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September 21 2019
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Betye Saar’s The Edge of Ethics, 2010. “Betye Saar: Call and Response” opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on September 22.

Betye Saar, the ever photogenic high priestess of politically potent assemblage sculpture, is still at work in her Hollywood Hills studio. At 93, after almost 50 years of exhibiting her art, Saar is finally ready to reveal the scaffolding that underlies her creative process—her sketchbooks. These small spiral-bound records of her trips and inspirations also chronicle the multi-year evolution of her ideas for particular pieces. These will be displayed alongside her sculptures in an exhibition opening this weekend at LACMA. Sketchbooks from Saar’s travels—filled with richly toned gouaches, watercolors, marker drawings, and pen-and-ink sketches—will also be on view. “They are beautiful,” says LACMA’s senior curator of modern art, Carol S. Eliel, who organized the show. “They are truly altar pieces of aesthetic pleasure.”

Saar’s Sketchbook, 2009–2010.

Saar is always on the hunt for new source material. “As a shaman gleans the environment for special ingredients and objects to fabricate the mojo,” she explained earlier in her career, “I glean flea markets, estate sales and thrift shops.” The spiral sketchbooks are the place where Saar works out how washboards, mass-produced Aunt Jemima figurines, birdcages, and clocks will be built into her signature assemblages, many of which explore the history of white attitudes toward people of color, particularly women of color. The day that she and Eliel began planning the LACMA exhibition, Saar just happened to have some sketchbooks with her. In her typically matter-of-fact manner, she suggested that Eliel might want to take a look.

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