Betye and Allison Saar

Posted by: Valetta

By Valetta, Regional Center for Women in the Arts

The art world does not often applaud women artists and rarely recognizes women artists of color, so an African-American mother and daughter’s success in the white, male dominated museum gallery scene in America is a story worth noting.

Betye Saar born in Los Angeles in 1926, and her daughter Allison Saar, also born in Los Angeles, but in 1956, were able to take advantage of a set of circumstances unique to 20th century American art: an emphasis on creativity, the ability to rise within a particular movement, and an expanding art market.

Betye Saar was born into an arts and crafts family. She and her sisters learned to sew from their mother who was a seamstress and stressed both academic and “hands” skills. During the depression era of the 1930s, Betye’s two sisters and her widowed mother lived in the environs of Pasadena and what was then rural WATTS. They faired quite well with the help of an extended family, especially their grandmother and aunts. Betye’s interest in art continued throughout childhood and college. After graduation she became a costume designer, married, and had three daughters. She began her career as a “serious artist’ in the 1960s. Her work continued to reflect a love of crafts – a unique combination of handicraft and “witchcraft” incorporating family “treasures” and local “findings.” Influenced by Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Saar began integrating her bits and pieces into collage compositions that reflected the feminist and civil rights movements of her time.

Betye Saar was at the forefront of the feminist movement in the 1960s and ’70s, coming into her own in 1975 when she was awarded a one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Allison Saar continued and expanded upon her mother’s artistic achievements. Her father Richard Saar, a painter and conservator, also encouraged her to pursue a career in art, and while still in high school she apprenticed with him and helped restore art works from around the world. With strong family ties to museums and galleries and a solid foundation in studio and art history at Scripps College and the Otis-Parsons Institute, Allison went on to establish herself as a fine artist with a national reputation.

Although in many ways dealing with the same issues in her work as Betye – race, gender, the occult – Allison’s works reflect a broader, more sophisticated view than her mother’s. Her works are in the collections of museums across the county, including the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Museum of Modern Art in New York. Eighteen years after her mother’s solo show at the Whitney, Allison’s work was included in its prestigious Biennial and purchased for the museum’s permanent collection.

Image: Betye Saar (b. 1926), The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Mixed media assemblage; 113/4 x 2 3/4 inches.  Collection of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment of the Arts (selected by The Committee for the Acquisition of Afro American Art). © Betye Saar

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