Renowned American artist Betye Saar’s large-scale work Drifting Toward Twilight—commissioned by The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens—will go on view November 11, 2023, in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. The site-specific installation features a 17-foot-long vintage wooden canoe and found objects, including birdcages, antlers, and natural materials harvested by Saar from The Huntington’s 207-acre grounds. The work will be the centerpiece of an immersive exhibition, “Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight,” co-curated by Yinshi Lerman-Tan, The Huntington’s Bradford and Christine Mishler Associate Curator of American Art, and Sóla Saar Agustsson, Saar’s granddaughter and the Huntington Art Museum’s special programs and digitization assistant. The exhibition will remain on view for two years, and the work will become a permanent part of The Huntington’s American art collection.
“We are incredibly excited to present ‘Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight,’ as we continue to expand the stories we tell in our galleries,” said Christina Nielsen, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Museum. “This installation will be deeply significant to our community because of Betye’s iconic status in Black feminist and American art and also because it represents something of a homecoming for her.” Saar grew up in Pasadena, which is adjacent to The Huntington’s city of San Marino. She attended Pasadena City College, was inspired by exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), and produced film and design work in the area during her early career.
The commission is indeed 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. “Saar’s importance to the history of American art cannot be overstated,” Lerman-Tan said. “Heavily impacted by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Watts Rebellion, she emerged as a major artistic voice during the Civil Rights and feminist movements, making works that confronted the legacies of racism and enslavement. Siting this commission at The Huntington connects Saar’s career as an icon of American art to the formative experiences and artistic circles she had in Pasadena.”
“Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight” will transform an entire room in the Scott Galleries into what the artist calls a “cocoon-like environment.” The walls will be painted in an oceanic blue gradient, featuring a poem by Saar and phases of the moon. Shifting lighting effects in the gallery will emulate phases of daylight to twilight, evening to night, and night to dawn. Inside the monumental 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 will be illuminated by a cool neon glow, highlighting plant material foraged by the artist from The Huntington’s gardens. “Saar’s work evokes mysticism and the occult, as well as the human relationship to nature and the cosmos,” Lerman-Tan said. “An immersive, watery space containing a canoe that is part vessel and part spiritual space, the installation gestures to the ancestral journeys in the Black Atlantic experience, as well as the transitional cycles of life that shape the natural world.”
New Documentary Film
A short documentary—produced by The Huntington and directed by Kyle Provencio Reingold, program director of Ghetto Film School LA—will be 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 co-curator 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.
“My grandmother’s spirit and wisdom come through in the film, and it was a special experience to be involved with it and co-curate the exhibition,” Agustsson said. “I am close with my grandmother and have spent a lot of time with her, especially working in her studio, yet she still tells stories I haven’t heard. She continues to inspire me with her unique approach to artmaking, particularly in harvesting discarded plant materials from The Huntington that speak to her installation and growing up in Pasadena.”
In addition to being shown inside the exhibition, the film will be be available on The Huntington’s website.
The Huntington will publish a book titled Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight that will commemorate the commission and add a new lens to scholarship about Saar relating to her early life in Pasadena. The publication will include an interview with the artist and contributions from Ishmael Scott Reed, an American poet, novelist, playwright, and longtime friend of Saar; Tiffany E. Barber, assistant professor of African American art at UCLA; and co-curators Lerman-Tan and Agustsson, as well as a foreword by Nielsen. It is scheduled for publication in summer 2024.
Support for this exhibition is provided by Mei-Lee Ney and the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation. Additional funding is provided by an anonymous foundation, Terry Perucca and Annette Serrurier, Faye and Robert C. Davidson Jr., and the Virginia Steele Scott Endowment for American Art.
About Betye Saar
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.
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is a cultural and educational institution of global significance. Building on Henry E. and Arabella Huntington’s renowned collections, The Huntington supports research and promotes education in the arts, humanities, and botanical science through the growth and preservation of its collections; the development of a community of scholars, school programs, and partnerships; and the display and interpretation of its extraordinary resources for diverse audiences. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, California, 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Visitor information: huntington.org.
Photo by Sarah M. Golonka. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.