ICA Miami presents ‘Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight’
Among the works featured in “Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami is this piece titled “Gliding Into Midnight.” (Photo courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects)
Vibrant. Haunting. Memorable. Cosmology and spirituality intersect in “Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA Miami).
Fans of the pioneering feminist artist can enjoy free access to some of her rarely seen installations, through April 17, 2022, on the second floor of the Miami Design District museum.
“Betye Saar is a legend of American art,” said Alex Gartenfeld, ICA Miami’s artistic director. “She is a master sculpture of assemblage, and her work has made a pointed commentary on the depictions of Black individuals throughout the 20th century.”
The 95-year-old Saar is known for ushering in the medium of assemblage, which focuses on using older items to create something new. Saar’s iconic piece, titled “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” is particularly emblematic of this style.
Though she is celebrated for her assemblage work, the exhibit at ICA Miami highlights an alternative art form. The pieces on view are heavily influenced by her travels in the 1970s spurred by research trips to Nigeria, Haiti and Mexico.
“She’s worked also in the medium of installations,” said Stephanie Seidel, the exhibit’s curator. “Many of these have not been shown in over three decades.”
Among these are “House of Fortune” and “Circle of Fire,” as well as “Wings of Morning,” a participatory altarpiece encouraging notes and offerings for those who have passed.
“Her installations, in particular, refer to a lot of themes of spirituality and mysticism, and I think they’re interesting in the way that they combine different spiritual and religious traditions,” Seidel said.
Projecting the combined essence of Saar’s work and providing the proper atmosphere for individual pieces was of utmost importance.
“We constructed freestanding pavilions or rooms to house the work,” Gartenfeld said.
“We have an open floor plan at the museum, and so the curator and the artists worked on this challenge or intrigue of how to present a mysterious, productive work within an open floor plan. And the solution they came up with, I think, is really visually successful at creating these poetic interludes, which are these rooms.”
Saar was unable to attend the exhibit’s October 2021 opening due to COVID-19 concerns, but she had a big role in producing the show.
“Betty worked really, really closely on the exhibition and was incredibly involved with the presentation and vision interpretation of her work,” Gartenfeld said. “She has an incredible engagement and dynamism and life and joy she brings to her work in the studio.”
The production process included presenting various elements of her work, which goes beyond the exploration of spirituality. Race and identity also play a prominent role in the pieces.
Though some pieces were created decades ago, Seidel points to their relevance today. Works such as “Mojotech,” “Gliding Into Midnight” and “A Woman’s Boat: Voyages” — combined with fragments of the installation “In Troubled Waters” — all speak to this experience.
“Her installations are from the ’80s and ’90s, however, I think they’re still extremely timely as they address questions of discrimination and racism, but also the experience of the African diaspora,” Seidel said. “A lot of her work also refers to the experience as an African-American woman in the United States.”
The exhibit provides the perfect opportunity for viewers to survey a cross-section of Saar’s messaging while examining meaningful aspects of her work.
“This exhibit is really about illustrating the range of Betty’s artistic work and activism,” Gartenfeld said. “The way that she relentlessly worked with materials and reinvented these installations that she made during the ’80s and ’90s. These were made during a time when she was moving around the world … I think that there weren’t a lot of the supports there, commercially and institutionally, to really give her the platform to create the work that she wanted to make. This work sees her traveling around the world, making work in places like embassies, using materials at hand, being incredibly adaptive and inventive.”
Which is why it’s so important to be showing her work at this time, Gartenfeld said.
“I think that she has an influence on most every sculptor working today,” he said. “I think that her inventiveness with found objects is really profound. I think that she is an artist who, again, as influential as she is, there hasn’t been an exhibition like this that brings together these installations.”
WHAT: “Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight”
WHEN: Wednesdays through Sundays, through April 17, 2022; hours are noon-6 p.m. for general admission and 11 a.m.-noon for seniors and at-risk visitors; closed on major federal holidays
WHERE: Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St.
SAFETY PROTOCOLS: The museum requires social distancing and face coverings for all guests age 2 and older. For more details, visit icamiami.org/visit.