Saar, Alison 1956–
Alison Saar 1956–
Summing up her art for a 1993 profile in Essence magazine, Alison Saar offered the words “refined savagery.” The description aptly evoked the union of opposites so often achieved in Saar’s works. Of multiracial heritage, Saar tackled both spiritual and political themes. Her patchwork sculptures, often covered in metal or brightly painted, have the feel of folk art, yet their solid elegance of form links them with the traditions of sculpture in Europe and the ancient world. Deeply influenced by African religion, Saar also produced striking works with Christian subjects. Saar’s “refined savagery” ranged widely, yet left the viewer impressed with the artist’s sense of herself as an individual.
Alison Saar is the daughter of another famous artist, the sculptor and installation artist Betye Saar. Mother and daughter share various tendencies in their work, including a fondness for found objects and materials like wood and sheet metal scraps, and an impulse toward distinctively African American forms of religious expression. Yet Alison attracted notice in her own right when her style diverged from that of her mother. She constructed large human figures which stood in strong contrast to Betye’s typical productions: boxes and free-standing structures filled with an engaging variety of objects and designs. The two artists have collaborated on several projects, most notably on a 1990 joint exhibition, “Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar.”
Born in Los Angeles on February 5, 1956, Alison Saar was raised in an artistic environment created by both her parents. Much has been made of the influence of her mother—African, Native American, and Irish in ancestry—who gave her clay to play with and took her to see Simon Rodia’s folk-art towers in the Watts neighborhood. Saar herself, however, also pointed to the impact of her father, Richard, a white art conservator and writer who took her to museums and asked her to help out in his workshop. It was through working with her father that Saar began to learn about different materials and about the art of various cultures. She also began to carve wood.
Saar enrolled at Scripps College in Claremont, California, outside Los Angeles, receiving her B.A. in 1978. She studied with Samella Lewis, a prominent black art historian, and wrote her senior thesis on African-American folk art. Saar moved on to the Master of Fine Arts program at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and it was in the final stages of her studies there that she began to forge a style independent of her mother’s. Shortly before her thesis exhibition—a major scholastic hurdle during which a student received the most important evaluations of his or her work—she discarded the works she had planned to display, and, as curator Elizabeth Shepherd in the Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar catalogue later put it, “rapidly produced a group of robust and coarsely carved sculptures inspired by her studies of folk art and her desire to make art she herself would want to own.”
Born February 5, 1956, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Richard Saar (an art conservator and writer) and Betye Saar (a noted sculptor and installation artist). Education: Scripps College, Claremont, California, B.A., 1978; Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, M.F.A, 1981; Religion: Unitarian.
Noted sculptor, early 1980s-. Also worked extensively in other media. Exhibited work widely. Created large sculptures that addressed religious and historical themes, focusing on African American and African cultures. Installation of 1995, Slow Boat, and other works of the 1990s included participation by viewers.
Awards and honors: Work Skin Deep included in the prestigious Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, 1993. Had work acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other important American museums. Received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1985 and 1988, and from the Guggenheim Foundation, 1989.
Addresses: c/o Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Although she produced works in other media, including drawings and frescoes, most of Saar’s mature works are sizable sculptures of single African American figures, often carved from wood and partly assembled from discarded or commonplace materials such as tin. The patchwork (or “assemblage”) technique and Saar’s use of bold colors—particularly red, green, indigo, and yellow—suggested a folk art style. Her treatment of the human form has also been marked, though, by an orientation toward European sculpture noted in a New York Times review of a 1995 exhibition, but forecasted years before by Saar herself in an interview with Judith Wilson in the Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar catalogue: “[I]f you look at one of the earliest pieces and then at the way they are now... [my sculptures are] actually getting much more classical in their stances than they used to be.”
Much of Saar’s work has a religious aspect. Saar told Wilson that she attributed her spiritual nature to her upbringing in the Unitarian church: “The whole idea was there’s always something, some sort of spirit power out there.” Some of her sculptures depicted African or Afro-Caribbean religious figures such as shamans or preachers, and she constructed pieces that evoke altars and icons. Saar created appealing images of mythological figures that suggest a nature-centered spirituality: a blue-eyed 1986 “Snake Charmer” holds a green snake crosswise in his teeth. Although many of her works deal with African or Afro-Caribbean religion, Saar freely turned to Christian subjects as well, and in doing so she partakes of a mixture with deep roots in African American religious communities. A 1988 rendering of Lazarus, with rhinestones for wounds, carried overtones of the AIDS epidemic and of the lesions that afflict those suffering from the disease.
In addition to religion and myth, Saar addressed black culture and history more generally, and there is a political tinge to her work at times. Several pieces dealt with racism among blacks based on skin tone, and she told Essence that “Skin Deep,” an embossed-tin human skin hanging on a wall at the prestigious 1993 Biennial exhibition mounted by the Whitney Museum in New York City, was inspired by the beating of Rodney King at the hands of members of the Los Angeles Police Department. One of Saar’s most powerful political works was “Jesse Owens 1936,” first exhibited in Los Angeles in 1986. In this sculpture, the famous black Olympic athlete is shown pedaling a wheel mounted on the end of a long stick with a handle, slave to a contraption resembling a child’s toy and covered with scraps of an old tape measure. Saar evoked the exploitation of black athletes in a sharp, unsentimental way.
A measure of Saar’s depth as an artist is that she has often succeeded in bringing together the spiritual and historical sides of her art. “Terra Rosa” is a life-sized sculpture of pregnant woman, seated, with dirt spilling out of her open mouth. The work may refer to the practice of dirt-eating once prevalent among rural southern blacks, but also suggested a ritual celebration of fertility. Several of the human figures in the artist’s recent works open to reveal an inner cavity holding some “secret desire, power, or spiritual wound,” in the words of Patricia Mathews quoted in the North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century A 1996 sculptural realization of a lynched woman evoked by Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” contained an old keyhole embedded in the figure’s stomach.
Saar in the 1990s often included participatory elements in her works. “Slow Boat,” a 1992 sculpture installation mounted at the Whitney Museum’s gallery at the Philip Morris corporate offices, featured a pair of wings that viewers could put on and a boat into which a life-size human-shaped indentation had been carved; viewers could lie in the boat and look up at a door mounted on the ceiling. The work addressed the idea of the journey of the soul after death without referring to any specific religion.
Although they may be serious and mysterious, Alison Saar’s sculptures are lively and often animated by wit. Puns abound among the titles of her works, and their busy surfaces, festooned with glass, plastic flowers, and all kinds of other small objects, bespeak resilience and a love of the everyday. Saar’s reputation has risen ever since her move to New York City in 1983. She has received numerous financial grants, and her works reside in the permanent collections of several important museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Jesse Owens 1936,” exhibited in 1986.
“Snake Charmer,” 1986.
“Slow Boat,” 1992.
“Skin Deep,” exhibited in 1993.
“Terra Rosa,” 1993.
North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century, edited by Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller, Garland Press, 1995.
Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar, exhibition catalogue edited by Elizabeth Shepherd, Wight Art Gallery, University of California at Los Angeles, 1990.
Art in America, December 1992, p. 119.
Art News, January 1986, p. 109; April 1990, p. 176.
Essence, September 1993, p. 54.
New York Times, October 27, 1995, p. C25.
—James M. Manheim
The visual artist Alison Saar was raised in Los Angeles during the 1960s and early 1970s. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she majored in studio art and art history. After graduating from Scripps in 1978, she earned an M.F.A. from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Since her 1981 thesis show at Otis, Saar has been creating sculptures, installations, and other mixed-media works that have been widely shown, extensively collected, and justly praised. Her artwork is characterized by its range of influences and the use of recycled materials.
Saar's mother, the artist Betye Saar, has been a major influence. In particular, her mother's interests in mysticism, ritual, and the occult, as well as African and black diasporic artistic practices, have been central to the direction of Saar's art. In addition her father, Richard Saar, in his work as a conservator, brought her into contact with arts and artifacts from all over the globe, including Chinese frescoes, Egyptian mummies, and pre-Columbian and African art. In fact, it was an apprenticeship with her father that led to her sculpting—she learned to carve in order to restore art. At Scripps College, Alison Saar studied African, Haitian, and Afro-Cuban art with the art historian Samella Lewis, and she wrote her undergraduate thesis on African-American folk art. In addition, her interest in African influences on the art of the black diaspora parallels the work of the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, and she acknowledges his research as a source of inspiration.
Since the creation of her first mixed-media sculpture in 1981, Saar has consistently grappled visually with black diasporic history and culture. Her first sculpture, Si j'étais blanc (If I Were White), takes as its theme a Josephine Baker song about inequality. This carved figurative sculpture depicts a young black boy seated in a bright red chair. Suggesting the horror of Baker's lament, the artist portrays the boy with an open chest filled with shards of glass. Drawing from black diasporic practices, this filled cavity evokes figurative Kongo minkisi (sing. nkisi ), traditional sacred objects from the Congo-Angola region used to effect change. Similarly, the boy's legs are made of cement and embedded with fragments of blue and white tile. Glass and tile have both been found at Kongo-inspired gravesites and yards in the United States, and both materials are also "found objects," typical of the materials used by the black folk artists Saar admires.
While conducting research for her undergraduate thesis, Saar came to admire the way informally trained artists
often work with abandoned materials. This admiration is evident in her art. Working with found materials such as old floor beams, pressed ceiling tin, rusty nails, iron skillets, linoleum sheeting, and broken glass, Saar recycles and reuses discarded objects for their evocative power and energy. By using previously used objects to explore vital themes of ritual, myth, magic, mystery, and healing, Alison Saar creates artwork powerfully infused with themes of the black diaspora.
Saar has received numerous awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her work has also been collected by major art museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Walker Art Center, and The High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
Collins, Lisa Gail. The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Shepherd, Elizabeth, ed. Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: the Art of Betye and Alison Saar. Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, University of California, 1990.
lisa gail collins (2005)