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Saar, Betye - VM - Victoria Emily Jones

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.

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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 End2013. 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.

ArtWay Visual Meditation November 10, 2019