Betye Saar: The Alpha & The Omega
ArtWay Visual Meditation November 10, 2019
Betye Saar: The Alpha & The Omega: The Beginning & The End
Meditation in Blue
by Victoria Emily Jones
“Power gathering.” That’s how longtime Los Angeles artist Betye Saar describes her ritual scavenging for materials to use for her assemblages. “My work has to do with recycling,” she explains. “Each item I collect has a certain energy from its previous function that carries over into its new use” and that is intensified by its being combined with other items, whether on a small or large scale. The meaning of her works emerges, she says, only after she starts playing with and piecing together the various flea market, yard sale, and nature acquisitions in her studio—oftentimes not even until after the work is complete.
Such incremental revelation occurred with The Alpha & The Omega, a temporary room-size installation Saar created for the Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City, California, in 2013 (and re-created with variation in subsequent years in other locations). Saar started by collecting disparate teal objects, many of them aged, and assembling them together. Six distinct artworks emerged, all the color of sky and sea. These, she realized, could be arranged sequentially around a room to represent the human journey from birth to death, beginning to end. And here, the “end” can be read simultaneously as a new beginning, much like the moon cycles from new to waxing to full to waning and back to new—phases that are diagrammed above the doorway of the installation.
The journey starts with the Cradle of Dreams, an antique metal crib filled with glass balls and underlaid with dried hydrangeas.
The next stop is a pedestal on which is stacked a pile of three books, a glass box filled with bones, a globe, and a birdcage that contains a model ship and serves as perch to a black bird—an animal that appears frequently in Saar’s work as a symbol of Jim Crow. Titled The Challenges of Fate, this assemblage alludes to the histories and continued impact of slavery and racism in America.
A slavery reference also shows up in Mystic Window of Sky and Sea in the form of the much-copied Brookes slave ship diagram from eighteenth-century England, showing 454 enslaved Africans crammed together in the hull. Saar has set this print in the bottom register of the found window, where papered waves swell and tiny glass fish rest on the wooden sill. Above that is a row of alchemical diagrams: the Hand of the Mysteries (representing apotheosis, or the transformation of man into god, in Freemasonry) and a human body in which the relations of resonance between the seven planets and the seven chakras are outlined (taken from Johann Georg Gichtel’s 1703 Theosophia Practica). Such esoterica are found throughout Saar’s oeuvre, as she is attracted to diverse spiritualities while subscribing to no one system. In the top register of Mystic Window, suns, moons, planets, and stars (including a dried starfish!) swirl amid a dark blue sky. All around the composition, small metal charms—celestial bodies, an all-seeing eye, a flaming heart, a leaf—are affixed to the frame.
Flanking the window are two small shadowboxes: Sea, containing shells, and Sky, containing feathers. These three elements of the work form a sort of triptych and I read them as one. Saar said in her artist statement that their purpose is “to remind us we are surrounded and connected to nature with all its beauty & mystery.”
In the right corner of the room is a shelf lined with empty apothecary bottles, clocks, a bird and a fish, a foot and a hand, a mammy in a cage, and other tchotchkes. A washboard printed with the slave ship diagram is propped up against the back. The title is Objects, Obsessions, Obligations.
In the room’s center, two clocks face each other from the seats of chairs at opposite ends of a table. This is The Game of Time. Arranged in a grid on the tabletop, blue candles burn down to stubs, the wax dripping into the sand bed that contains this tableau. A contemporary memento mori.
Finally, suspended from the ceiling is the shell of a vintage canoe lit by neon, called Journey to Elsewhere. This vessel ushers the soul into the otherworld.
The six tableaux that comprise The Alpha & The Omega possess a formalist beauty that is a hallmark of Saar’s work. (Her training is in design, which gives her a good eye for arranging things.) Some have commented on the sadness of the room; others, its calm, soothing quality. Saar said she likes that it affects people differently. I see a mix of fragility, wonder, hope, pain, and feel an eagerness to open up to it all.
To view detail shots of the installation and to hear the artist’s interpretation, see this video.
Exhibition: Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window, through January 4, 2020 at MoMA, 11 West 53 Street, Manhattan, New York.
Betye Saar: The Alpha & The Omega: The Beginning & The End, 2013. Photos via Roberts Projects (previously Roberts & Tilton), https://www.robertsprojectsla.com/exhibitions/betye-saar6. The installation consists of the following:
Cradle of Dreams, 2013. Tableau: metal cradle with glass and dried hydrangea, 30½ × 44½ × 12¼ in.
The Challenges of Fate, 2013. Mixed media assemblage, 40 × 13 × 13 in.
Sea, 2013. Mixed media assemblage, 10 × 9 × 3¼ in.
Mystic Window of Sky and Sea, 2013. Mixed media assemblage, 32 × 16 in.
Sky, 2013. Mixed media assemblage, 10 × 9 × 3¼ in.
Objects, Obsessions, Obligations, 2013. Mixed media assemblage, 49 × 12 × 18 in.
The Game of Time, 2013. Mixed media assemblage, 30 × 68 × 20 in.
Journey to Elsewhere, 2013. Vintage canoe with neon, 43 × 161 × 16 in.
Betye Saar (born 1926) is a major American artist best known for her assemblages that link the political, the personal, and the spiritual, which she crafts from beads, old photographs, antique memorabilia, advertisements, window frames, and other found materials. A self-described “seeker of sanctified visions,” she is interested in the ancient civilizations of Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas and in astrology, palmistry, phrenology, and the occult, elements of which she often incorporates into her work. Ritual, ancestry, memory, and identity are key themes, especially as relates to her own multiracial heritage as African American, Irish, and Native American. Since the 1960s she has been collecting derogatory images of African Americans from popular culture and reclaiming them—most famously in The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). Her daughters, Alison Saar and Lezley Saar, are also artists. http://www.betyesaar.net/
Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org. Her educational background is in journalism, English literature, and music, but her current research focuses on ways in which the visual arts can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. She serves on the board of the Eliot Society, a DC-based nonprofit that fosters discussions about the role of the arts in the life of the church, and is a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture, an online biblical art project led by King’s College London.
ON THE WEBSITE NEW ON THE WEBSITE NEWS
1. NEW BOOK – W. David O. Taylor, Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts, Eerdmans, 2019. How do the arts in worship form individuals and communities? Glimpses of the New Creation argues that the arts form us in worship by bringing us into intentional and intensive participation in the aesthetic aspect of our humanity. In so doing they invite the people of God to be conformed to Christ and to participate in the praise of Christ and in the praise of creation, which by the Spirit’s power raises its peculiar voice to the Father in heaven, for the sake of the world that God so loves. https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/7609/glimpses-of-the-new-creation.aspx
2. PRE-RAPHEALITE SISTERS IN LONDON - 17 October – 26 January 2020, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London: Pre-Raphealite Sisters. This major exhibition is the first-ever to focus on the untold story of the women of Pre-Raphaelite art. 160 years after the first pictures were exhibited by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1849, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, explores the overlooked contribution of twelve women to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including Evelyn de Morgan, Effie Millais(nee Gray), Elizabeth Siddal and Joanna Wells (nee Boyce), an artist whose work has been largely omitted from the history of the movement. Featuring new discoveries and unseen works from public and private collections across the world, the exhibition reveals the women behind the pictures. Through paintings, photographs, manuscripts and personal items, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters explores the significant roles they played as artists, models, muses and helpmeets who supported and sustained the artistic output of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hours: https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/pre-raphaelite-sisters/exhibition/
3. LECTURE ALASTAIR GORDON IN LONDON – 16 November, 19.30 h, LICC, St Peter’s Vere Street, London: LIGHTHOUSE CAFÉ CLUB: “Just Make Some Bad Paintings!” Hosted by Artist/Producer and long time ACG member Pat Harvey, we welcome our special guest artist Alastair Gordon for an enlightening evening of conversation and conjecture. Alastair is a painter whose work has been exhibited in the UK and abroad, including in the USA and China. He is also director of Morphe Arts and tutor at Leith School of Art, Edinburgh. Book via Eventbrite.
4. GLEN WORKSHOP 2020 - 26 July 2020 – 1 August 2020, St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico: Glen Workshop. Whether you’re a longtime Glen Workshop attendee or you’re hearing of it for the first time, Image invites for a week that will leave its mark on your creative work, spiritual journey, and friendships for years to come. At the Glen, daily morning workshops offer artists at all skill levels opportunities to develop their craft in a wide variety of genres with acclaimed faculty. Meanwhile, morning seminars offer substantive conversation and engagement with art, mystery, and faith. https://imagejournal.org/glenworkshop-2020/
5. GERMANY – 15 February 2020, 11 – 21 U, Studienhaus der EKKW, Lutherischer Kirchhof 3, Marburg: Studientag „Neuer Kirchenbau seit 2000 in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz“. Veranstalter: EKD-Institut für Kirchenbau in Marburg. Eine Seminarveranstaltung im WiSe 2019/20 hat eine Auswahl von neuen Kirchen im Blick auf die sozialen und imaginativen Prozesse analysiert. Gesucht wurde nach dem Bild von Kirche bei Bauherren und bei Architekten. Hintergrund ist die Hypothese, dass Vorstellungen von Kirche wesentlich von den Sinnbildern der Architektur geprägt werden. Wir wollen herausfinden, ob es Innovationen gibt oder zumindest innovative Varianten bereits etablierter Bilder. Und was könnte ein zeitgenössisches Bild von Kirche im geistlichen Sinn sein? Anmeldung: email@example.com. Begrenzte Teilnehmerzahl!
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Other recent meditations:
- December 2019: Samuel Buri: Wunderbar, Rat, Kraft
- November 2019: Rembrandt: The Adoration of the Shepherds
- November 2019: Arent Weevers: Triptych
- November 2019: Murillo: The Birth of St. John the Baptist
For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists