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Call and Response: The Artistic Process of Legendary Artist Betye Saar
Art

Call and Response: The Artistic Process of Legendary Artist Betye Saar

Call and Response: The Artistic Process of Legendary Artist Betye Saar July 4, 2020
Betye Saar Sketchbook page for ​Eyes of the Beholder​, November 6, 1994. Watercolor and ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.

Editor: Jose Morales

Betye Saar Sketchbook page for ​Eyes of the Beholder​, November 6, 1994. Watercolor and ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Sketchbook page for ​Eyes of the Beholder​, November 6, 1994. Watercolor and ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar's work has made her an influential figure in the world of political art, and a legend amongst artists working in the medium of assemblage.

New York City – Born in 1926 in Los Angeles, California, visual storyteller, and printmaker Betye Saar has played a crucial role in the evolution of assemblage art. Her work, greatly known for incisive collages and assemblages that confront and reclaim racist images, has become an undisputed tool of reflection on African-American identity, gender, spirituality, and the interconnectedness of different cultures. The legendary artist that is Betye Saar, is to be commemorated by The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City this September 2020 with the opening of the solo exhibition ‘Betye Saar: Call and Response.’

Saar emerged in the 1960s as part of a wave of artists, many of them African American, who embraced the medium of assemblage. She was part of the Black Arts Movement, which was active during the 60s and 70s. The movement fostered a message of black pride and forged the creation of multiple cultural institutions. Saar’s work, which confronts negative ideas about African-Americans, and critiques racism towards black people, has made Saar not only an influential figure in the world of political art but also one of the most significant artists working in the medium of assemblage. The exhibition by The Morgan Library & Museum is the first exhibition to focus on Saar’s sketchbooks and explore the correlation between her found objects, sketches, and finished works.

Betye Saar Sketchbook page for ​Memory Window for Anastacia​, May 3, 1994. Watercolor and ballpoint pen Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Sketchbook page for ​Memory Window for Anastacia​, May 3, 1994. Watercolor and ballpoint pen Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Page from Oaxaca sketchbook, April 1985. Acrylic, gouache, and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from Oaxaca sketchbook, April 1985. Acrylic, gouache, and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Page from Taiwan sketchbook, 1988. Watercolor and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from Taiwan sketchbook, 1988. Watercolor and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
The Artistic Process

The daughter of a dressmaker, and a printmaker by training, Saar brings to her work an extraordinary sensitivity to materials. She pulls her imagery from family history, popular culture, and a wide scope of spiritual traditions. Her artistic process begins with a found object that is used and ordinary and slightly debased — objects most people would easily pass by, such as a piece of leather, a tray, a cot, a birdcage, an ironing board. After identifying a fundamental object that appeals to her, Saar examines her stockpile of other found materials for use in combination. Once she has reached a vision of the final work, she responds with a sketch in which she devises her ideas for the finished work.

Saar has kept such sketchbooks throughout her career. She also has more detailed travel sketchbooks containing exquisite watercolors and collages—often correlating to leitmotifs seen across her oeuvre—from a lifetime of journeys worldwide. The exhibition will present Saar’s sketches and corresponding assemblages alongside approximately a dozen of her travel sketchbooks. The selection of work will cover a broad span of her career, from the 1970s through a sculptural installation created especially for this exhibition, in addition to collages from the Morgan’s collections that have never before been exhibited.

Betye Saar Page from U.S.A. sketchbook, Santa Fe, Museum of International Folk Art, 1988–91. Watercolor and ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from U.S.A. sketchbook, Santa Fe, Museum of International Folk Art, 1988–91. Watercolor and ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.

Dr. Rachel Federman, Morgan’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings, who has coordinated the exhibition, says, “It’s an honor to present the work of Betye Saar, an artist I have long admired. By providing access to her sketchbooks, this exhibition will give visitors an unprecedented glimpse into Saar’s artistic practice.”

Some of these never-before-displayed collages include ‘A Secretary to the Spirits’ (1975). The work is the outcome of an invitation by author and activist Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) to create a series of collages for his poetry book of the same name. Saar used a layered approach to echo Reed’s poetry, which blends references to the ancient and the contemporary, the spiritual and the mundane. In another form of “call and response,” each of Saar’s collages is based on and named for one of Reed’s poems.

The Morgan’s Director, Dr. Colin B. Bailey, said, “After a few somber months, we are excited to open our fall season with this incredible, poignant body of work by Betye Saar. Her assemblages, in combination with the tremendous creative repository of her notebooks, provide audiences with an opportunity to look closely at and consider the relationship between the found objects she uses, her sketches, and the completed works.”

Betye Saar Page from Brazil sketchbook, 1994. Watercolor and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from Brazil sketchbook, 1994. Watercolor and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Page from California sketchbook, 1975. Acrylic and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from California sketchbook, 1975. Acrylic and collage. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.

Saar received her B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1949, followed by graduate studies at California State University, Long Beach; the University of Southern California; and California State University, Northridge. She has been awarded honorary doctoral degrees by California College of Arts and Crafts, California Institute of the Arts, Cornish College of the Arts, Massachusetts College of Art, Otis College of Art and Design, and San Francisco Art Institute. Her work is included in the permanent collections of more than eighty museums, including—in addition to the MorganLibrary & Museum—the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. – GM

More work by Betye Saar
Betye Saar A Secretary to the Spirits​ (from the series ​A Secretary to the Spirits [for Ishmael Reed]​), 1975. Collage of cut printed papers and fabric, with matte and metallic paint and ink stamps, on laminated paperboard. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of the Modern and Contemporary Collectors Committee, 2017.306:1. Photography by Janny Chiu. © Betye Saar.
A Secretary to the Spirits​ (from the series ​A Secretary to the Spirits [for Ishmael Reed]​), 1975. Collage of cut printed papers and fabric, with matte and metallic paint and ink stamps, on laminated paperboard. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of the Modern and Contemporary Collectors Committee, 2017.306:1. Photography by Janny Chiu. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Spread from ​Black Dolls s​ ketchbook, San Diego, Mingei International Museum, May 24, 2015. Photocopy, ink, watercolor, marker, and collage of paper on board. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from Aix-en-Provence, France/Los Angeles sketchbook, September 8, 2004. Collage and watercolor. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Page from Brazil/Los Angeles sketchbook, 1983/1988. Collage and gouache. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from Brazil/Los Angeles sketchbook, 1983/1988. Collage and gouache. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Spread from ​Black Dolls s​ ketchbook, San Diego, Mingei International Museum, May 24, 2015. Photocopy, ink, watercolor, marker, and collage of paper on board. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Page from Haiti sketchbook, July 24, 1974. Watercolor, ballpoint pen, and ink. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Page from Haiti sketchbook, July 24, 1974. Watercolor, ballpoint pen, and ink. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Sketchbook page for ​A Call to Arms,​ 1997. Ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Sketchbook page for ​A Call to Arms,​ 1997. Ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar A Call to Arms, 1​ 997. Washboard with stenciled lettering, toy guns, compass, clock, wood picture frame, printed photo, crumb brush, twine, bullets, wood and metal spools, and Black Power fists. Collection of David Packard and M. Bernadette Castor. Photography TK, © Betye Saar.
A Call to Arms, 1​ 997. Washboard with stenciled lettering, toy guns, compass, clock, wood picture frame, printed photo, crumb brush, twine, bullets, wood and metal spools, and Black Power fists. Collection of David Packard and M. Bernadette Castor. Photography TK, © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Sketchbook page for ​The Edge of Ethics​, January 14, 2010. Ballpoint pen, marker, and colored pencil on paper pasted into sketchbook. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Sketchbook page for ​The Edge of Ethics​, January 14, 2010. Ballpoint pen, marker, and colored pencil on paper pasted into sketchbook. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar The Edge of Ethics, ​2010. Metal cage, figures, chain, glass bottle, and fan coral. Collection of Iris and Adam Singer. ​Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.© Betye Saar
The Edge of Ethics, ​2010. Metal cage, figures, chain, glass bottle, and fan coral. Collection of Iris and Adam Singer. ​Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.© Betye Saar
Betye Saar Sketchbook page for ​The Weight of Buddha​, 2013. Ballpoint pen, colored pencil, and wash. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Sketchbook page for ​The Weight of Buddha​, 2013. Ballpoint pen, colored pencil, and wash. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar The Weight of Buddha​ (Contemplating Mother Wit and Street Smarts), 2014. Painted figures, chain, and postal scale. The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. © Betye Saar.
The Weight of Buddha​ (Contemplating Mother Wit and Street Smarts), 2014. Painted figures, chain, and postal scale. The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. © Betye Saar.
Sketchbook page for ​Sanctuary Awaits,​ May 4, 1996. Ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Sketchbook page for ​Sanctuary Awaits,​ May 4, 1996. Ballpoint pen. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Sanctuary Awaits, ​1996. Wood, glass bottles, metal wire, palm fronds, compass, sheet tin, screws, and nails. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photography by © Museum Associates; LACMA, © Betye Saar.
Sanctuary Awaits, ​1996. Wood, glass bottles, metal wire, palm fronds, compass, sheet tin, screws, and nails. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photography by © Museum Associates; LACMA, © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Supreme Quality, ​1998. Washboard with stenciled lettering, soap bar with printed paper label, metal figurine with toy guns, tin washtub, fabric, clock, and wood stand. The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Mortimer and Sara Hays Acquisition Fund. Photography by Tim Lanterman, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. © Betye Saar.
Supreme Quality, ​1998. Washboard with stenciled lettering, soap bar with printed paper label, metal figurine with toy guns, tin washtub, fabric, clock, and wood stand. The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Mortimer and Sara Hays Acquisition Fund. Photography by Tim Lanterman, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. © Betye Saar.
Betye Saar Memory Window for Anastacia, ​1994. Paint on copper circuit boards in wood window frame, with metal ornaments and copper wire–covered nails. Private Collection, Los Angeles, California. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. © Betye Saar.
Memory Window for Anastacia, ​1994. Paint on copper circuit boards in wood window frame, with metal ornaments and copper wire–covered nails. Private Collection, Los Angeles, California. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer. © Betye Saar.

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