Mystical Moments at MoMA

An exhibit featuring decades of art by Betye Saar reveals the depth of her genius and the breadth of her vision of the life of an African American woman

04 Nov 2019 | 12:57

Artist Betye Saar had a breakout moment almost 50 years ago, in 1972. She created a sculptural assemblage from Aunt Jemima knickknacks and labels, and included a grotesque "mammy" figurine. But she replaced the broom the figurine was originally holding with a rifle. "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima" was a clarion statement about race, gender, suppression, and anger. It got the attention of feminists and African American leaders like Angela Davis, who noted it as the beginning of the black women's movement. Saar's artwork has been simmering for decades, and it's a potent concoction that's dished out at her solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, "Betye Saar: The Legends of 'Black Girl’s Window.'" Human rights and politics are still in the foreground, but there's much more, with lots of depths to plumb.

The exhibition presents work mostly from the museum’s collection, taking the opportunity to shine a light on a recent acquisition of 42 works on paper. The centerpiece of the show is Saar's 1969 assemblage "Black Girl’s Window." It incorporates elements of autobiography, popular culture, astrology, tarot, mysticism, phrenology, Americana and history into one remarkable work. Constructed within a window frame, painted from behind, with stars and moons, uplifted hands marked with mysterious symbols and an opaque black face with transparent eyes, it opens fascinating vistas into very specific and, at the same time, universal themes, tapping into all kinds of energy, through the power of art.

Bridging the Past and the Future

"There has been an apparent thread in my art that weaves from early prints of the 1960's through later collages and assemblages and ties into the current installations. That thread is a curiosity about the mystical," says Saar in her artist's statement on her website. "I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It's a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously. The art itself becomes the bridge."

Art is, of course, always a bridge, a communication through imagery, reference, emotion, mood and things that have no name. It's like a wormhole between universes that might or might not be traversed - a whisper or shout with no guarantee of being received.

Saar's works on paper that stretch from 1960 to the late 1970s also act as a bridge. They contain some of the same components as her assemblages, but also include tender portraits, magical landscapes and unfamiliar creatures. The wall texts state that "the artistic language that Saar debuted in "Black Girl’s Window" originated in her printmaking." In them we find sorceresses, palms, strange creatures and celestial and graphic symbols. All mean something to Saar; all invite us to consider them.

Windows Into Many Worlds

Saar has stated that seeing Joseph Cornell's assemblages inspired her to start compiling three-dimensional works based on found objects. But rather than Cornell's closed boxes, she presents windows, lots of them, both physical and conceptual. One assemblage, "Fiesta of the Dead," makes it impossible to see into Saar's world without reflecting on your own – it's backed by a mirror that brings the viewer's eyes into the artwork.

"The Palmist Window" from 1967 shows three palms, one in each of three panes of a window. With only red, blue and yellow, along with black and white, it hints at deliberate reduction to arrive at some form of expansion. Heart shaped apertures are filled with stars and moons, and the three hands – two drawn and one a palm print – float against solid backgrounds. Beyond its mystical connotations, it feels like an invitation to make contact, in the way people separated by glass often place their palms against each other's.

In fact, the entire exhibition feels like an invitation to consider a body of strikingly intelligent, deeply felt art. Loaded with metaphors and meaning, Saar's work is mysterious, curious, probing, questioning and challenging. "Curiosity about the unknown has no boundaries," Saar states. "Symbols, images, place and cultures merge. Time slips away."

IF YOU GO

What: "Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window"

Where: The Museum of Modern Art

11 West 53rd St., 2nd Floor, South Gallery

When: Through Jan. 4, 2020