Artist Betye Saar, an important part of the Black L.A. art movement in the 1970s, and one of Los Angeles' modern art iconoclasts, watched Simon Rodia build the Watts Towers as a child. This experience went on to subconsciously influence her penchant for collecting as well as the detailed execution of her own art, even though she tried her hand at social work, graphic design, and enamel jewelry before she found her voice as one of America's most important assemblage artists. On a recent visit, I learned Saar is someone who embodies the notion of speaking softly while carrying a big stick. She is a diminutive firebrand, beautiful and energetic despite her 89 years, ready with stories and recalling events as if they happened yesterday. Driving up to her Laurel Canyon studio, one experiences a lost era of Los Angeles, a neighborhood of midcentury, DIY architecture that once housed the city's most creative minds. Saar's plot is a small, hilly compound that includes a sprawling flower garden, as well as her home of 50 years, where she raised her three daughters: artists Lezley, Alison and writer Tracye. Once inside, if you are even remotely familiar with Saar's work, you immediately recognize the spacious studio as if it were one of her installations: immaculate, color coded by project and shelved by theme.
There is so much rich history within the life of Saar, who has already begun celebrating her 90th year, (her birthday is officially July 30). She has packed every moment with purpose and art. She was featured in a record eight exhibitions during the Pacific Standard Time program in 2011, and while her seminal work, "Black Girls Window," (Collection of MoMA, New York) was completed in 1969, it's critically noted that her fine art career began at age 46, marked with the unveiling of the piece, "Liberation of Aunt Jemima" in 1972. It's an assemblage work that evolves from her earlier pieces, perhaps angrier and more direct, that arms the famous mammy with a rifle... and a broom. The diminutive, mirrored shadow box employs repeated advertising images from the pancake brand, cotton, bits of fabric, and a derogatory vintage "Mammy" figurine -- Saar's message of reclamation of servitude and rebellion is powerful, and still relevant in today's trying times. A more recent work, 1998's "I Will Bend, But I Will Not Break," pairs a seemingly innocuous antique ironing board, decorated with African tribal patterns, against a perfectly wrinkle-free white sheet hanging by clothespins behind it. Look closely, and find the monogram to read "KKK."
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"I don't know how politics can be avoided," Saar explains when asked about politics in art now. "If you happen to be a young Black male, your parents are terrified that you're going to be arrested -- if they hang out with a friend, are they going to be considered a gang? That kind of fear is one you have to pay attention to. It's not comfortable living in the United States. I'm born in Los Angeles, with middle class parents and so I never really had to be in a situation that tense. My grandmother lived in Watts and it's still really poor down there. People just do the best they can."
The art of assemblage may have been initiated in other parts of the world, the term dating back to Jean Dubuffet's 1950s collages of butterfly wings, called "Assemblages D'empreintes," but the Southern Californian artists of the '60s and '70s made it political and made it their own. Ed Kienholz, Ed Bereal, and George Herms are all known for their groundbreaking work during this era, however, Saar approaches the medium from a more personal, perhaps uniquely feminine, spiritual direction than her male contemporaries. It's her insightful point of view, combining her own family memorabilia with African American folk art that her sociopolitical messages haunt with greater subtlety, and perhaps appeal to a wider audience. Saar sites her most important influence as artist Joseph Cornell, who had a landmark exhibit in 1966 at Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon). Completely the opposite of Saar, Cornell was an intensely shy, white man from Queens, New York, who had a penchant for desserts and lived in his mother's basement. His own work took clues from surrealism, and was motivated by his love for movie starlets and Christian Science ideology.
"I guess I would be considered a narrative artist," explains Saar. "I think the way I put things together you can probably say, 'well, this is a Betye Saar.' Mystical things, but not from European magic. Magic from Polynesia. Most of my travels have been to those countries. I've felt more comfortable with art from the Pacific, Southeast Asia, Bali, the Islands, temples, things like that."
It's important to Saar that all her objects are "found" and have a prior history. She discovers many of the pieces in her work at swap meets in the Los Angeles area and at flea markets in Mexico. These carefully chosen objects are reinterpreted and redefined through her placement. Clues to her mythic narrative are found within these installations, utilizing altar-like windows and boxes with recurring symbols and colors, in turn, creating their own language. In the installation piece "The Alpha and Omega," (Roberts and Tilton, 2013), an entirely aqua-colored room, the viewer is at the vantage point of being under water, signified by the boat skeleton above, and lit only by stubby candles on a table staged for a conversation between clocks, meant to signify passage of time. The vintage crib filled with translucent balls and sitting atop a bed of dried hydrangeas, signifying a birth. There is a tell-tale Saar cage containing a ship, suggesting slavery or bias, where the black crow figure, symbolizing Jim Crow, stands watch. Like any great piece of art, the more you study it, the more you begin to see. Her entire body of work unfolds as Saar's journey, becoming collectively "ours" as we interpret for ourselves the vernacular of her objects. Younger artists have taken important cues from Saar's intuitions and she recognizes a few as ones to watch today. However, she cautions beginners to work harder and find their own voice.
"Titus Kaphar's work is so beautiful," offers Saar, when pressed for names of artists she appreciates today. "And Radcliffe Bailey's got a piece with a tree that breaks up a piano. It grows up and out of this piano and wow, its great! I just love that kind of thinking about something. They work really big. I like Nick Cave. He's working with more objects now and getting more political. They find things and put them together. That's what we have in common."
Not slowing down a bit, Saar is set to celebrate 2016 with a few parties and a solo show of new work at Roberts and Tilton Gallery. Notably, "Betye Saar: Still Tickin'," her first retrospective, featuring over 100 works, originally staged in the Netherlands at the Museum Het Domein in 2015 is moving stateside to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, opening in January.
"I never wanted to move to New York, but It's a great place to visit," says Saar, when asked how living in Southern California may influence her work. "I have a lot of connections there. Many of my students graduated and went to New York because that's where you really 'became' an artist," she continues. "That never meant anything to me."