- Keeping Time in the Hands of Betye Saar: Betye Saar: Still Tickin’
Betye Saar: Still Tickin’ is a retrospective surveying sixty years of assemblage, mixed media, and installation art by the Los Angeles–based artist Betye Saar (b. 1926). Originating at Museum De Domijnen (formerly the Museum Het Domein) in Sittard, the Netherlands, Saar’s first solo exhibition in Europe is her second career retrospective in the United States. Saar, born in Los Angeles, is a veritable doyenne of American art: she is one of the first black female sculptors to gain national recognition and most famously played a major role in the growth of West Coast assemblage in the 1960s.1 Assemblage describes the technique of combining natural or manufactured materials with traditionally nonartistic media like found objects into three-dimensional constructions.2 So named in the mid-twentieth century by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, assemblage challenged the conventions of what constituted sculpture and, more broadly, the work of art itself. Saar was one of the only women in the company of artists like George Herms, Ed Kienholz, and Bruce Conner who combined worn, discarded remnants of consumer culture into material meditations on life and death. Like them, Saar honors the energy of used objects, but she more specifically crafts racially marked objects and elements of visual culture—namely, black collectibles, or racist tchotchkes—into a personal vocabulary of visual politics. She uses material display to remind viewers that these things are not relics but in fact everyday objects. By mining the infinite depth of meaning embedded in a mammy salt shaker or a caricature-laden piece of sheet music, Saar’s assemblages become ciphers for the discursive and political spaces that shape black consciousness [End Page 1081] and culture. As charged environments structured by the material embodiments of racism, they are microcosmic metaphors for the broader mechanisms of controlling race through space and matter.3
Saar’s multifaceted creative training laid a foundation for her assemblage practice: after graduating from UCLA in 1947 with a BA in design, she became a social worker, then went into a small enamelware business with the artist and fabric designer Curtis Tann, designed costumes for the theater, and began making art full-time in the mid-1960s in printmaking and collage.4 A child of the Depression, she was an avid collector of objects and ephemera who constantly made and repaired things; this tendency naturally informed her turn to assemblage in the late 1960s. In 1962 Saar moved to Laurel Canyon, a bohemian enclave of artists, jazz and folk musicians, and writers associated with New Age counterculture.5 New Age belief systems had a major influence on West Coast assemblage, which was characterized by a concern with metaphysics and informed by shamanism, the occult, non-Western ritual practices, and Eastern philosophy.6 Facing a lack of on-the-ground economic support, assemblage artists used impoverished materials out of necessity, writes the art historian Thomas Crow, “recycling the discards of postwar affluence into defiantly deviant reconfigurations.”7 While assemblage, more broadly, conveyed a commitment to alternative ways of thinking and feeling in resistance to post–World War II American consumer culture and social conformity, West Coast assemblage distinguished itself from that of the East Coast by emphasizing content over the work’s formal qualities.8
For Saar, the process of physical transformation central to assemblage means not only the sculptural manipulation of materials but also the extraction of stuff from the world: she finds her materials at flea markets, junk shops, and antique stores, literally removing them from the circuitry of economic exchange, or in the words of Jane Carpenter, “skimming offensive objects from the stream of everyday life.”9 In doing so, Saar invariably alters the meaning and currency of the stereotype as a unit of cultural purchase. The production of images and material goods that compressed...