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The Defining Artworks of 2023 | Featuring Betye Saar

Tucked away in its own room in the Huntington Library’s American art galleries is a new commission (and acquisition) by longtime LA-based artist Betye Saar, whose childhood visits to the Huntington in the 1930s proved to be an informative experience. At the center of this blue-lit gallery is a 17-foot vintage wood canoe that Saar had had in her collection for a number of years. Inside are three wood chairs atop which are three birdcages, each filled with a large tree branch; sandwiching them are sculptures of Saar’s own making. The canoe sits on a bed of branches, sourced from around the Huntington’s grounds, and strips of neon lights; a diagram of different moon cycles rises high in one wall. An accompanying short documentary by Kyle Provencio Reingold provides a soothing jazz soundtrack to the experience of viewing the work. Where is this boat going? Saar has left it intentionally open ended, but in the room there is a palpable sense of hope—of a new beginning just on the horizon. 

Each year, countless new artworks are made and historical ones come into sharper focus as events in the art world and beyond give them new valance. That’s the case with the works assembled here, which in one way or another defined our editors’ art-viewing experiences. Several highlighted works here look at our relationship to the digital world, others debuted as part of major exhibitions, ans still, others look at our relationship to history and the urgency of looking at it from perspectives that have long been purposefully marginalized and silenced.