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Betye Saar at MoMA: Prelude to a revolutionary breakthrough
Installation view of Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 21, 2019 – January 4, 2020. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

by Jillian Steinhauer

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 1969, Betye Saar made an artwork that would prove pivotal in her career.

Taking an old window frame, she filled its 10 sections with a constellation of images. Across the top three panels, she placed colorful printed moons and stars, evoking the night sky. In each of the six squares that follow she set symbolic figures, including an eagle bearing a shield with the word “love,” a map of a human head according to the pseudoscience phrenology, and a pair of skeletons, one white and one black. Below these, in the bottom half of the window, Saar painted the silhouette of a black girl, her eyes made from lenticular lenses and her hands — marked with astrological signs — pressed against the glass.

The combined effect is moving and forceful, suggesting a young woman wrestling with the ghosts of the past and the vagaries of an uncertain future. She could be staring out the window and dreaming, or she could be looking at us with an appeal.

Although it’s not stated in the work or its title, “Black Girl’s Window” is a kind of self-portrait. Many of the coded references are personal, mixed with ones that are political and occult. The piece represents a cross section of Saar’s interests, and signaled the turn her practice would take toward found objects and more overtly political content — the hallmarks for which she is now, at age 93, best known.

“Black Girl’s Window” is the focus of one of the exhibitions helping to reopen the new Museum of Modern Art. Concentrating on her early years as an artist, it tracks the experiments in printmaking and assemblage that led her to arrive at the titular work. Despite the unusual color of the gallery’s deep purple walls, “Betye Saar: The Legends of ‘Black Girl’s Window’” is relatively modest — a scholarly study of a specific period, anchored by MoMA’s recent acquisition of a group of 42 of her works on paper. It is also, dismayingly, the first show the institution has ever devoted to Saar. As such, it’s smart but not entirely satisfying.

Saar, who grew up in Pasadena, California, was interested in art from a young age. But in the 1940s, “that was just one of the things black people didn’t go into — they didn’t study to be artists,” she told Frieze magazine several years ago. Instead she took up design, first as an undergraduate and then, nearly a decade later, in graduate school, where she enrolled with the intention of becoming a teacher. As the story goes, however, she “wandered into a printmaking workshop” and quickly found herself hooked.

By then she was married with two daughters; a third soon followed. One of the earliest prints in the MoMA exhibition, “Anticipation” (1961), depicts a pregnant Saar sitting and holding flowers against a mottled background. She looks tired but serene. Another from the same year, “Les Enfants d’Obscurité,” registers as a sort of imaginary ultrasound, showing three babies in a shadowy womb.

Nature was one of Saar’s interests from the beginning, but not in a strictly literal sense: She created moody landscapes as well as mythical scenes starring storybook beasts. These led the way to prints exploring astrology, palmistry and phrenology, including the captivating “Mystic Chart for an Unemployed Sorceress” (1964), whose protagonist seems to materialize like an apparition amid a profusion of occult symbols. Clearly for Saar, the natural and supernatural worlds are extensions of each other, equally wondrous and beyond complete comprehension.

The illusory layering of “Mystic Chart” also points to her skillful varying of the textures in her prints. Even at the outset of the exhibition you might notice the impressive diversity of spots and lines — as well as a few fingerprints — in a seemingly straightforward work like “The Wounded Wilderness” (1962). As she went on, Saar experimented increasingly with a process called soft-ground etching that allowed her to capture impressions of not only handmade marks but also rubber stamps, copper shapes from a jewelry store and other items; a book that MoMA is publishing alongside the show describes her prints as “records of objects.” In this way, she was making assemblages in two dimensions.

From there it was a short leap to placing the objects themselves in the artworks, especially after seeing an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s enigmatic boxes in 1967. In what almost amounts to a pun on the history of Western painting, Saar started arranging her prints of occult imagery in old windows, like the one featuring three palms beneath moons and stars (“The Palmist Window,” 1967). Her frames became gateways to the mysteries of the universe.

What’s striking about “Black Girl’s Window,” in contrast with those previous experiments, is how much more grounded and affective it is. The esoteric symbols she’d been iterating take on new meaning in proximity to a person. Divination, after all, is most interesting for what it tells us about humans.

Three years after “Black Girl’s Window,” Saar made her first, and arguably her most famous, explicitly political work: an assemblage that, thanks to her addition of a gun and a black power fist, turns the caricature of Aunt Jemima into a revolutionary. That piece isn’t at MoMA, but two others, also from 1972, represent her shift in subject matter. Formally, they’re in keeping with the rest of the show: works of printed and collaged imagery set in window frames; however, the seductive unknowns of mysticism have been replaced with reminders of a brutal reality. “Black Crows in the White Section Only” brings together a variety of racist advertisements, anchored by two hooded Ku Klux Klan figures atop American flags. The three panes of “Let Me Entertain You” show a minstrel singer with a guitar transforming into a black liberation fighter with a rifle; along the way, his ghostly outline appears atop a horrific photograph of a lynching.

These works serve as a kind of coda to the exhibition. Their appearance at the end offers a tantalizing glimpse of the iconoclastic artist Saar was on her way to becoming. But it’s just that — a glimpse — in a show that ultimately feels like a prologue. MoMA has at last started to appreciate Saar; now it needs to tell her full story.

Betye Saar: The Legends of ‘Black Girl’s Window’

Through Jan. 4 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., Manhattan; 212-708-9400,

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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