have emerged strongly in work made since the shooting at Ferguson, including The Weight of Betrayal (2015), a blue cage containing a carved wood sculpture, African, with eyes squinted closed and a grimacing mouth. Timepieces on scales, one of her persistent motifs, signify the weight of waiting for reform as in her sculpture The Weight of Persistent Racism (2014).

The cliché of never being a hero in your hometown has been especially true for L.A. artists. Saar is a legendary figure here, active in the 1970s consciousness raising movements of African Americans and of women so her work is important for political, social and aesthetic reasons. Plus, this is a smart and sparky exhibition that deserves to be seen by those who can't make the trek to Scottsdale. With so much bragging about L.A. as a city with more public gallery space dedicated to contemporary art than any other in this country, I hope some of it can be awarded to the work of Betye Saar. She deserves it but so do we.