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Betye Saar

New York Times T Magazine

In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-shown work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work into context. This week, we’re looking at a new piece by Betye Saar, known for her legendary work in assemblage, and whose solo show “Call and Response” opens Sept. 12 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Betye Saar’s new work is a collection of found objects, including a sarcophagus from Egypt and wood pieces from a local craft store.

Name: Betye Saar
Age: 94
Based in: Los Angeles
Originally from: Los Angeles

When and where did you make this work? I started this artwork in December of 2019 in my studio in Laurel Canyon, Calif., and finished it in January 2020.

Can you describe what is going on in the work? In my studio, I have objects sorted by color (red, blue, brown, etc.), material (wood, metal) or by shape. I started with the central figure, which is a clay or stone sarcophagus I found in a trinket store in Egypt. From this central point I then built out the work. The two Buddhas flanking the sarcophagus I bought in Little Tokyo here in Los Angeles and later painted blue. The two scarabs were given to me by a friend who also likes to collect interesting objects. The centered blue bottle — I think it’s an Evening in Paris perfume bottle. The two all-seeing mystic eyes I made from wood pieces found at a local craft store and then painted. The background is a mixed-media paper collage embedded with feathers. Sometimes, I use game pieces — like dice or dominoes — to represent chance or fate and suggest how we are players in the game of life.

What inspired you to make this work? I wanted to make an altar-like ritualistic work in multiple shades of blue that communicated a mystical and spiritual quality through the use of sacred objects from other cultures. “Legends in Blue” also incorporates elements from other ancient religions and societies, such as the scarabs and the mystic eye.

What’s the work of art in any medium that changed your life? While I was in college (at UCLA), I studied fashion and design, but before then, when I was a child visiting my grandmother’s house in Watts, Calif., I would sometimes walk past the Watts Towers. I was very curious about them, and this interest led to them becoming a lifelong inspiration. I was inspired by the fact that Simon Rodia used discarded, throwaway items to make his art. He recycled junk and made it into wonderful, amazing art. The impact of seeing the Watts Towers being built as a child eventually became the basic foundation of my becoming an assemblage artist. I think this is one of the reasons that back then, out of the hundreds of artists that were making art out there, and among Black women artists, I was the only one that was doing assemblage art. I think this difference is what got me noticed. I was making these strange things which got attention and then acceptance — acceptance as real art. It wasn’t that I was trying to be different. I was doing what fascinated me — using things that were thrown away to make art, and from there I forged my own path. The Watts Towers were and still are incredible, and they were what inspired me the most. I learned early on that you can make art out of anything.