As this exhibition’s title proclaims, the Saars – Betye, Alison and Lezley – are legends. So, it’s odd that so little of the work on which those legends rest appears in Legends from Los Angeles. Comprised chiefly of works on paper, all from the Crocker’s collection, it gives short shrift to the assemblages for which Betye is known and the sculptures on which Alison built her reputation. The inclusion of only two works by Lezley Saar doesn’t exactly make a case for her inclusion in the pantheon. For that, you’ll need to look further afield. Still, the exhibition, which unfolds along a corridor in between two larger exhibits, feels like a laser beam aimed at what has long been the Saars’ primary target: the inequities that have long afflicted Black Americans.
Betye, the clan’s matriarch, now 94, hit her stride in the 1960s by weaponizing racist artifacts. In The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), an assemblage that helped cement her reputation, the artist recast the familiar mammy archetype as a warrior: a broom in one hand, a rifle in the other. It was widely seen as a feminist riposte to a popular Black Panther poster from the same period in which party co-founder Huey P. Newton appeared in a similar gun-toting pose. Equally hard-hitting assemblages, collages, sculptures and installations followed and continue to this day. Alison, the youngest of the two sisters at 65, makes sculptures that dismantle the same stereotypes using African and European myths as jumping-off points.
Of the three, it’s Betye Saar whose legend looms largest. Born to a bi-racial couple and raised middle-class in Pasadena, she began her career as a graphic designer at a time when black artists – never mind Black female artists — had almost no exhibition venues available to them. Pivotal events included her father’s death when she was six, seeing Simon Rodia work on Watts Towers and viewing two exhibitions: a Joseph Cornell retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum and a show of Oceanic, African and Native American artifacts at the Field Museum in Chicago. The Civil Rights movement, the Watts riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the writings of Arthur Rubin, a scholar of African art and ritual, also profoundly influenced her thinking. But it’s her father’s demise that seems most relevant to this show.
As a child, Betye was said to possess clairvoyant abilities. After her father died, those traits disappeared only to reappear later – manifesting as an ability to perceive a life force in the objects she gathered from flea markets, thrift stores and yard sales. These she combined to transformative and sometimes explosive effect, often with references to astrology, tarot, palmistry, phrenology and other metaphysical practices. Though 3-D objects and other such signifiers make only cameo appearances in the exhibition, Saar proves herself more than capable of summoning ghosts from works executed on paper.
The best example is a 1998 serigraph whose central image is a slave woman washing clothes. It’s superimposed on another image, that of a metal washboard. Though the draped-in-white figure is vividly rendered, we see her through what looks like a scrim: a visual metaphor, you could say, for the fog of forgotten or distorted history. Three bits of text clarify. The first two read: “National racism” and “Liberate Aunt Jemima.” The last, which doubles as the title, delivers a knockout punch: “We was mostly ‘bout survival.”
The show’s real center of gravity, though, rests with a 2000 series called Six Serigraphs: Bookmarks in the Pages of Life, wherein the elder Saar interprets stories by Zora Neale Hurston. Along with superbly informative wall texts penned by Associate Curator Jayme Yahr, they offer telescopic views of Black American history and folklore. Mother Catherine, based on Hurston’s 1934 story of the same title, tells the real-life story of Mother Catherine Seals, a New Orleans spiritualist whom the author described as looking like “the matriarchal ruler of some nomadic tribe.” Saar’s rendering of her hews closely to that description, and it casts a spell. Now You Cookin’ with Gas, based on the working title of a piece Hurston published in 1942, tells of a pimp named Jelly. Saar depicts him zoot-suited and affecting gangster “lean” against a backdrop of brownstones. It calls out for a period-correct soundtrack. Harlem Nocturn? Harlem Airshaft? Either would do.
Alison’s portfolio of eight linocuts, all about jazz during the Harlem Renaissance, expands on that theme. It’s titled Copacetic, but the individual pieces, owing to colored incisions carved into the linoleum plates from which the prints were made, burn hot. Several look like they’re on fire. One in particular that I’m pretty certain portrays alto saxophonist and vocalist Vi Redd shows smoke wafting from her horn. Look into the plume as it floats upward and you’ll see a female body ascending. It’s more than just a smoke signal. The number of female instrumentalists who held sway in jazz before the mid-1990s you can count on the fingers of one hand. The situation has since changed, but only marginally: men still dominate. Shebop, as the piece is called, imagines a different future.
As for attacks on systemic racism, the Saars’ forte, Alison’s sculpture, Hades D.W.P. II (2016) aptly summarizes the Flint, Michigan disaster with five jugs of “poisoned” water accompanied by ladles, each named for rivers of the underworld that in Greek mythology transported the dead into the afterlife. Of the two pieces of Lezley’s on view, I turned my back on the ocean (2009), is the one that commanded my attention. A Dadaist collage worthy of Hannah Höck, it shows a woman’s skeleton clad in Victorian clothing staring at the sea. It’s an omen of death, for sure. What else it might portend, we can only speculate.
Lest you leave Legends of Los Angeles thinking that it is just another example of a museum tripping over its shoelaces in an attempt to shore up its diversity scorecard, it’s worth noting that all 23 of the pieces in this exhibition belong to the Crocker. The oldest, Beyte Saar’s assemblage, Remember Friendship (1975), entered the collection the year it was made, a gift of The Links, Incorporated, a nonprofit organization founded by Black women. The larger point is that the Crocker has been acquiring and showing art from Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) for years with next to no fanfare. A recently compiled internal report shows 54 such exhibitions over the past 20 years. Included in that tally are major shows by Faith Ringggold (2018), Kara Walker (2013) and Betye Saar (2007), and as well as significant group shows of Black art, including The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art (2001), Material Differences: Art and Identity in Africa (2005); History, Labor Life: The Prints of Jacob Lawrence (2019); and African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil rights Era and Beyond (2014). For an institution that not too long ago declared itself “not a contemporary art museum,” the pendulum appears to be swinging increasingly toward the present.
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“Legends from Los Angeles: Betye, Lezley and Alison Saar” @ Crocker Art Museum through August 15, 2021.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.