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Betye Saar installation view

Renowned American artist Betye Saar’s large-scale work “Drifting Toward Twilight”—recently commissioned by The Huntington—is a site-specific installation that features a 17-foot-long vintage wooden canoe and found objects, including birdcages, antlers, and natural materials harvested by Saar from The Huntington’s grounds.

The work is the centerpiece of the immersive exhibition, “Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight”. The commission is personal for Saar, who has fond memories of visiting The Huntington as a child and of the trees and landscape in her north Pasadena neighborhood. “When I was a child in the 1930s, I would come to The Huntington with my mother and aunt, who were avid gardeners. As I became an artist, I realized the importance, and the influence, of nature in my work—whether it’s the moon and the stars, branches and rocks, or bones and shells,” Saar said. “It is my desire that Drifting Toward Twilight brings the outside in, blending the gardens with the gallery and creating an immersive, contemplative experience for the viewer.”

Drifting Toward Twilight also showcases Saar’s major status as a pioneer of assemblage art and as part of the foundational generation of Black artists in Los Angeles.

“Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight” transforms an entire room in the Scott Galleries into what the artist calls a “cocoon-like environment.” The walls are painted in an oceanic blue gradient, featuring a poem by Saar and phases of the moon. Shifting lighting effects in the gallery emulate phases of daylight to twilight, evening to night, and night to dawn. Inside the canoe, Saar positions mysterious “passengers,” including antlers in metal birdcages, children’s chairs, and architectural elements—all drawn from the artist’s ever-evolving collection of found objects. The space beneath the canoe is illuminated by a cool neon glow, highlighting plant material.

A short documentary—produced by The Huntington and directed by Kyle Provencio Reingold, program director of Ghetto Film School LA—is presented within the exhibition. The film features footage of the work in progress in Saar’s studio, documenting her process of selecting natural materials in partnership with The Huntington’s Botanical curators. Saar speaks about the new work, her life, and her career in an oral history interview with exhibition co-curator Sóla Saar Agustsson, who is also the artist’s granddaughter—adding an intergenerational aspect to the film and exhibition, representative of Saar’s position as the matriarch of a family of artists. Watch film.

Betye Saar (b. 1926) is one of the most significant American artists. Over her six-decade career, she has created assemblage works exploring themes of racial oppression, mysticism, the occult, family, memory, and identity. She fashions her assemblage artworks from found objects, antiques, and family heirlooms that she collects. Emerging as an important artistic voice during the feminist and Civil Rights movements, Saar is a pioneer of Black feminist art who connected the personal with the political, taking on such subject matter as the legacies of enslavement and the impacts of racism.

Born in Los Angeles, Saar moved with her family in the early 1930s to a north Pasadena neighborhood, where Jackie Robinson was her neighbor. She attended Pasadena City College and went on to teach at the now-shuttered Pasadena Film School. Saar was a key figure in the art communities of Pasadena and greater Los Angeles in the late 1950s, communing with a burgeoning group of Black artists whose works shaped the history of art today. In 1967, she experienced a formative artistic influence at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), where the assemblages of American artist Joseph Cornell inspired her. Saar’s oeuvre since the late 1960s has deployed iconography related to African American history and experience.

Image: Betye Saar, Drifting Toward Twilight, 2023 (installation view). © 2023 Betye Saar. Photo: Joshua White / The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.