Call and Response
On view now at the Morgan Library & Museum, Betye Saar: Call and Response is the first exhibition to examine the relationship between Betye Saar’s sketches, travel notebooks, found objects, and completed works. From pieces dating to the 1970s to a new sculptural installation to never-before-shown collages from the Morgan’s collections, the cumulative display is a jewel box of a show.
The title “call and response” refers to a collaboration between Saar and the writer and activist Ishmael Reed, who invited her to create a series of sketches for the poems in his collection, A Secretary to the Spirits (1975). Saar’s title piece,drawing upon racist pop culture as well as the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, depicts a robed Black man holding a slice of watermelon, surrounded by brocades of patterned paper and fabric and ringed by her signature stars.
“Call and response” also alludes to Saar’s process of creation, in which found objects seem to call out to her—while a completed piece represents her response. Her work begins with an anchor, a commonplace object—such as religious trinkets purchased while traveling, a washboard, stamps, or a piece of leather—made strange and special by Saar’s selection and assemblage. Serving Time (2010), for instance, suggests the silhouette of a shovel but renders it useless and delicate: from its hollowed spade hangs a birdcage adorned prettily with keys and locks, out of reach of the figure held captive within. In the accompanying Sketchbook Page for Serving Time (2009), she writes,“(Jim) Crow,” scribbling in a blackbird atop the cage, which never makes it into the final work.
Betye Saar, The Edge of Ethics, 2010. Mixed media assemblage, 10 ½ x 9 ¼ x 5 ½ inches. Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. © Betye Saar, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA