October 21, 2019 – January 4, 2020
In 1969, Betye Saar pulled out a discarded window frame she had found on a family vacation and pasted photographs, illustrations, and sections of her own prints behind its panes. The result was Black Girl’s Window (1969), a pivotal work in the artist’s career that blended the mystical imagery Saar was using in her ongoing printmaking practice with political and biographical elements to form a self-portrait assemblage. 50 years later, the work is now on view at the newly re-opened Museum of Modern Art as the centerpiece of Betye Saar: The Legend of Black Girl’s Window. Organized by Christophe Cherix and Esther Adler with Ana Torok and Nectar Knuckles, the exhibition hails the museum’s recent acquisition of more than 40 of the artist’s early works on paper.
The upper sash of Saar’s weatherworn frame is divided into a grid of nine small windowpanes. Crescent moons, stars, and a smiling sun—distant celestial bodies observing all that lies under them—fill the top panels. In the row below, two Black children dance within a collage of flowers, stars, and moons. Beside them, symbols of racism loom: a white paper skeleton raises its hands over a smaller black plastic skeleton; the head of a Black figure is divided into a brain map, recalling phrenology, a disputed pseudo-science that implied a superiority of white brains over black. The bottom row of the grid contains unseen forces that guide the subject’s fate: a drawing of a lion gobbling a sun—Saar’s astrological sign is Leo—a small framed daguerreotype of a woman who represents Saar’s Irish grandmother, and a printed bald eagle, the word “love” emblazoned on its breast.
In the undivided panel of the lower sash, the silhouette of a girl’s head is painted on the verso of the glass. Two blue eyes cut from a lenticular image blink open and shut as viewers pass. Her hands, palms open and raised, are painted with astronomic images and symbols of gender, clues to the girl’s future. Seen in 2019, the raised hands seem prophetic of the “don’t shoot” gesture.
A window allows for a partial break in boundaries, while a wall may be impenetrable. The transparency of a window at least allows light, shadows, silhouettes and images to pass through. Saar uses her window to not only frame her girl within its borders, but also to insist she is acknowledged, even as she stands on the other side of things, face pressed against the glass as she peers out from a private space into a world she cannot fully access. Mostly it is a work of self-reflection, with each fragment in the piece working like a frame in a film or a page in a book that informs but never fully makes visible the story of a Black woman artist living in Los Angeles in 1969—the year of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, and the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by FBI agents.
At the time of its creation, Saar was living and working in what is still her home and studio in Laurel Canyon, caring for three young daughters while cultivating a practice of experimental printmaking. Etchings from this period mingle Saar’s love for her children with her need to re-examine the legends and stories she would share with them. Girl Children (1964) snuggles the faces of her daughters together, yet each child is facing a different direction. In To Catch a Unicorn (1960) a beautiful Black heroine—a sorceress? a princess?—stands beside a mythical beast in a night faintly lit by a distant moon.
Saar’s curiosity about astrology, tarot, palmistry, and other pathways of divination are also at play, with results that are as enigmatic as they are engaging. In The Palmist Window (1967), the artist’s own handprint is pasted beside two printed variations of palmistry diagrams within the parameters of a window frame. A lineup of her signature suns and moons hangs above them as Saar expands on a theme in her search to distill its meaning.
In the wake of Black Girl’s Window, Saar created the body of political work for which she is best known as part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. In Let Me Entertain You (1972), she employs a small three-paneled window frame to create a narrative of a Black figure who begins in the first section as a lanky minstrel leaning over a banjo. In the second, he is transposed over a duotone photocopy of a lynching, and in the third, he is transformed into a revolutionary, the banjo now a rifle, his posture straightened, and the colors of the Pan-African flag behind him. The images are new, yet they tie into the themes of emergence and transformation seen throughout the show, themes the artist would carry with her in the decades of art-making that have followed.