Betye Saar

November 21, 2018

 

1st image 640 Betye Saar Lost Innocence

Betye Saar, A Loss of Innocence

The image above is an installation piece by Betye Saar (American, born 1926) titled “A Loss of Innocence” (1998). It’s a chair and dress, 50x12x12 inches. The image is included in a Hyperallergic review of her exhibition STILL TICKIN: Six Decades of Betye Saar’s Personal, Political and Mystical Art at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (Jan 30-May 1, 2016). A Loss of Innocence includes a delicate white dress with short, capped sleeves on a wood hanger suspended from a wire directly above a tiny doll-size chair sitting on a low wood pedestal. The chair is a tiny shrine. The dress cast two shadows that spread from the floor to the walls. One shadow looks eerily like a lynched body. The Scottsdale Museum says “There is a touch of alchemy to Betye Saar’s artwork: transforming the simple and mundane into powerful art.” Saar’s art tackles issues of spirituality, race, equality, family relationships and autobiography. Every work is poignant, evocative and emotional.

Betye Saar was born in Los Angeles, CA in 1926. She graduated from UCLA in 1947 with a B.A. degree in design and began her work in the visual arts as a graphic designer and costume maker — a trade that is deeply personal to her because her mother was a seamstress. She continued graduate studies, working toward a career in teaching design. She took an elective course in printmaking that allowed her to segue from design into fine arts. She began making politically themed artwork after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Watts Riots. Saar taught art in Los Angeles at UCLA and the Otis Art Institute. Saar’s works are included in the permanent collections in museums worldwide, including 3 works in the collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NY. Saar married and raised 3 daughters. Saar received two National Endowment for the Arts Awards, in 1974 and 1984. In 2008, she was recognized for her career in art and community activism and awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus.

Betye Saar lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.

 

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Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

In 1967 Saar saw an assemblage by Joseph Cornell at the Pasadena (CA) Art Museum and was inspired to make art out of all the bits and pieces of her own life. She began making assemblages in 1967. She had been collecting images and objects since childhood. She came from a family of collectors. In the 1960s, Saar began collecting images of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Little Black Sambo and other stereotyped African-American figures from advertising during the Jim Crow era.

The image above is titled The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). It’s the first piece Saar made that was politically explicit. Saar said: “My work started to become politicized after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. But The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which I made in 1972, was the first piece that was politically explicit.There was a community center in Berkeley, on the edge of Black Panther territory in Oakland, called the Rainbow Sign. They issued an open invitation to black artists to be in a show about black heroes, so I decided to make a black heroine.” Read about the Rainbow Sign invitational here. She added: “For many years, I had collected derogatory images: postcards, a cigar-box label, an ad for beans, Darkie toothpaste. I found a little Aunt Jemima mammy figure, a caricature of a black slave, like those later used to advertise pancakes. Saar added: “She had a broom in one hand. I gave her a rifle. In front of her, I placed a little postcard, of a mammy with a mulatto child, which is another way black women were exploited during slavery.I used the derogatory image to empower the black woman by making her a revolutionary, like she was rebelling against her past enslavement.When my work was included in the exhibition ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007, the activist and academic Angela Davis gave a talk in which she said the black women’s movement started with my work The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. That was a real thrill.”

In American popular culture the mammy figure was a depiction of servility. Saar turned her Aunt Jemima into a warrior, brandishing weapons, contending with injustice, facing the darkest chapters of American history. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is in the permanent collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It’s Saar’s  most iconic piece. Photo: Benjamin Blackwell, courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, LA, CA.  Read more about how Betye Saar transformed the Aunt Jemima image into a symbol of black power in an artsy.net review here.

 

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Betye Saar in 1970

The image above shows a young Betye Saar in 1970 in a room she used as an art studio.

 

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Exhibition installation: Keeping It Clean

The image above is an installation view of the exhibition Keeping It Clean at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (May 28-August 20, 2017). The solo show presented a mix of new and historic works that included Saar’s ongoing series of washboard assemblage sculptures, begun in the late 1990s.

In a review in the contemporary art magazine Art and Cake (June 28, 2017), Shana Nys Dambrot wrote: The washboard is a perfect object for Saar’s creative enterprise, whose particular magic has been the fusion of aesthetic, narrative, politics, and innovation into singular objects that triumph at all their tasks in art and in society.” In Saar’s own words, the new pieces are intended as reminders “that America has not yet cleaned up her act.”

Betye Saar also said: “I wanted to do an exhibition of my washboards because they are intimate and hands-on…It’s a body of work that I am still making, and the new works are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. People think racism happens everywhere else, but racism still exists in Los Angeles.”

 

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Betye Saar, Mother and Children in Blue

The image above is titled Mother and Children in Blue (1998), watercolor and mixed media collage on paper, 8 5/8 x 6 ½ inches, permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY – purchased with funds from the Drawing Committee.

 

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Betye Saar, Locksmith

The image above is titled Locksmith (2018), Mixed Media assemblage with metal frame, antique door locks, metal keys and vintage photograph, 14 x 11 ¾  inches.

 

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Betye Saar, Uneasy Dancer

The image above is titled Uneasy Dancer – Sock it to “Em (2011). It’s a red leather boxing glove with a watch on the wrist band and a mammy figure in a red dress tucked inside on top. The time on the watch is stopped at 5 minutes after 5.  “Uneasy Dancer” is an expression Betye Saar has used to define both herself and her artistic practice. I found this image in a review for Saar’s first exhibition in Milan, Italy installed at Fondazione Prada (15 Sep 2016 – 08 Jan 2017).  Read more here.

 

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Betye Saar, Indigo Illusions

The image above is titled Indigo Illusions (1991), mixed media assemblage with neon. This work was included in an exhibition titled “Betye Saar: Something Blue” at Roberts Projects in Los Angeles (Oct 27-Dec 15, 2018). All the works were made between 1983 and 2018 and all feature the color blue. Roberts Projects is Betye Saar’s gallery in CA and the exhibition was organized to show how she uses blue as a means to explore concepts of magic, voodoo and the occult.

 

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Betye Saar in 2016

The image above is dated 2016 and shows Betye Saar in her studio with all her stuff. Photo: Ashley Walker, courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles.

The Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles is launching an African-American Art History initiative and has acquired the archive of works by Betye Saar as a first step. The GRI will help other museums preserve and digitize their own archives, and is working with the Studio Museum in Harlem, the California African American Museum, Art + Practice in Los Angeles, and Spelman College in Atlanta on this project.

 

NEWS

The Brooklyn Museum has installed Saar’s works in an exhibition titled Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (through February 3, 2019).  Saar also has a solo show titled Keepin’ It Clean at the New York Historical Society (November 12, 2018-May 27, 2019).

In a recent interview for the Los Angeles Times, Betye Saar said: “When you’re 92, it takes a lot to get you excited. I paid my dues, and now I’m reaping the rewards…I’m very happy that anybody can go to the Getty Research Institute to discover my work, not just the art community. It’s my contribution.

 

I am writing a book about women artists who create with collage, assemblage, photo collage and/or installation art. One chapter will be devoted to the artist Betye Saar. Please contact me if you have spoken with her – and thank you.

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Susan Richman

November 1, 2018

 

Re>Formations

Solo exhibition: November 1-25, 2018

Upstream Gallery, 8 Main Street, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

Reception: Sunday, November 4, 2018, 2-5 pm

Gallery Hours: Thursday through Sunday, 12:30-5:30 pm

Contact: 914 674 8548 or Upstream Gallery

Interview: ©Nancy Egol Nikkal (October 2018)

 

Susan Richman was born in Washington, PA, earned a BFA in photography from George Washington University and a BFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. She successfully ran the Susan Richman Photography Studio in NYC, shooting both advertising and editorial projects. Her current studio practice is focused on photography projects and creating works for gallery exhibition. Susan Richman is an educator at the International Center of Photography. She lives and works in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.

At her website, Richman says: “I am an interpreter of what surrounds me, and the camera is my instrument of choice…My latest works deal with capturing the ephemeral state of our surroundings by photographing objects created within ice.” Her objects are temporary sculptures. Her technique involves mixing chemicals into dyes, layering objects within the chemical solution, freezing and melting the solution, and photographing the temporary sculpture before it melts. She wants her photographs to reveal layers, altered shapes and a range of colors as light passes through the icy sculpture. Richman shoots film, scans and then prints archival digital prints. The frozen sculptures melt. The original materials within no longer exist. The films and digital photographs are preserved.

 

Re>Formations includes two new series that are the product of these creative experiments. Richman loves the process in the darkroom and says it’s fun.

 

Susan Richman, Susurus Stratum

 

The image above is titled “Susurus Stratum” (Whispering Layers) and dated 2018. This work is part of the first series included in the exhibition. It’s an archival pigment print and the framed size is 35”x35”. The circular image shows tiny green botanicals floating in a transparent icy blue solution. The botanicals include grasses, leaves, seedpods and hydrangea petals that Richman finds while walking her dog or gardening in her backyard.

 

Susan Richman, Lilacinus Vitro

 

The image above is titled Lilacinus Vitro (Lilac Glass) and dated 2018. This work is part of the second series included in the exhibition. The media is  Duratran Film in a LED Light Box. The size is 36”x36” and the image shows a glass sculpture that was made from shards of broken perfume bottles. Richman said a friend who is a perfume bottle designer gave her the bottles. Her glass is clear. The dyes in the icy solution give the image its color. She said the light passing through the broken glass produced wonderful abstract images and inspired her to further explore the relationships between glass shapes, light and color.

Richman’s process is a little like paper marbling. She adds chemicals into a water solution to make it thick, then adds dyes, inks, food coloring and spray silicone to separate colors. She describes the process as aqueous surface design. She may add more chemicals and dyes as she builds up layers to create a frozen sculpture with botanicals (the first series) or embedded objects (the second series).

Throughout the process, Richman freezes, melts and scrapes away what needs to be removed.  The frozen sculpture becomes a still life subject for her photo-shoot, and the final product is an archival pigment print and/or the Duratran Film in a LED light box.

 

Susan Richman, Sanguine Vitro

 

The image above is titled Sanguine Vitro (Blood Red Glass) and dated 2018. This work is part of the second series in the exhibition. The media is Duratran Film in a LED Light Box. The size is 36”x36” and the image is a sculpture with broken glass. Richman said the glass shards can’t be too large and must be carefully placed as she builds the sculpture so that nothing obstructs the passage  light through the glass. Richman sometimes adds inks and bubbles to the icy solution so the glass shards look like they are submerged in water and look 3 dimensional.

In both series, Richman uses a white background as she photographs the sculptures in her darkroom. She works with mirrors to reflect light through the sculptures, and adjusts lights as well as tilts the sculptures in the process. Richman says sometimes the solution around the sculpture melts and has to be refrozen.

After the photo-shoot, the original materials are discarded, the icy sculptures no longer exists – but the film and prints are preserved.

 

I asked Richman what sparked her interest in photographing objects in ice. She said she saw an exhibition with photos of ice cubes at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York 6-7 years ago. She noticed the ice cubes had cracks that looked like incised lines and she decided she wanted to photograph ice.

Richman is working with a lot of chemistry. Her darkroom practice is a combination of science and art. Her images look like slides that are viewed under a microscope. I asked how she works with the chemicals and if she wears gloves. She says she doesn’t wear gloves. I asked if her darkroom looks like a lab.  She says her kitchen looks like a laboratory when she’s working.

Meet Susan Richman at the Upstream Gallery reception, Sunday, November 4th (2-5 pm). See the exhibition during regular gallery hours, Thursday to Sunday, 12:30-5:30 pm. For information and gallery directions, call 914.674.8548 or visit the Upstream Gallery website. See more work by the artist at her website.

 

Lenore Tawney

October 1, 2018

 

Fiber Arts Pioneer, Collage and Assemblage Artist

I am writing about women artists I admire.

My recent post Blue Again was a tribute to the artist Louise Bourgeois. The first image in the post showed a massive steel sculpture of a spider (titled Maman) photographed against a brilliant blue sky, outdoors at the Guggenheim Museum in the Basque City of Bilbao in northern Spain. The post includes additional images with drawings and soft sculptures, made with recycled cloth that Louise Bourgeois cut into pieces and sewed piece by piece to build up volume. I think of the soft sculpture as 3D collage.

This post is about the artist Lenore Tawney (American, 1907-2007)

Lenore Tawney is widely credited as the pioneering spirit whose open-warp weaving redefined and helped shape the field of fiber art during the second half of the twentieth century. This post will include images of her large woven, open loom weavings and sculpture as well as her other media: drawing in pen and ink, drawing as weaving, mixed media assemblage with wood, wire and thread, collage and postcards that she began during the 1960s and continued to create throughout her long life.

Lenore Tawney in her Studio

The image above shows Lenore Tawney in her studio, at an industrial space located in the Coenties Slip area in lower Manhattan in New York City. The photo is dated 1958. Photo credit: David Attie. Tawney made huge fiber sculpture in this space, but, in this image, it looks like Lenore Tawney is working small. She is sitting on the floor, weaving with an improvised, open weave loom.

Lenore Tawney, Cloud Series VI

After 1977, Tawney created her “Cloud Series” with hand-knotted, shimmering linen threads woven into a linen superstructure and hung from the ceiling. The image above shows Tawney standing on a scaffold with a very large work titled Cloud Series VI. The size is 16’x32’x8’ and is dated 1981. This huge open weave installation was a commission and installed at the Frank J. Lausche State Office Building in Cleveland, OH. For the viewer, the experience is air and space. Imagine walking into a room with a fiber installation cascading down from the ceiling above you. Imagine that the installation is made with thousands of individually knotted shimmering linen threads. Photo: The Lenore Tawney Foundation. Read the chronology of her career at the Lenore Tawney Foundation website.

Lenore Tawney, Little River Wall Hanging

The image above is titled Little River Wall Hanging. It’s dated 1968 and was made with linen and wool. It’s 164 inches tall by 22 ½ inches wide. Little River Wall Hanging is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2017 it was included in the large group exhibition titled Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction (April 15-August 13, 2017) at the MoMA. The exhibition included 100 works by 50 women artists created between the end of World War II and the start of the Feminist movement. All the works – including paintings, sculpture, photographs, drawings, prints, textiles and ceramics were drawn entirely from MoMA’s collection.  I wrote a review of the exhibition. Read it here.

 

Drawings with Pen and Ink, Linen, Thread, Paper and Wire

 

Lenore Tawney, Wings on the Wind

The image above is titled Wings of the Wind. It’s pen and ink on graph paper, 17×22 inches, and dated 1964. Lenore Tawney created many, many drawings in pen and ink and other media. I learned Lenore Tawney drew inspiration not only from the ancient weavers of Peru, but was also inspired by her study of 19thcentury patterns made on a Jacquard loom.The weaver in her appreciated the jacquard loom’s ability to produce complex compound patterns, and the artist in her was fascinated by its intricate cord system. In the 1960s she began a series of India ink drawings that “hover above the graph paper with a vibrating energy.” Read more at the American Craft Council website.

 

Lenore Tawney, Waters Above the Firmament

The image above is titled Waters Above the Firmament, 1976, 156 ½ x 145 ¼ inches, collection: the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s made with linen, warp-faced/weft-ribbed plain weave with discontinuous wefts, and includes 18th/19thcentury manuscript pages cut into strips, attached and painted with acrylic paint. The top and bottom are braided, knotted and cut warp fringe. This work is a large circle set into a square – a simple design, but the upper half of the circle, where the warps are made of paper and fabric and coated in blue paint, give it incredible weight. Tawney wove the circle with slits that open at regular half-inch intervals that emphasized a third dimension.

Lenore Tawney, Drawing in Air

In the 1990s, Lenore Tawney reinterpreted her ink drawings into 3D works, using linen thread. The image above is titled Drawing in Air XVII, 1998, Linen and Plexiglas. The size for this work is  48x48x24 inches.

 

Assemblage

Lenore Tawney, untitled (Arietta)

In the 1960s Tawney began to work with paper and found objects and created assemblage. The image above is untitled (Arietta), c 1967. It’s a mixed media box construction with feathers, wood and paper, 12 ¼ x 7 x 4 inches. Photo: courtesy the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Lenore Tawney’s assemblages often included an amazing assortment of birds and feathers, some literal, some with a talismanic presence. Often, actual eggs appear as actual objects.

Lenore Tawney, Even Thread Had a Speech

The image above is titled Even Thread Had a Speech, dated 1966, and made with wood, paper collage and string, 9×7 ½ x 2 ¾ inches, collection: Whitney Museum of American Art, gift of the Lenore Tawney Foundation. The threads, in straight lines, weave through the open-sided box construction and appear beyond the edges.

 

Collage

 

In the mid-1960s, Tawney began to create postcard-sized collages that she mailed to friends and family. For Tawney, mailing the postcards became an essential part of the collage-making process, and the cancelled postmark functioned as an important collage element that showed a record of a journey successfully made.

book-Lenore Tawney: Signs on the Wind

The image above shows the cover of a monograph about Lenore Tawney’s small collages titled Signs on the Wind, published by Pomegranate Communications Inc., Petaluma, CA, 2002. I own the book and recommend it for the wonderful essay by the art critic Holland Cotter and over 80 full-size images of her postcard collages, dated 1961-1990. Each image is a unique collage that will inspire admiration and creativity.

Lenore Tawney, Circle in a Square postcard collage

The image above is a collage postcard that’s included in the book. The postcard is addressed to Miss Tender at the shop Tender Buttons, 236 E 77, NY 28, NY. Tender Buttons was a repeat recipient of many of Tawney’s postcards that are reproduced in the book. This postcard shows a 1966 cancellation date stamp, and is embellished with neat, evenly spaced ruled lines in pen and ink . The design is both horizontal and vertical.  The image is a circle in a square. Tawney created the circle with vertical lines in pen and ink. The circle is superimposed over the  shape of a square made by the  lines in the collage. The text collage, written in French, extends beyond the top and bottom edge. There’s a 4 cent postage stamp with the image of President Abraham Lincoln. This collage drawing echoes the art of weaving with taut, parallel straight lines. It’s amazing that Tawney trusted that the postcard collage would arrive undamaged, and it did. Tawney mailed the postcards to family and friends – and she even sent one to herself, addressed in her late mother’s maiden name. The postcard collages were made mostly with papers, including photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine ads, charts, Tantric symbols, musical scores, her own drawings, and notes and manuscript pages with foreign text. The postcards are rich and dynamic with a range of themes from childhood to female sexuality, even spirituality – and can be read as treatises or as Valentines. We are lucky people saved them.

In the book essay, Holland Cotter says, “The attraction of the postcard collages is not their inscrutability but their accessibility, their fleet wit, their conceptual ingenuity, and their stimulating metaphoric play.”

 

CONNECTING THREADS:

I wanted to create a thread to connect two artists I admire: Louise Bourgeois (American, born in France, 1911-2010), and Lenore Tawney (American, 1907-2007). One thread is drawing. Both artists had a background in drawing and sculpture. Both artists used drawing to explore subjects throughout their lives.

Louise Bourgeois studied sculpture but used drawing to tell the stories of her life. FYI: Bourgeois started drawing while still a child. She worked at her family’s tapestry restoration business in France and drew in the missing parts in the damaged antique tapestries so they could be restored.

Lenore Tawney studied sculpture and drawing and then discovered tapestry weaving. Tawney created the “open warp” weaving technique, with fluid forms of textured yarns contrasting against transparent grounds of exposed warps, like a drawing floating in space. Tawney used the transparency as a sculptural negative space. Her approach was controversial at the time. She said: “All I did was weave the design and leave the rest of the warp unwoven. Why not? “

 

If you can, purchase the book Lenore Tawney: Signs on the Wind. Get it for the Cotter essay with images of her weavings, and for the full-size images of the postcard collages. Holland Cotter wrote: “Tawney’s work was considered heretical by orthodox craft adherents, but too “crafsy by the orthodox art world. Despite this arts/craft divide, Tawney found success as an artist.

 

I am glad her colleagues and friends saved the collage postcards.