Black History Month

Alison Saar (1956-)
Inheritance, 2003
Woodblock and chine collé, 81 x 59 cm.
Gift of the George D. and Frieda B. Abraham Foundation

Alison Saar (1956-)
Coup de Grace, 2012
Lithograph, 49 x 64 cm.
Gift of the Clarence A. Davis ‘48 Endowed Fund for the Visual Arts

African-American artists, like women artists or gay artists, often find themselves in the dubious position of representing a group with their work, whether or not it is their intent to do so. Saar tackles the issues of race directly while incorporating issues of gender.

Alison Saar was born in Los Angeles, California in 1956 and grew up in Laurel Canyon, California. Her parents were Betye Saar, a well-known African American artist, and Richard Saar, an art conservationist. She received a BA from Scripps College, Claremont, in 1978, having studied African and Caribbean art. She received an MFA from Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles in 1981. Her sculptures and installations explore themes of African cultural diaspora and spirituality, and her studies of Latin American, Caribbean and African art and religion have informed her work. Saar’s fascination with vernacular folk art and ability to build an oasis of beauty from cast‐off objects are evident in her sculptures and paintings. Saar’s highly personal, often life-sized sculptures are marked by their emotional candor, and by contrasting materials and messages that imbue her work with a high degree of cultural subtext. Alison Saar isn’t known first and foremost for her work in printmaking. The sculptor will frequently create post-sculptural studies of her 3D works, which is not common, but allows her to further meditate on the concepts she’s working with. For example, Saar’s work Inheritance is after a sculptural work by the same title, with very similar imagery of a young Atlas figure standing with a massive cloth bundle on her head.

The young girl carrying a large ball of white cotton cloth on her head is a portrait of the artist’s mother. When Betye was just four years old, her father called her to his deathbed to make a final request: would Betye promise to take care of her mother and her siblings when her daddy was gone? The enormous ball represents the weight of the world, making the young girl who carries it a “child Atlas.” Saar and her mother have traveled to Senegal together, where they saw children who do carry the weight of the world on their heads every day. Their observation of this painful situation recalled Betye’s childhood and suggested the concept for the piece.

Titled Coup, a related sculpture shows the seated figure of an African American woman with a long braid of hair attached to a pile of old luggage behind her. In her hands, she holds a pair of scissors, implying that she is about to rid herself of her baggage. Many who commented on this work saw in it an impending act of self-deliverance. Your baggage is who you are and what you have to negotiate in order to find ground for your subjectivity. The fantasy of cutting yourself off from it can never be realized. It would amount to a psychic coup de grâce. It exists as a fantasized possibility only to protect you from the harrowing awareness of its impossibility. Coup de Grace is the printed version of this same exploration. The ball of yarn relates it to the burden carried in Inheritance adding layers of the personal.

Thompson, Barbara, Meg Linton and Harryette Mullen. Alison Saar: Still. Otis College of Art and Design, 2012
“Alison Saar: Exalting Ambiguity.” By: O’Brien, John. Sculpture (Washington, D.C.), January/February 2007, Vol. 26 Issue 1, p28-31, 4p
“Reclaiming Histories: Betye and Alison Saar, Feminism, and the Representation of Black Womanhood.” By: Dallow, Jessica. Feminist Studies, Spring2004, Vol. 30 Issue 1, p74-113, 40p
“The color of art.”  S. Lawrence on curating Directions—Alison Saar. Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. By: Lawrence, Sidney. American Art, Spring97, Vol. 11, p2-9, 8p


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