National Gallery of Art acquires works by Betye Saar and Melvin Edwards

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National Gallery of Art acquires works by Betye Saar and Melvin Edwards
Melvin Edwards, All Most, 1985. Welded steel. Overall: 26.99 x 18.1 x 24.77 cm (10 5/8 x 7 1/8 x 9 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington Patrons' Permanent Fund 2022.3.2 Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London © Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

WASHINGTON, DC.- A pioneer of second-wave feminist and post­war Black nationalist aesthetics, Betye Saar’s (b. 1926) practice examines African American identity, spirituality, and cross-cultural connectedness. The Trickster (1994), recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art, reflects Saar’s continued introspection, her assertion of the aesthetic and conceptual power of African cultural forms, and the belief that art can be made from anything. This is her first assemblage to enter the National Gallery’s collection where it joins one print and two mixed media works by her.

Made from a seven-foot-tall antique heater adorned with a necklace of bells, chains, and vintage keys, The Trickster depicts Eshu, the trickster god of the Yoruba people that protects devotees while engaging in mischief. Saar has represented the trickster figure throughout her career, beginning in the early 1970s with hanging leather pieces. This totemic variation represents not only the enduring significance of the figure for Saar, but also demonstrates her command of her materials on a monumental scale.

Since 1969 Saar has produced potent, evocative assemblage sculptures that explore themes of race, gender, ancestry, and spirituality. Her work is part of a storied tradition of artists working with found objects in Southern California and aligned with multiple art historical movements, including Black Arts, feminist art, and Neo-Dada, while remaining a reflection of her personal history and singular view. Saar’s assemblage practice began with the reappropriation of racist memorabilia she encountered at flea markets and yard sales, turning hurtful imagery into symbols of empowerment, most notably in the assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). The collections of African and Oceanic art at the Field Museum in Chicago later sparked her interest in ancestral arts, ritual objects, and spiritual power. Saar’s symbolically rich body of work has evolved over time to demonstrate the various cultural, political, and technological contexts in which it exists.

Acquisition: Melvin Edwards

Recognized as a pioneer in the history of contemporary American sculpture, Melvin Edwards (b. 1937) draws inspiration from African metalworking traditions, American racial histories, and visual languages of modernism, as well as from his own personal experiences and relationships. The National Gallery of Art has acquired four works from Lynch Fragments, Edwards’s most extensive and celebrated series that responds to legacies of race, labor, and oppression.

Originally inspired by police killings of Black citizens and other forms of brutality during the civil rights era, Edwards’s Lynch Fragments are modestly sized wall reliefs made from found metal objects, such as chains, locks, knives, tool parts, and other detritus that the artist welded together into abstract forms. The series has three distinct periods: the early 1960s that depicted Edwards’s response to racial violence in the United States; his activism in the wake of the Vietnam War during the early 1970s; and from 1978 to the present, when he began to pay homage to significant individuals in his life—usually friends, collaborators, and personal heroes—and to explore ideas of nostalgia and investigate African culture.

The twisted steel and chain of All Most (1985) recall histories of labor and slavery as the work simultaneously evokes Edwards’s own past in both rural and industrialized contexts in the South. A large trowel juts out from Tayali Ever Ready (1981–1986/1988) to pay tribute to Zambia’s first modern sculptor, Henry Tayali. Siempre Gilberto de la Nuez (1994) honors the Cuban painter and friend of Edwards with chains, blades, and a cross formed by two threaded rods. For Emilio Cruz (2005) similarly is a memorial to a friend and artist as well as an example of the Discs, a major development in the Lynch Fragment series, in which Edwards adheres welded compositions to the center of metal circles.

Born in Houston, Texas, Edwards began his artistic career at USC, where he met and was mentored by the Hungarian painter Francis de Erdely. In 1965 the Santa Barbara Museum of Art organized his first solo exhibition, which launched his professional career. Edwards moved to New York City in 1967. Shortly after his arrival, his work was exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem. In 1970 he became the first African American sculptor to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Edwards is represented also by two works on paper in the National Gallery’s collection.

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