Betye Saar

(b. 1926)

About The Artist

A California 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. By the late 1950s she went back to school, with hopes of becoming a teacher, but a chance encounter with Cal State Long Beach’s print workshop 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 also take on assemblage. This shift in medium very quickly led Saar to the accumulation of racist memorabilia, such as ‘mammy’ jars that she would adorn with symbols of defiance. In the early 1970s, trips to both the Field Museum in Chicago and to Haiti led her to begin considering the intersections of black culture with magic and mysticism. Reportedly 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 in theoretical engagement and physical size, with her participatory installations sometimes taking up entire rooms.

In 1975, Saar was featured in her first solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, becoming the first African American woman to show there. 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 as a spiritually imbued method of reinventing both a personal and communal narrative.

Through her use of scavenged photographs, documents, and personal mementos, Saar crafts "a surreal blend of autobiographical reference and cultural history." These "fragments of the past" inevitably conjure notions of death, which the artist has identified as the "transitional state" linking the past to the future. Saar connects objects with ancestors to not only document her own version of past events, but to stake a claim on a modern identity as well.

Now in her 90s, Saar continues to mingle the personal, the political, and the magical 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.

Carpenter, Jane H. Betye Saar. Pomegranate, 2003.

Miranda, Carolina A. "For Betye Saar, There’s No Dwelling on the Past; the Almost-90-Year-Old Artist Has Too Much Future to Think About." Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr. 2016.

Wall text for Black Girl’s Window, by Betye Saar. Betye Saar: Legends of a Black Girl’s Window, 21 Oct. 2019-4 Jan. 2020, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Wall text for Keep for Old Memories, by Betye Saar. Betye Saar: Legends of a Black Girl’s Window, 21 Oct. 2019-4 Jan. 2020, Museum of Modern Art, New York.