‘It’s About Time!’ Betye Saar’s Long Climb to the Summit

‘It’s About Time!’ Betye Saar’s Long Climb to the Summit

By the mid-60s, pushing hard against the conventional boundaries of the medium, she came up with new display formats. She began placing different prints, sometimes with drawings and photographs, in thick wood frames made from repurposed window sashes. “Black Girl’s Window” is an example. It’s as much about sculpture as printmaking. It’s a self-portrait as an altarpiece.

In 1967, she saw an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages and with that experience she turned the corner. She started making assemblages of her own.

Her learning continued to expand. A 1970 visit to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, in the company of a fellow Los Angeles artist, David Hammons, introduced her to the charisma of African and Oceanic art — ritual-intensive, spiritually empowered. It also delivered a lesson in cultural politics: Most of this “primitive” art was installed, as if in storage, in the museum’s basement. Nobody was looking at it.

“Back then,” she says, “even black Americans were sort of ashamed of African art.” But what others rejected, she embraced: the art’s use of organic matter — feathers, skins, dirt, hair — and its empowering function. Her enthusiasm, which infused her art, had an impact.

“One of the things that gave her work importance for African-American artists, especially in the mid-70s, was the way it embraced the mystical and ritualistic aspects of African art and culture,” says the painter Kerry James Marshall, who took a collage course with Ms. Saar at Otis College of Art and Design in the late 1970s. “Her art really embodied the longing for a connection to ancestral legacies and alternative belief systems — specifically African belief systems — fueling the Black Arts Movement.”

She started traveling — to Bali, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal — always foraging for objects and images, and particularly attracted to those with devotional associations. “Wherever I went, I’d go to religious stores to see what they had,” she says.

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