Saar, Betye Irene

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Saar, Betye Irene

July 30, 1926

The artist Betye Brown (later Saar) was born in Los Angeles and moved to Pasadena, California, at age six, following the death of her father. While her mother worked as a seamstress and receptionist to support her family, Brown attended public school in Pasadena and then enrolled at Pasadena City College. She earned a B.A. in design from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1949 and married the artist Richard Saar (pronounced "Say-er") shortly thereafter.

During the early part of her career, Saar worked as a costume designer in theater and film in Los Angeles. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she resumed formal art training at California State University in Long Beach, at the University of Southern California, and at California State University in Northridge. In graduate school, Saar mastered the techniques of graphics, printmaking, and design, but after seeing a Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967 she turned to what would become her signature work: three-dimensional assemblage boxes. Saar's encounter with Cornell's surrealist boxes led her away from her early, two-dimensional work in prints to her first landmark piece, "Black Girl's Window" (mixed media, 1969). Here Saar used Cornell-inspired elements like a segmented window and a surrealist combination of objects to explore issues of personal identity. The piece presents a black girl, possibly Saar, pressing her face and hands against a glass pane, surrounded by images of the occult.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Saar's boxes reflected her political engagement with the civil rights movement by satirizing persistent derogatory images of African Americans. In "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima" (1972), Saar appropriated the racist stereotype of Aunt Jemima by transforming her from a passive black female into a militant revolutionary. Her later work took on a more personal, autobiographical dimension, exploring her own mixed heritageshe is of Native American, Irish, and African descentand her spiritual beliefs. The death of her Aunt Hattie in particular pushed her work inward and inspired such nostalgic collages as "Keep for Old Memoirs" (1976), made from old family photographs and personal remnants such as gloves and handkerchiefs.

In 1974 Saar traveled to Haiti and Mexico on a National Endowment for the Arts grant, then to Nigeria for the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (1977). These trips, together with Saar's visits to the Egyptian, Oceanic, and African collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, resulted in a series of altarpieces (19751977) combining personal emblems with totems from African, Caribbean, and Asian cultures. "Dambella" (1975) contains obvious references to Haitian Vodou, with its ritualistic animal parts and snakeskin, whereas "Spiritcatcher" (19761977), with its spiral structure and found objects, recalls Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, which Saar had visited as a child.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Saar continued to create assemblage boxes and collages while also experimenting with room-sized installations. As always, she worked in materials culled and recycled from foreign markets, thrift shops, or her own personal history; she intended these "found treasures" to stir emotion and personal or collective memories in the viewer. Her "Mojotech" installation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1988) explored the relationship between technology and magic, creating hybrid altars out of high-tech elements like computer-system circuit boards as well as traditional religious objects.

Saar's work has been shown at numerous solo exhibitions, including the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York (1980); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1984); and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, Philadelphia (1987). Since 1983, she has been awarded several commissions to create installations for public sites in Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Miami. Saar won a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award in 1991, and she was one of the two artists chosen to represent the United States in the 1994 São Paulo Biennial in Brazil.

See also Art in the United States, Contemporary


Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The Appropriate Object. Buffalo, N.Y.: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1989.

Carpenter, Jane H., with Betye Saar. Betye Saar. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003.

Dallow, Jessica. "Reclaiming Histories: Betye and Alison Saar, Feminism, and the Representation of Black Womanhood." Feminist Studies 30, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 74.

Studio Museum in Harlem. Rituals: Betye Saar. New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1980.

tamara l. felton (1996)
Updated bibliography