In size, “Betye Saar: Call and Response” is a modest show. Just 18 sculptures and collages, plus a selection of sketches, are tucked into a single small gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Resnick Pavilion.
The focus is on objects made in the last 25 years of a prolific career that was launched six decades ago. Since then, her work has been seen in more than 80 solo shows in galleries and museums.
Size, however, can be deceptive. Think of the LACMA gallery as a kind of one-room schoolhouse. Two lessons are on offer, both very big.
One is the distinctive nature of Saar’s brand of assemblage art. She builds her sculptures from used household objects, but in a carefully considered rather than spontaneously improvisational way. Artists take a variety of approaches to the use of found objects in their work, but hers is related to a particular kind of drawing.
The other lesson concerns the relationship between assemblage as a specific art form and the larger context of racism that has permeated American life from its beginnings. In “Call and Response,” the two lessons intertwine.
Take “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break” (1998), a reflective installation assemblage that was born of a chance encounter at a rummage sale with a vintage ironing board. According to the catalog by LACMA curator Carol S. Eliel — spiral-bound, like Saar’s sketchbooks — the artist found the object at a Pasadena City College flea market. Something about it sparked the artist’s imagination, setting off a chain reaction.
In the finished work a flatiron, the pre-electric kind heated on top of a stove (and made of the hefty metal that gives the iron its name), is chained to a leg of the old ironing board. This intimation of bondage gets specific on the board’s top, which is printed with two images.
One is a famous 18th century British diagram of the packed hold of a slave ship in the Middle Passage between Africa and the Caribbean. The other pictures a black woman bent over her ironing.
History flashes by. Slavery’s forced labor blurs into Jim Crow’s restricted labor. “I’ll Bend,” the opening words of the sculpture’s title, describes the physical posture of a domestic worker at an ironing board.
“But I Will Not Break” describes another black woman — Saar herself, engaged in the labor of making a work of art.
The assembled composition stands in the room’s corner. Behind it a bright, white, crisply ironed sheet hangs clipped to a clothesline suspended between adjoining walls. In barely visible white thread, the cornered sheet features an embroidered monogram: KKK.
The irony — pun intended — of airing dirty laundry seemingly made clean by racism’s insidiousness is impossible to miss.
A vitrine nearby holds a number of small sketchbooks, including one related to “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break.” Standing on edge, the sketchbook is opened to two sheets with drawings made using a plain ballpoint pen and the kind of “to-do” notebook that you’d carry in a pocket. Rather than lavish drawings, Saar’s sketches read as visual notations jotting down something in the mind’s eye — a kind of memo-to-self, written with the simple directness of a grocery list.
An aerial view of the ironing board’s top featuring the images of the slave-ship diagram and the woman ironing, dated Jan. 3, was quickly rendered using rudimentary marks. Twenty-six days later, an equally basic side-view of the ironing board shows the flatiron and chain in place.
The later sketch also specifies that the applied images will be affixed to the board not by drawing or painting them but by a heat-transfer printing technique. That little notation packs a punch: Heat transfer is itself an ironing process, applying pressure and high temperature to move an image from one surface to another. Saar’s assemblage doesn’t just describe history, it embodies a visceral connection to it.
That’s where the relationship between the larger context of racism and assemblage as a specific art form comes in.
On one hand, it’s unsurprising that the genre would be pervasive among African American artists. The deep roots of assemblage in Los Angeles art began in the 1950s with the counterculture ethos of Wallace Berman. An art at variance with prevailing social norms — or in committed opposition to them — is to be expected.
On the other, assemblage as an approach to making art was born a century ago in Picasso’s Cubist constructions. Cubism launched a formal revolution in seeing. The illusions of Renaissance perspective were chucked overboard to allow for the inventions of a new way of observing multiple sides of an object at once.
Saar’s assemblages add a social dimension to the multiplicity. She sees sides of lived experience that artists of the dominant culture necessarily can’t observe.
When she saw a beat-up old ironing board at a flea market sale, Saar saw a long, rectangular shape narrowing at one end that recalled the distinctive contour of a picture seared into the consciousness of countless African Americans. That double-vision began a chain reaction of associations that unfolded over time in marvelous, disturbing and insightful ways.
Saar’s 23 sketchbooks itemize stops on the path that arrives at the show’s 15 assemblages and three collages.
In several works she seizes the racist stereotype of the mammy caricature. Inserting little toy machine guns into one grinning doll’s hands, she transforms an image of mockery into a fierce symbol of resistance.
In others, birdcages are small prisons for a variety of objects placed inside. As Maya Angelou explained, it’s “the caged bird” that “sings of freedom.” Art — song — is a zone of liberty.
In the final work, a new sculpture whose sketchbook drawings date back as far as 2001, scores of cobalt blue bottles rest on a metal cot over a bed of coals. The ensemble is illuminated from within by a flourish of blue neon.
Ever since the biblical prophet Isaiah, enshrined on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, burning coal has represented pain’s ability to purify and cleanse. Saar’s bed of coal welds its metaphoric capacity for spiritual transformation to the blues.
“Woke Up This Morning, the Blues was in My Bed” adds a poignant coda to a moving exhibition.
When: Through April 5. Closed Wednesdays
Admission: $10-$25 (see website for free periods)
Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org