Last week octogenarian artist Betye Saar was honored as the recipient of the 55th Annual Edward MacDowell Medal; previous winners in the visuals arts include Georgia O’Keeffe (1972), Jasper Johns (1994), and Ellsworth Kelly (1999). Saar’s printmaking, assemblage, collage and installation works are equally indebted to the auratic shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell and the ambitious environmental sculpture of Simon Rodia (the architect of Watts Towers, Los Angeles), in both her reprocessing of found materials and potent activation of marginal narratives (fictional and nonfictional).
In the late 1960s, Saar began to acquire “black collectibles”—everyday consumer objects emblazoned with extreme caricatures of African Americans—cultural debris that she soon repurposed into art. Her first series of assemblages challenges the negative stereotype of the mythical “mammy” figure by arming her with emblems of the Black Power Movement, then taking root. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) is now in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum.
Unafraid to address politically charged issues, Saar avoids didacticism by fusing concepts with coded symbolism and expert craftsmanship. Her later work explores the complex legacies of slavery and conditions of Diaspora, tapping spiritual and ancestral ties to Africa and the Caribbean. She has said: “As an artist I often call myself a recycle—not just the recycling physical things, window frames and statues, but also ideas and memories.” Yet Saar ultimately produces new aesthetic purposes for these historical materials. Her photographic collages, for example, might superimpose dignified portraits of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African-American women, in stylish formal attire, with delicate period renderings of flora and fauna (as in Vamp, 2010)—thus exposing an alternative “modern” paradigm for contemporary feminine beauty.
“REDTIME: EST,” a select retrospective of the artist’s political assemblages dating from 1966 to 2014, was staged at Michael Rosenfeld in Chelsea this spring. Her work featured prominently in the Getty Foundation Initiative “Pacific Standard Time” (2011–2012), and was shown at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.” Saar’s work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The MacDowell Colony Chairman, novelist Michael Chabon, who presented Saar’s medal, said: “Betye Saar uses shards of myth and narrative, and found bits of history—with all its pain and magnificence—to build scale models of a world that is intensely personal and yet instantly, inescapably recognizable as our own broken world.”