Betye Saar: The Legends of “Black Girl’s Window,” on display at the Museum of Modern Art, presents a side of the artist I had not yet seen: her very first etchings, drawings, and early experiments with assemblage.
For the exhibition, a team of curators made the most of a recent museum acquisition of 42 works on paper by the artist. But considering MoMA’s failure to ever show an exhibition of Saar’s work, it made me wonder: at an institution of this size, what is the merit of an exhibition exploring the early years of an artist who has yet to be introduced to the museum’s public?
I should first acknowledge my self-identified status as a Betye Saar superfan: I have a tattooed rendition of her “Rainbow Mojo” (1972) on my right arm; “Black Girl’s Window” has been my phone lock screen for months. I have long adored her work — hungry for more.
At present, Saar’s work is a major component of the traveling Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, and simultaneously the centerpiece of two solo exhibitions: The Legends of “Black Girl’s Window” at MoMA and Call and Response at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. With a number of exhibitions in recent years gathering steam for the artist’s career, it seems universally agreed upon that Betye Saar’s present moment in the sun is long overdue.
The Legends of Black Girl’s Window makes clear that as an artist, 93-year-old Saar has been equal parts philosophical, mystical, and political since the nascence of her artistic career. At 40 years old, Saar began her foray into assemblage — the aggregation of objects into the shrine, totems, and sculptures that she is best known for — after a visit to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), where she first encountered the sculptures of Joseph Cornell. His artworks (which are also on view at MoMA as part of its inaugural rehang following a $450 million renovation) piece together paper, found objects, and gems into surreal cornucopias.
Already studied in design and graphics, Saar soon began to fasten her own fantastical dioramas in picture and window frames. She treated them as open portals into which she could build new, dimensional worlds out of objects with personal, spiritual, and historical charge. Saar finds great inspiration in her heritage, embedding tokens of her Black, Irish, and Native American ancestry alongside symbols of astrology and mysticism (the artist’s astrological sign, Leo, appears consistently throughout the exhibition), metaphysically juxtaposing the inner and the outer self, the earthly and the celestial.
A definitive presence in Saar’s work is the legacy of antiblackness; she names the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the stimulus for her political artworks. She utilizes mementos from Jim Crow in works like “Let Me Entertain You” (1972), to return autonomy to mammy and minstrel figures and re-envision them with a pro-Black message.
Inside The Legends of “Black Girl’s Window,” the lights are dimly lit, and the walls are painted the richest, deepest eggplant, a rich hue that calls to my mind Alice Walker’s familiar quote: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” The walls are mostly lined with petite drawings and etchings, haloed by cream mattes and framed by dark mahogany.
There is painstaking detail in her etchings; in the same way that each object and addition to her assemblages have charged value, her work has been pored over. You can still see her astrological, mystical sensibility in the earlier works, each retaining a sense of autobiography that offers insight into who she is: the consistent presence of lions, a symbol for Saar’s astrological sign; references to tarot and palmistry abound; motherhood is carefully considered. In one aquatint etching, “Les Enfants d’obscurité” (1961), she makes reference to Picasso’s ubiquitous “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), heralded as a canonical masterpiece of modernism. In curio boxes, the curators have gathered the objects with which she makes her prints, both found objects and originally crafted tools; it’s an interesting peek into her process. In the prints, all signs point to a creative breakthrough: “Black Girl’s Window.”
At the nucleus of the exhibition is the 1969 self-portrait from which the exhibition borrows its title, one of her earliest and most personally revealing assemblages. The star of the show, it sits in the middle of the small gallery space.
“It tells about my past, present, and future,” Saar once said. “Inside of each pane, I put something that I felt had to do with my life.”
Framed by a worn wooden window, nine small boxes create stages for nine small scenes: two young Black children embracing; stars and moons; an aged daguerreotype of Saar’s maternal grandmother; a lion. The silhouette of a woman with a close-cropped afro, a stand-in for Saar, peers out of a whispy curtain. Her eyes, made of a lenticular, shift and blink, oscillating between intimate and external. It’s all in the eyes; the shifting, gazing, reflecting eyes.
It’s tempting to not snap the window’s latch and let it all out; it hums with energy. This is an artwork that’s living. It has a soul in the most literal sense — each of Saar’s assemblages carries a bit of her. Many Black women — myself included — can see themselves in this work.
Entering disappointed, I walked out enthralled. Spending time with Saar’s early inner self revealed a great deal about her trajectory into genius. An avid fan of Saar’s work, I left the exhibition excited to know more about an artist I have closely followed. But for someone first approaching her oeuvre, it may not do the trick.
What I hope for Betye Saar, in her lifetime, is a retrospective with the depth and span of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry — traveling, expansive, and game-changing, something worthy of her life’s work. The Legends of “Black Girl’s Window” brings a specificity that is vital, and very wanted. But it is a prelude in dire and deserved need of an extensive follow-up. It feels lacking, or like a tipping point that should be hastily acted upon with a larger exhibition.
Betye Saar: The Legends of “Black Girl’s Window,” organized by Christophe Cherix and Esther Adler, with Ana Torok and Nectar Knuckles, continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 4, 2020.