Allison Saar


          Docent Researcher: Susan Palmore

 

Biodata

Birth date: 1956 Los Angeles, California

Current residence: New York City

Education: Scripps College, Claremont, California BFA 1978 African art

                  Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) MFA                                         1981

Employment: Artist

 

Major Shows/Galleries

Saar's work has been exhibited internationally with key exhibitions at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, L.A. Louver Gallery, Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York City, and Pasadena Museum of California Art.

 

Work Skin Deep was included in the prestigious Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, 1993. Saar had work acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other important American museums. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1985 and 1988, and from the Guggenheim Foundation, 1989. She was an artist in residence at Dartmouth College.

 

Media/Techniques

Saar is a sculptor and installation artist, and a printmaker.

 Although she has produced works in other media, including drawings, prints, and frescoes, most of Saar's mature works are sizable sculptures of single African American figures, often carved from wood and partly assembled from discarded or commonplace materials such as tin. The patchwork (or "assemblage") technique and Saar's use of bold colors--particularly red, green, indigo, and yellow--suggested a folk art style. Her treatment of the human form has also been marked, though, by an orientation toward European sculpture noted in a New York Times review of a 1995 exhibition, but forecasted years before by Saar herself in an interview with Judith Wilson in the Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar catalogue: "{I}f you look at one of the earliest pieces and then at the way they are now ... {my sculptures are} actually getting much more classical in their stances than they used to be."

 

Contextual information

Influences (historical/personal/political):

Saar grew up in Laurel Canyon, California. She sees her upbringing as rural and her understanding and love of nature are rooted in that experience. Her parents were Betye Saar, a well-known African American artist, and Richard Saar, an artist turned  conservationist. Both parents encouraged their three talented daughters, all artists, to look at a wide range of art. They were given books on art and were taken to area museums. They also saw Outsider Art, such as the visionary artist Simon Rodia's famous Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a group of three monumental structures of pottery-encrusted steel tubing reaching 100 feet, and Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, a complex of buildings with walls from discarded bottles joined with cement. Alison's fascination with vernacular folk art and the visionary artist's ability to build an oasis of beauty from cast-off objects had a profound and lasting influence ..

During high school, Alison began assisting her father in his restoration work. Dealing with artifacts from different cultures — Chinese frescoes, Egyptian mummies, and Precolumbian and African art — taught Alison about properties of various materials, techniques, and aesthetics. At Scripps College, Saar studied with Dr. Samella Lewis, a noted scholar in the field of African and Caribbean art. Having taken more art history courses than studio classes, she graduated with a thesis on Southern African American Folk Art.

Much of Saar's work has a religious aspect. Saar told Wilson that she attributed her spiritual nature to her upbringing in the Unitarian church: "The whole idea was there's always something, some sort of spirit power out there." Some of her sculptures depicted African or Afro-Caribbean religious figures such as shamans or preachers, and she constructed pieces that evoke altars and icons. Saar created appealing images of mythological figures that suggest a nature-centered spirituality: a blue-eyed 1986 "Snake Charmer" holds a green snake crosswise in his teeth. Although many of her works deal with African or Afro-Caribbean religion, Saar freely turned to Christian subjects as well, and in doing so she partakes of a mixture with deep roots in African American religious communities. A 1988 rendering of Lazarus, with rhinestones for wounds, carried overtones of the AIDS epidemic and of the lesions that afflict those suffering from the disease.

Expressive qualities

The patchwork (or "assemblage") technique and Saar's use of bold colors--particularly red, green, indigo, and yellow--suggested a folk art style. Her treatment of the human form has also been marked, though, by an orientation toward European sculpture noted in a New York Times review of a 1995 exhibition, but forecasted years before by Saar herself in an interview with Judith Wilson in the Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations: The Art of Betye and Alison Saar catalogue: "{I}f you look at one of the earliest pieces and then at the way they are now ... {my sculptures are} actually getting much more classical in their stances than they used to be."

Although they may be serious and mysterious, Alison Saar's sculptures are lively and often animated by wit. Puns abound among the titles of her works, and their busy surfaces, festooned with glass, plastic flowers, and all kinds of other small objects, bespeak resilience and a love of the everyday. Saar's reputation has risen ever since her move to New York City in 1983.

Art critic Rebecca Epstein writes, “Marrying soft with severe is the installation ‘Suckle’: 15 hanging cast bronze skillets if varying size, with an ample female breast emerging out of each pan bottom. Engaging the material via cooking, nurturing, and sex, the piece is literal but also ironic and iconic, its inherent grace stopping it miles short of cliché.”

Subject Matter/ Themes:

The work of Alison Saar addresses humanity in the broadest sense. Through the use of archetypal images, Saar reaches out to audiences from backgrounds as culturally and ethnically diverse as her own. Her mother,  Betye Saar, has European, Native American, and African American ancestors; her father, Richard Saar, is of German and Scottish origin. Fragments of lore, myth and legend as well as the practices of the everyday, rooted in these cultural backgrounds, are woven into Saar's powerful images, where contemporary expression enshrines centuries of man's spiritual evolution.

In addition to religion and myth, Saar addressed black culture and history more generally, and there is a political tinge to her work at times. Several pieces dealt with racism among blacks based on skin tone, and she told Essence that "Skin Deep," an embossed-tin human skin hanging on a wall at the prestigious 1993 Biennial exhibition mounted by the Whitney Museum in New York City, was inspired by the beating of Rodney King at the hands of members of the Los Angeles Police Department. One of Saar's most powerful political works was "Jesse Owens 1936," first exhibited in Los Angeles in 1986. In this sculpture, the famous black Olympic athlete is shown pedaling a wheel mounted on the end of a long stick with a handle, slave to a contraption resembling a child's toy and covered with scraps of an old tape measure. Saar evoked the exploitation of black athletes in a sharp, unsentimental way.

Other Comments/ Information:

Saar's reputation has risen ever since her move to New York City in 1983. She has received numerous financial grants, and her works reside in the permanent collections of several important museums, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anecdotal Information and Quotes

Summing up her art for a 1993 profile in Essence magazine, Alison Saar offered the words "refined savagery." The description aptly evoked the union of opposites so often achieved in Saar's works. Of multiracial heritage, Saar tackled both spiritual and political themes. Her patchwork sculptures, often covered in metal or brightly painted, have the feel of folk art, yet their solid elegance of form links them with the traditions of sculpture in Europe and the ancient world. Deeply influenced by African religion, Saar also produced striking works with Christian subjects. Saar's "refined savagery" ranges widely, yet leaves the viewer impressed with the artist's sense of herself as an individual.

 

Art critic Rebecca Epstein writes, “Marrying soft with severe is the installation ‘Suckle’: 15 hanging cast bronze skillets if varying size, with an ample female breast emerging out of each pan bottom. Engaging the material via cooking, nurturing, and sex, the piece is literal but also ironic and iconic, its inherent grace stopping it miles short of cliché.”

“Saar juggles themes of personal and cultural identity as she fashions various sizes of female bodies (often her own) that are buoyant with story while solid in stance. [Her works often embody a] balance of strength and tenderness, in form and idea.”

References:

 

1.    Altman, Rebekah. "Identity in the Balance.
The Iconic Works of Alison Saar." Santa Barbara Seasons. Fall 2009.

2.    Clark, Erin. "Thinking Out Loud. Alison Saar."
Artworks Magazine, Winter 2008

3.    Body Politics, The Female Image in Luba Art and the Sculpture of
Alison Saar, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Los Angeles,
 CA. 2001

4.    Exploring Identity: Work by Contemporary African American Women,
catalog. Maier Museum of Art. Randolph-Macon Woman's College. VA
2001

5.    Koplos, Janet.  "Alison Saar at Phyllis Kind", Art in America, February
 2000, p 123-24.

6.     Berry, S.L. "Cutting Edge: Alison Saar", Indianapolis Star, March or April, 1999, illustrated.

7.    Chambers, Karen S. "Alison Saar: Terra Incognita", Review, October 15, 1999, p 15-16.

8.    Chambers, Karen S. "Alison Saar: Terra Incognita",
Internetwww.artresources.com/reviews/

9.    Ebony, David. "David Ebony's Top Ten: Alison Saar at Phyllis Kind", 
 
www.artnet.com/magazine/reviews/ebony/ebony(5)10-27-99.html.

10.  Gladstone, Valerie. "Alison Saar at Phyllis Kind", ARTnews, November  1999, p 194.

11.  Johnson, Ken. The New York Times, October 15, 1999. "Alison Saar",
 Short List, p E-38.

12. McQuiston, Julie Pratt. "Visual Arts:  3-D Symbolism", Nuvo
Newsweekly, April 8-15, 1999, illustrated.

13.  New York, September 13, 1999. "Sculpture and Installation", p 110-111.

14.  Reichert, Herbert. "Alison Saar: Terra Incognita", Review, October 15, 1999, p 11-15.

15.  De Ricco, Hank. "Alison Saar at Phyllis Kind Gallery", New York, The
 New York Art Intelligencer, Fall 1995, p 20]21.

16.  Eccles, Tom. "Alison Saar: Strange Fruit", Phyllis Kind Gallery, New  York,Art in America, January 1996, p 98]99.

17.  Canning, Susan. "Alison Saar: Strange Fruit", Phyllis Kind Gallery,
 New York, Art Papers, vol 20, no 1, Jan/Feb 1996, p 56.

18.  Diehl, Carol. "Alison Saar: Strange Fruit", Phyllis Kind Gallery,
September 23 through November 4, 1995. Artnews, December 1995,
 p 140]141.

19.  Krane, Susan. "Alison Saar: Art at the Edge, Fertile Ground", High
 Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA. May 1]July 11, 1993.

20. Heartney, Eleanor. "Myth, Magic and Ritual Figurative Work By Alison
 Saar", Freedman Gallery, Albright College, Center for the Arts.

21.  Knight, Christopher. "Alison Saar: Big Ideas & Considerable Skill", Los Angeles Times Calendar section. p 1, May 18, 1993.

22. Adams, Brooks. "Alison Saar at the Whitney Museum at Philip Morris",
Art in America  80, no 12, December, p 119.

23.  Morgan, Susan. "The Saar System", Mirabella (New York), no 38
 (July): 24]26.

24. Bonetti, David. "Art Lover's Guide to Saar Gazing", San Francisco  Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, 7 July, section E-1, 5.

25. Cook, Katherine. "Mother and Child Reunion, Betye and Alison Saar at
 the Oakland Museum", Artweek (Oakland) 22, no.28 (15 August):20.

26.  Etra, Jon. "Family Ties", Artnews (New York) 90, no.5 (May): 128]30.

27. Hatcher, Donna May. "Alison Saar", A Journal of Art
 (Cornell University, Ithaca, New York), May, 36]41.

28.  Van Proyen, Mark. "A Conversation With Betye and Alison Saar",
 Artweek (Oakland) 22, no. 26 (15 August):3,15.

29.  Wilson, Judith. "Down to the Crossroads; the Art of Alison Saar", 
 Callaloo, vol.14, no.1 p 107]123, The John Hopkins University
 Press, 1991.

30.  Lippard, Lucy, Ishmael Reed, and Judith Wilson. "The Art of Betye and
Alison Saar: Secrets, Dialogues, Revelations", Wight Art Gallery,
University of California, Los Angeles, January 9 ] February 25, 1990.

31.  Brown, Betty Ann. "On Compiling Relics: The Magic of Works by Alison
 and Betye Saar Transcends Postmodernism", Artweek (Oakland) 21,
no.4 (February): 1.20

32.  North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century, edited by Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller, Garland Press, 1995.




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