Sculpture Revisited: Alison Saar’s Prints

Sculptor and printmaker Alison Saar (b. 1956) often carves wood, which led to her attraction to the woodcut printmaking technique. She makes most of her prints after her sculptures, using them to revisit and reevaluate her three-dimensional imagery. Printed against spare backgrounds, Saar’s figures retain a sculptural quality despite their two-dimensional format.

“One of the main things that I like about printmaking is that it’s accessible to many people,” says Saar. “And I also view it as what I call a ‘palette’ cleansing. My sculptures take a lot of effort, and my hands are usually tired at the end of all of that, so printmaking offers a chance to sit back and look at the piece one more time and make any changes that I want to, or just re-think the work graphically.”


Left to right: Pallor Trick, 2013; Cast bronze, stone, and silk, 14 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 6 in; Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver / Pallor Tricks, 2004; Etching and collograph on paper, 29 1/2 x 28 in; Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver

In the sculpture Pallor Trick (2013) and related print Pallor Tricks (2004), Saar deftly alludes to the subjects of racial identity and societal definitions of beauty. The titles feature a play on words, referring to the notion of a parlor trick, an illusion meant to entertain guests. In each work, the female figure stands with a white sheet draped over her head as if playing a game of hide and seek. Saar plays a trick of her own, using the word “pallor” to draw attention to the translucent white sheets that partially veil the figures’ dark skin.


Left to right: Snake Man, 1994; Woodcut and lithograph on paper, 33 1/2 x 42 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; Photo by Lee Stalsworth / Snake Charmer, 1985; Wood, tin, paint, and found objects, 21 x 26 x 14 in.; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund and gift of Merry Norris, 1993

Saar created Snake Man (1994) several years after completing her sculpture Snake Charmer (1985), also on view in the exhibition. Inspired by Saar’s encounter with a snake charmer, this bust-length figure with blank eyes resembles an ancient statue. The figure, who daringly holds a snake in his mouth, may represent a shaman. Although serpents are seen as sinister by many cultures, this snake, balanced between the man’s teeth, suggests equilibrium between good and evil. Against a spare background, the print’s figure resembles the freestanding sculpture, becoming a potent distillation of Saar’s three-dimensional form. Saar created the dynamic texture in the image by printing from a discarded piece of cracked linoleum.

Saar’s prints, and the sculptures on which they are based, focus on individual life experiences as well as broader cultural prejudices. Her figures draw viewers to reflect on gender, race, and identity, subjects that resonate powerfully in today’s world.

Visit the museum to see Alison Saar In Print before the exhibition closes on Sunday, October 2, 2016.

5 Fast Facts: Alison Saar

Impress your friends with five fast facts about sculptor and printmaker Alison Saar (b. 1956), whose work is on view in Alison Saar In Print through October 2, 2016.

Alison Saar (b. 1956)

Alison Saar with her works in NMWA’s exhibition Alison Saar In Print

Alison Saar with her works in NMWA’s exhibition Alison Saar In Print

1. All In the Family

Saar grew up surrounded by art, thanks to her mother, the renowned collagist and assemblage artist Betye Saar, and her father, Richard, an art conservator and painter. Saar’s opened her eyes to art making and deepened her interest in other cultures.

2. Past Lives

Saar often incorporates found objects into her artwork. She credits childhood visits to Watts Towers with inspiring her practice by showing her that anything could have a second life. She enjoys working with materials that have a history.

3. By Any Other Name

Because Saar’s work often explores dark or disturbing themes, she adds levity by incorporating wordplay and double entendres into the titles of her works. She relates this method to the blues. “They’re playing these heart-wrenching songs, but there’s also some humorousness to them, some sort of escape,” says Saar.

Alison Saar, Tango, 2005; Woodcut on paper, 25 3/4 x 38 3/4 in.' Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver; © Alison Saar

Alison Saar, Tango, 2005; Woodcut on paper, 25 3/4 x 38 3/4 in.’ Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver; © Alison Saar

4. Two Worlds

Saar cites her identity as a biracial woman as an influence in her artistic practice. She often tackles the concept of duality in her work—themes like freedom versus oppression and humor mixed with despair.

5. Bring Your Own Background

When asked how people should interpret her work, Saar replied, “Just look at it.” She believes that she only does half of the work on each piece. The viewer completes it by bringing his or her own history and perspective to the interpretation of Saar’s art.

Visit the museum to see Alison Saar In Print before the exhibition closes on October 2, 2016.

—Hannah Page was the summer 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Opening Tomorrow: Alison Saar In Print

Alison Saar (b. 1956, Los Angeles) is an American artist known for her sculptures, installations, and prints. Alison Saar In Print, on view through October 2, features 13 prints and three sculptures by the artist, focusing on Saar’s printmaking in relation to her sculptural work.

Installation view of  Alison Saar In Print at NMWA

Installation view of Alison Saar In Print at NMWA

As the daughter of renowned assemblage artist Betye Saar, Alison Saar grew up surrounded by art and became familiar with the process of printmaking through her mother’s work. Saar often creates prints based off of her completed sculptural works. Referring to herself as “a woodcarver primarily,” she began creating woodcut prints because she was already familiar with the process of woodcarving through sculpture. “I could do it at home . . . and so I liked the immediacy of it.  I think I like the way the wood in woodcuts translates my ‘mark,’” says Saar.


Alison Saar, Cotton Eater II, 2014; Woodcut on paper; 72 x 34 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; © Alison Saar; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The accessibility of prints is appealing to Saar, as well as the opportunity to visually rethink her more labor-intensive sculptural works. She says, “Sculptures are always bounded by gravity. . . Whereas prints and drawings allow me to expand into space and create.”

The works on view explore themes of gender, race, culture, and history. Because her work comes from “a very autobiographical place,” Saar often examines her personal experience as a black woman. Bold colors and textural details as well as elements of myth and legend reveal Saar’s interest in a range of cultures—particularly of the African diaspora.

Many of her prints also focus on the female body. Instead of portraying women as objects of desire, Saar depicts female figures that “spoof the odalisques painted by males, making them powerful women who stare down those scrutinizing them.”

“It’s a way to bring inequities and injustices to the forefront and to express things that are not often expressed or are ignored. . . . Exploring these ideas through art sometimes makes it more accessible for people because they don’t have their defenses up,” says Saar.

Like the sculptures that inspire them, Alison Saar’s prints are visually compelling and thematically complex. Her works combine powerful color, texture, and symbolism to draw attention to issues and identities that are often ignored.

Alison Saar In Print is on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, June 10–October 2, 2016. Visit the museum for lunchtime gallery talks about the exhibition Wednesdays July 13 and August 10 at noon.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.