BETYE SAAR: STILL TICKIN’
Scottsdale Contemporary Art Museum, Jan 30 – May 1, 2016, Scottsdale, Arizona
By Sandra Aska
“I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories,
fragments or relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology.
It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.”
“You know, you can make art out of anything!”
Those were the words Betye Saar said to me when I told her I had been in awe of her work since the 1960s.
We met at the opening of her exhibit at the Scottsdale Contemporary Art Museum. This exhibit is a fascinating journey through the fictional biographies of transplanted Africans and the transformation and assimilation of slaves into contemporary identities and the creation of a constantly evolving culture. A sweet and petite grandmotherly figure today, Betye Saar, an educator, print maker and installation artist, was born in Los Angeles in 1926, and, at age 90, is still making art and visualizing change.
She had an important early influence that set her path. Her grandmother lived in Watts and as a child Betye watched Simon Rodia building his Watts Towers, which to her, was an amazing, mystical, and magical place and the beginning of her life long interest in metaphysics and the occult. Also, she said, where she lived in Pasadena, they had gypsy conventions and her father would drive them to this big park where all these caravans and things were. She spoke about always having an interest in things outside of life as she knew it; and the difficulty of finding information on mysticism, magic, and witchcraft. Because it was the ‘60s, fascination with those ideas were just beginning and images she finally found in books were incorporated into her early work.
The Rosebowl Fleamarket and thrift shops in Pasadena were a source for items that spoke to her- bits and pieces of dolls, clocks, African masks, Tarot cards, bird cages, old photographs, crockadile skins and other ephemera started piling up in her studio. Photographs of family members, old linen handkerchiefs, personal letters, gloves, clothing and family memorabilia became part of her assembled art.
Some weeks after seeing the exhibit, I was in a contemporary Scottsdale gallery, and still excited about the show, and I asked the gallery owner in Scottsdale if she had seen the Saar’s exhibit and explained what it was about. The gallery owner replied with an emphasis that bore no challenge, “There should be no politics in art. ART is just art, if politics are involved it holds absolutely no interest for me.” Somewhat taken aback, I was not ready to debate the definition and philosophy of art with her, and simply made a polite retreat. Her idea of art had so many limitations that at least 95% of art through the ages would, to her mind, not be considered art as we see it today.
Bette Saar is an example of making art based on who she is, was, and is still becoming. Her way is a thoughtful and intuitive process based on things she knows to be true and important to her. She is telling her story.
The concept of what art is has changed with every generation and by the innovative artists in that generation. Betye Saar lived in a culturally rich and exciting time. This was a time of politics, action, and radical social change; a time charged with emotions and turmoil, tempored by art and intellect and the act of trying to make sense of things. Looking at her work today not only tells us her story, but keeps alive the stories of our shared history, be they harsh, cruel, sentimental, mysterious, beautiful, or loving. That is why Betye’s work and possibly your work will be important to future generations regardless of how art is defined. It matters not how or what we make in terms of art, or if we will be famous, but rather the brave and true act of recording our stories and leaving a message for future generations that can be informative, edifying, healing, and awe inspiring.
The Scottsdale Contemporary Art Center is gracious about photography, so all photographs are by the author. There are no titles. Betye did not want titles listed on the work and she prevailed.
- January 4, 2012 interview with Juvenio L. Guerra in the Getty newsletter iris
- Click on the link to see Betye talk about the Liberation of Aunt Jemima on You Tube