A Life in Fragments

The Eloquence of Betye Saar's Art Assemblages

Betye Saar's exhibition "Personal Icons" is filled with beautiful, carefully crafted and crisply presented assemblages, in which the artist recontextualizes found objects and fragments from her own life to tell a new story. Wandering through Women & Their Work Gallery (W&TW), it is easy to spot the familiar object -- a Mah-Jongg tile, silver milagro, a brocade fabric -- in each small, self-contained work. Who doesn't have similar "stuff" stashed in a drawer waiting for just the right use? But Saar converts the ordinary into art and by building small, altar-like objects, transforms art into magic. She has infused this exhibition with enough magic to transform the nastiest anti-art frog into an art-loving prince if only he will pucker up for a kiss.

Saar collects the materials she uses in her assemblages from friends, flea markets, and through an exchange with her daughters Alison and Lezley, both artists. "They were raised to be junkies," she giggles, meaning that she taught the girls well about collecting and finding value in all manner of unlikely objects. Her youngest daughter, Tracye, is a writer and photographer. When she speaks of her daughters or of her grandchildren, all of whom live, as she does, in California, the artist is especially animated and forthcoming. She shows pictures from her wallet like any grandma. Her manner -- and her work -- reflect pride in past, present, and future generations.

In 1991, Saar and her daughter Alison exhibited together at a Laguna Gloria Art Museum exhibition. While Alison's constructions are ragged-edged and raw and tend to be larger in scale than her mother's, both mother and daughter's works make use of found objects. It is not hard to imagine where some of their inspiration came from. In the catalog for the show is a picture of the two standing in front of Los Angeles' Watts Towers, built by Simon Rodia. Saar says she watched Rodia construct his fantastic environment when she was little, walking through the neighborhood on her way to and from school. Later, she returned with her daughters. How could an artist not be inspired by the magical towers with ceramic flotsam and jetsam embedded in their crudely formed walls? How could she not be taken with the mystery and spirit of the immigrant who came to this country, built a treasure, then returned to obscurity in his home in Italy?

Saar is something of a mystery herself. She is 70 years old, a small bundle of compressed energy with alizarin crimson hair wrapped in a patterned scarf and a pale, loose-fitting pants suit. When I meet her in the W&TW offices, the artist has just arrived from the East Coast, and we talk as she eats a quick lunch amidst the usual pre-opening hubbub. In an hour, she will be driven to a radio station for an interview, then returned to the gallery for a lecture prior to the opening of her show. How she manages a schedule that many younger women would be hard-pressed to keep is a puzzle. Still, on she goes. After spending little more than 24 non-stop hours in Austin, she will return to Atlanta to complete an installation of her site-specific work for the Cultural Olympiad. She is making three "spirit chairs."

"Can you sit in them?" someone asks.

"Only if you're a spirit," she replies.

Much of Saar's work deals with spiritual matters, with "curiosity about the mystical," according to the artist's statement. She has incorporated into her recent work ideas from Ajit Mookerjee's book Tantra Art: Its Philosophy and Physics, fusing spirituality with scientific method. This seems a natural direction for Saar, who has often used computer boards and chips in her constructions. Her investigation of tantric art has led to works that blend symmetry, simple geometric forms, and a limited palette in constructions which feature painted surfaces and snippets of photographs she has taken.

In addition to exploring things metaphysical, Saar frequently explores the multi-racial and multicultural:

My roots are tangled.

My unknown ancestors from

Africa, Ireland, and America

have blurred the boundaries.

I cannot recall the lost legends of

forgotten tribes nor revive

the rituals of fragmented cultures.

A blend of black, white, and red,

I am labeled Creole, mulatto, mixed,

colored in every sense.

Enslaved by the `one-drop-rule'

But liberated by the truth

that all blood is red.

In the past, Saar has used old photographs and objects belonging to deceased family members to depict her richly textured heritage. She has also appropriated negative black stereotypes such as Aunt Jemima to represent her own point of view. "Things haven't changed that much," she says, commenting on the recent burning of black Southern churches. New "political" assemblages-in-progress, again including Aunt Jemima, wait for her in the studio.

Above all, the artist is concerned with beauty. "Beauty is a great seducer," she says. Saar seduces through the use of beautiful images and by writing poetic passages which occasionally become part of the art itself. They are always effectively incorporated into exhibition catalogs that document her work.

Saar chooses to exhibit primarily in alternative spaces like W&TW and museums across the country. She markets her own work and shies away from the "elitist attitude" in the art world which, she says, distorts the process of making and collecting art. Still, her career sparkles with attention received from the powers that be: two National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants, a Guggenheim, and a J. Paul Getty Fund for the Visual Arts Fellowship. "When I got my first NEA in 1974, I looked in the mirror and said `I'm an artist!'" she reports. "Before that, I just said, `I make things.'"

In August of 1994, Saar had a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy. "If you were on a desert island, could you still be an artist?" Saar says she asked herself before the trip. Bellagio was hardly a desert island, but the artist limited the materials she took with her to a couple of cameras, small sketchbooks, and some watercolor paints, although she says she is not a painter. "I use paint to embellish objects."

Saar was eager to see if she could find new bits and pieces of inspiration in that place to enhance her work. Evidence of her success may be seen in three pieces in the "Personal Icons" exhibition: Green Vision at the Villa, Blue Vision at the Villa, and Red Vision at the Villa. The works aren't literal renderings of place, but moody references to its history and elegance. According to Lizzeta LeFalle-Collins, curator of the exhibition, the Bellagio-inspired work "exudes the climate and terrain of the Mediterranean Sea... a sense of discovery of a lost treasure or civilization."

Unfortunately, the power of Saar's images and words doesn't translate into a scintillating presentation to a crowded gallery in Austin. The artist shows her slides (twice!), all the while reading from prepared notes. She solicits questions and takes a few, but her answers are terse; they don't encourage a comfortable dialogue about the work or provide insight. Around the periphery of artists and art aficionados, black students hunker down, stare at the screen, and listen respectfully. I hope she will engage them directly through her remarks, but it doesn't happen. None of her earlier, politically charged comments on the burning of black churches or the treatment of black women artists in New York emerge. By the end of the hour, there is palpable relief as the screen is removed and the chairs are gathered up. Cooled by the motion of other bodies on their way out the door, many people remain to study the art and to read the artist's statement printed on the wall:


about the unknown

has no boundaries.

Symbols, images, places, and cultures merge.

Time slips away.

The stars, the cards, the mystic vigil

may hold the answers.

By shifting the point of view,

an inner spirit is released

free to create.

In the end, the grace and eloquence of the artist's assemblages and the written word have to stand alone. Fortunately, this is not difficult. n "Betye Saar/Personal Icons" runs at Women & Their Work Gallery through August 10.

Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.

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