Los Angeles

Betye Saar, The Destiny of Latitude & Longitude, 2010, mixed media, 54 × 43 × 20 1/2".

Betye Saar, The Destiny of Latitude & Longitude, 2010, mixed media, 54 × 43 × 20 1/2".

Betye Saar

Roberts Projects

Betye Saar, The Destiny of Latitude & Longitude, 2010, mixed media, 54 × 43 × 20 1/2".

Institutional interest in Betye Saar’s work, particularly her groundbreaking assemblages from the late 1960s and ’70s, has never been greater: Within the past year and a half, the Black Arts Movement veteran has had retrospectives at the De Domijnen in the Netherlands and the Fondazione Prada in Milan, and has participated in group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Modern Art, all in New York, as well as at the newly inaugurated Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Saar has noted the formative experiences of watching Simon Rodia at work on the steel-and-mosaic structures of his monumental (and now landmarked) Watts Towers when she was visiting her grandmother, who lived in this Los Angeles neighborhood in the 1950s, and of viewing a 1967 survey of Joseph Cornell’s work at the Pasadena Art Museum. Like Rodia’s and Cornell’s, Saar’s method for making artworks relies on the habitual collection and imaginative juxtaposition of secondhand images and objects. Unlike those artists, however, she became politicized after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and her works, which frequently feature pieces of racialized kitsch and memorabilia, have been infused with a racial politics ever since.

Saar’s overview exhibition at Roberts & Tilton of artworks from 1964 to 2016 skewed toward her more recent work (about two-thirds of the twenty-eight pieces included were made in the past decade and a half), providing some insight into the greater trajectory of her practice. The exhibition was organized not chronologically but thematically into two sections: “Black White,” which opened in the gallery’s smaller project room this past September, and “Blend,” which opened in its main exhibition space the following month. The sculptural assemblages and mixed-media collages in “Black White” mostly took on the show’s titular palette. The room was painted and carpeted in those same stark, racially charged opposite hues—a strategy that enhanced the visual contrast between artworks, such as the ivory cage and other light-colored objects in The Game of Chance, 2016, and the dark Art Deco–esque stacked forms of Heartbreak Hotel, 2016, which are topped with the wide-eyed face of a mammy figurine.

In “Blend,” the works took on a larger scale and delved into murkier terrains of historical memory and spirituality. In The Destiny of Latitude & Longitude, 2010, two gray, fully rigged model sailboats appear in a four-and-a-half-foot-tall wire-mesh cage, one ship seemingly suspended in midair and the other floating in a wavy mess of silvery human hair on the cage’s floor. Also caught within this sea of hair is a miniature globe positioned at an angle to show the Atlantic Ocean framed by the Americas, Europe, and the African continent. The wire shapes of outstretched hands and a braid of hair ornament the sides of the cage, while a small, dark bird ominously perches near its top, crowning this dreamlike evocation of the terrors of the Middle Passage. In Serving Time, 2010, three grinning Gollywog-like figures wearing black suits and white gloves are imprisoned within a small cage from which tiny locks and rings of keys are strung, creating an image that is both grotesquely ludicrous and poignant. In Mojotech, 1987, green circuit boards, transistors, splayed clusters of copper wire, and other bits of electronic debris are attached alongside shrunken plastic skeletons, crucifixes, hearts, charms, amulets, mirrors, and voodoo symbols in symmetrical arrangements on a seven-panel, twenty-four-and-a-half-foot-long altar. (Saar created the work during a residency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Here the occult collides with the technological, mortality with obsolescence. As Saar’s search for the metaphysical and universal has deepened, her earlier militancy—exemplified by works like the now-iconic Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972—seems to have been tempered. Critical examinations of race in relation to socioeconomic class and contemporary stereotypes of black bodies and culture (as in the acerbic art of David Hammons, for example) are largely absent from these works. Yet, although her vocabulary of forms has become more familiar and predictable over the years, her surrealistic assemblages still retain an element of shock, insistently and effectively disrupting the fantasy of a “post-racial” America with remnants from the country’s racist past.

Kavior Moon