She grew up in Los Angeles and nearby Pasadena, where her mother moved when Saar was 5, after her father’s death from kidney failure. Her mother, who worked as a seamstress, was resourceful at home, often providing for her children’s needs by recycling scraps of discarded materials.
Saar is similarly resourceful. Fascinated by the secret rapport between disparate fragments of the physical world, she finds most of her materials at flea markets (also known as swap meets) and secondhand stores. Her modestly scaled assemblages address racism and female labor with excoriating intensity and moody finesse.
But they also vibrate with spiritual yearning. Imagine shooting the breeze with a cackling, clearsighted cynic who suddenly leans in, lowers her voice and describes the state of your soul in improvised rhyming couplets. That’s Betye Saar.
The New York show, drawn from MoMA’s permanent collection, focuses on a famous early work, “Black Girl’s Window.” Visually spare but dense with chiming symbol, it was made in 1969 after Saar found an empty window frame while on vacation near Big Bear Lake, in San Bernardino County, Calif.
Saar filled the nine smaller squares of the frame’s upper half with prints, which she made by pressing different objects onto soft-ground-coated etching plates. The exhibit teases out meanings and formal affinities by hanging “Black Girl’s Window” in the company of Saar’s rarely seen prints from the ’60s.
The Los Angeles show is also about process — specifically, Saar’s sketchbooks. In glass vitrines in the center of the room, the curator, Carol Eliel, has displayed small, spiral-bound sketchbooks open to the drawings (rough diagrams, really) that relate to the surrounding assemblages, dating from 1971 to last month.
There are some lovely collages and watercolors which Saar made on her travels. But aside from those, there’s nothing artistic about the sketchbooks. What they demonstrate is the richly considered nature of the finished works.
The show’s most riveting piece — the one that most persuasively sustains its own mystery — is “The Edge of Ethics,” from 2010. It’s a small, dark green bird cage, which Saar picked up at a Long Beach swap meet. The cage hangs from a chain, casting a sharp shadow on the wall. A page from Saar’s sketchbook matter-of-factly lists the other elements: black fan coral; vintage glass bottle; black torso, black bird legs; toy tin alligator.
The black, armless figurine is bound to the opaque glass bottle by chains. Her legs extend into grotesquely oversize bird’s feet. Behind her, the flattened filigree of the coral fans out.
The piece has the mystery of a box by Joseph Cornell, whose use of disparate, poetically suggestive found materials has been a big influence on Saar. It radiates waves of haunted silence, like a Giorgio de Chirico. And of course, it makes a bald statement about slavery and incarceration.
But is “statement” the right word? Maybe not.
Politicians and CEOs make statements. “The Edge of Ethics” resists explanation or paraphrase. Even as it exists in history and speaks to historical realities, it is also oddly out-of-time. Yet somehow, instead of feeling abstract or general, it is more succinct, more poignant and more pressingly urgent than a roomful of research papers, a month of Sunday sermons, a year of news reports.
One way to answer would be to play the interpretive game. The black figurine, we can assume, represents African Americans, and specifically African American women. The cage and the chains suggest slavery, and also, perhaps, the present crisis of mass incarceration.
The figure’s feet may be those of a crow — a symbol Saar has used to represent Jim Crow laws. The black figure is chained to a white bottle, which may evoke the relationship between white master and black slave — except that bottles also function in Saar’s work as protective figures (the association derives from the Congolese tradition of bottle trees, which spread with slavery to the Caribbean and the American South). This bottle looks like it might help the figure float.
On a more elemental level, the coral, the bottle and the crocodile all suggest water, while the bird’s feet, the bird cage and the way the coral fans out behind the figure like wings suggest the possibility of flight. So, while parts of the piece suggest danger, confinement and cruelty, others suggest flight, delicacy and buoyancy.
What’s compelling about “The Edge of Ethics” is that, beyond the brute fact of confinement, no one set of associations prevails over another. You cannot write an equation that will articulate a “true” relationship between its parts. And so the mind — drawn in by the forms (the relationship, for instance, between the patterns of the chain links, the filigree of the coral and the straight lines of the cage; or between the crocodile skin and the pattern on the base of the cage) — keeps moving, keeps contemplating.
And — since there is no escape into a solution, no code to crack — the heart keeps cleaving in two.
The dissonance of the work’s parts (What is a human doing in a bird cage? What do crocodiles and coral have to do with it?) matches the moral dissonance we may feel as we contemplate the grotesque facts. How was slavery ever allowed to happen? And how is it that, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, more black men are caught up in the criminal justice system — in prison, or on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850?
I’ve dwelled on “The Edge of Ethics” because I believe it a masterpiece. But what is engrossing about this piece holds also for the show as a whole: As its title, “Call and Response,” suggests, it is an elaborate and entrancing echo chamber rooted in Saar’s lived experience, her political reflections and her poetic sensibility.
“I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break,” from 1998, is a tableau about slavery, female labor and racial hatred. It derives its force from a brilliant connection Saar made between the shape of an ironing board (which she bought at a Pasadena flea market) and the infamous 18th-century diagram of the Brookes slave ship, its hold loaded to capacity with 454 enslaved Africans.
Saar enlarged the slave ship image, printed it onto the surface of the ironing board, and at one end superimposed the image of a black woman ironing, dressed stereotypically as a mammy. She created a disturbingly anthropomorphic touch by chaining the vintage iron to the legs of the ironing board. To complete the tableau, she pegged a clean white sheet to a clothesline, embroidering the initials of the Ku Klux Klan on the hem.
Poetic suggestion can frustrate literal-minded viewers who, confronted with politically charged subject matter, want exactitude: What is the actual complaint? What is the suggested solution?
Saar’s art doesn’t work that way. No great art does. It acts first as a general indictment of a historical debacle. But beyond that, as a form of expression, it is expansive, liberated, spiritual.
Saar’s most personal works involve clocks, hearts, hands, eyes, stars and windows. “Memory Window for Anastacia,” for instance — made in 1994 after a trip to Brazil — harks back to the autobiographical “Black Girl’s Window,” the focus of the MoMA show.
Anastacia was a black woman with blue eyes (Saar herself is of mixed-race heritage). According to legend, she was forced to wear a muzzle or face mask and a heavy iron collar, both to conceal her dramatic beauty and to prevent her from speaking. She came to be venerated as a local saint in Brazil.
Saar visited Anastacia’s shrine, and her double-sided work, made after her return to Los Angeles, is itself an improvised shrine. It emphasizes Anastacia’s blue eyes, her blackness and her spiritual presence. The surface of the work is an electrical circuit board and the window’s edges are lined with nails wrapped in copper coils, as if the work might draw in energy. The work’s roughness — so unlike the elegance of “The Edge of Ethics” — feels true to Anastacia’s makeshift, unofficial status as a saint.
Saar’s best work is always like this: limber, responsive, unforced, poetic. Her moment is now; it was yesterday; it will extend into tomorrow.
Betye Saar: Call and Response Through April 5 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. lacma.org.