Betye Saar b. 1926
A Los Angeles native and key figure in the Black Arts Movement, Betye Saar weaves layers of memory and resistance into her prints, collages, and assemblages. Saar graduated from UCLA in 1949 with a degree in design, which she parlayed into a greeting card line and an enamelware company. She had no early aspirations to become an artist, instead setting her sights on interior design: “Being from a minority family, I never thought about being an artist,” Saar told the Los Angeles Times, “But I could tell people how to buy curtains.” By the late 1950s, Saar returned to school with plans to become a teacher, but a chance encounter with the print workshop at Cal State Long Beach redirected the course of her career.
Saar worked in drawing and printing until the late 1960s, when a Joseph Cornell exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum inspired her to experiment with assemblage. This shift in medium very quickly led Saar to the accumulation of racist memorabilia, like the mammy jars that she would reclaim as symbols of defiance. Trips to both the Field Museum in Chicago (which she visited with David Hammons) and to Haiti in the early 1970s encouraged Saar's consideration of the intersections of black culture with magic and mysticism. Interested in the "visual ways in which magic could be conveyed," Saar started replacing Eurocentric references in her work with African symbols. Her works grew both in theoretical engagement and physical size, and her installations would sometimes take up entire rooms.
In 1975, Saar was featured in her first solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, and became the first African American woman to show at the institution. Upon the passing of her great aunt that same year, Saar began foregrounding a "mood" of memory and longing in her work. Amidst the decades-worth of personal belongings left behind by her aunt, Saar saw a portrait of a slower time when "people still collected memories." In response, she recycled her aunt's memories through her work, a spiritually imbued method of reinventing both personal and communal narrative.
Now in her 90s, Saar continues to mingle the personal, the political, and the mystic in her robust output. Her works are currently held in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the High Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
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