Betye Saar, Oasis, 1984, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Zachary Balber.

Betye Saar, Oasis, 1984, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Zachary Balber.

Betye Saar

“Serious Moonlight” is a cerebral, deeply felt exhibition imaginatively curated by Stephanie Seidel. It is the first focused presentation of Betye Saar’s installations—made primarily in the 1980s and ’90s—since Lowery Stokes Sims’s staging of this work in “Resurrection: Site Installations, 1977 to 1987” at the Visual Arts Center at California State University, Fullerton, in 1988. The show here also marks the first East Coast presentation of this less-examined body of work. This revelatory period is full of secrets, offering new insights into Saar’s complexity and impact as an artist—expanding the story of her personal and political practice while demonstrating her ongoing importance to new generations of artists.

The exhibition space—cavernous and nearly empty apart from freestanding installation rooms with blank exterior walls—is illuminated with low spotlights, resulting in prominent shadows: The design choice sets the stage for what’s to come. In one room, Shadow Song, 1988, features suspended silk banners upon which appear painted abstractions of landscapes and the artist’s own shadow, based on photographs Saar took while traveling across the United States. Her umbral trace emphasizes dualities—between presence and absence, the individual and the collective—qualities immanent to the show itself. The wall label for this room features a quote from the artist: “The installations are autobiographical as I am participating yet I am elsewhere.” Such plays of invisibility and visibility—a refusal to cohere—are repeated throughout the exhibition. It feels like more than a motif: an intentional Conceptual strategy.

Created in memory of Saar’s mother, Wings of Morning, 1987–92, is made of branches and a strip of candy-colored neon tubing, an element that evokes the lights of a ’70s jukebox. Visitors are encouraged to leave behind an offering, and one encountered a range of gifts here, including dollar bills, doodles, and other bits of ephemera, such as a pin that reads INTELLIGENT MISCHIEF. This is no participatory gimmick, of course—the installation is a viscerally moving space for remembrance, an homage to the artist’s kin and the spiritual realm as intrinsic to the material world. According to Saar, such works “[reveal] the many layers of reality and [involve] the viewer beyond the physical domain.”

Oasis, 1984, the earliest work on view, features bulbous blown-glass orbs that look like giant marbles: pieces for a game of chance that are strewn across a sandy stage set. The installation features a sleek glowing neon graphic, one of several in the show. The sign decorates the wall behind a pink child’s chair placed on this large-scale diorama. Crowned in tiny birthday candles and dusted with dried blossoms, the chair emphasizes absence while rendering the beachy setting a narrative nonsite. This memorial to childhood asks us to question whether what we’re looking at is a mirage, a place of escape, a spiritual sanctuary, or all of the above.

Saar’s Brides of Bondage, 1998, the show’s centerpiece, explicitly references the horrors of the Middle Passage. It is made up of a suspended ivory wedding gown with a long train trailed by model ships bound by twine; each vessel sits atop a Brookes slave-ship diagram. The schematic documents feature illustrations of anonymous bodies being transported against their will. As emphasized by the sculpture’s positioning in the space (the phantom bride’s arms are outstretched toward the gallery windows), this work memorializes a gruesome past with a powerful symbolic lexicon.

Ghosts fill this nuanced, sensitively conceived show, which asks viewers to physically confront shadows of so many forms, systems, and selves. And Saar really does seem to work as a medium: as both a person who can commune with the dead and one who, above all else, is the most essential component—the life force, the animating spirit—of every work she makes. Her house is her studio, her studio is a home, and her art is a portal: to Saar herself, to healing, to the past, and to understanding how the past exists in the present.