Betye Saar’s Thoughtful “Call and Response” Exhibition at NYC’s Morgan Library

A show in which the brilliant 94-year-old artist's work exists in conversation

At NYC’s elegant Morgan Library & Museum—an Italian Renaissance-style building— the ideal atmosphere to experience rare literature, artifacts and exceptional art abounds. Since 1924 (when it opened to the public) this treasure trove has offered a wealth of knowledge and inspiration to visitors through its permanent collection and roving shows. One such exhibition is Betye Saar: Call and Response, organized by LACMA and on display now through 31 January 2021.

Born in 1926, artist Betye Saar has been producing objects, notebooks, prints and collages for decades—and reclaiming images and representation of Black people. Her work functions through race, gender, explorations of spiritualism and notions of self-discovery and identity. By positioning found objects in thought-provoking sculptures, Saar portrays history through her own lived experience and her ancestors’ past. For this show, her notebooks have been positioned with completed works—something that hasn’t been done before, and it offers the experience an extra layer of intimacy.

After seeing the show, we spoke with the Morgan’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings, Dr Rachel Federman, who discussed the importance of Saar’s work with us—and provided insight on how the exhibition came to be.

What prompted the acquisition of the six collage works by Saar? 

In 2016, Betye Saar’s LA dealer, Julie Roberts, approached us about acquiring the group, which she and Betye had recently unearthed in the studio. Betye wanted it to remain together and I think they thought about the Morgan because of the connection to a printed book. We were thrilled to be given the opportunity to purchase it, and did so with our department’s annual acquisitions committee in April 2017. The title collage, “A Secretary to the Spirits,” was included in an exhibition in 2019 called By Any Means: Contemporary Drawings from the Morgan, which focused on unconventional techniques and materials. But this is the first time the group has been shown.

The Morgan primarily focuses on works on paper. Along with Saar’s travel notebooks and sketches, do you view her object work with a certain visual literacy?

For us, the pairing of the sketchbooks with the assemblages was important in revealing her creative process, which is also a focus of the Morgan. I viewed the exhibition’s concept of “call and response” as one which encompasses the dialogue between sketchbook and sculpture/collage, her responses to particular objects, and also her engagement with music and literature, which is present throughout the exhibition, as in quotes by Langston Hughes and Henry Dumas, as well as in her dialogue with The Black Book of 1974.

Can you speak on the development of the work “Woke up This Morning, the Blues was in My Bed” (2019)? Does the Morgan see itself as having a responsibility to act as a patron to living artists?

This exhibition was organized by LACMA, so the work was first completed there. That said, Saar changed the way the work was shown even from there to here, and we were very happy to accommodate her requests. For the past 15 years, the Morgan has been actively collecting and exhibiting the work of contemporary artists. When we acquire the work of a living artist, we quickly send them a questionnaire so that we can have their thoughts and requests in our files for now and for the future.

“Serving Time” courtesy of Betye Saar

Can you speak on Saar’s work “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” and the recent decision from Quaker to stop using the image finally? What do you think of the artist’s power to appropriate and re-frame images to fulfill her own narrative?

It’s about time, isn’t it? After all, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” was made nearly 50 years ago! As Betye Saar has said herself in a press release, there is still much work to be done. When you look at a more recent piece like “Serving Time,” with its reference to mass incarceration, you realize that Saar’s work is still performing a vital and much-needed function.

Betye Saar: Call and Response is on view by appointment only and visitors must respect mask-wearing and social-distancing policies. Running concurrently is David Hockney: Drawing from Life (through 30 May 2021) in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery of London. Visit The Morgan Library & Museum for tickets and further information.

Images courtesy of Betye Saar + The Morgan Library / exhibition images by Graham S Haber