Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. In a six-post series, I will explore the themes featured in our most recent collection installation. Read about our “Family Matters” and “Rebels with a Cause” themes, and stay tuned for more.

Kirsten Justesen's Sculpture #2, a square cardboard box that features, on the top, a photo of the naked artist curled up inside of a box.

Kirsten Justesen, Sculpture #2, 1968/2010, Edition II, 1/5; Painted cardboard box and screened photograph, overall: 20 in x 24 in x 24 in.; Gift of Montana A/S

Spaces, both physical and metaphorical, often have strong gendered associations. Historically, conventional ideas about women’s purportedly delicate sensibilities led them to be regularly restricted to private, interior environments—sites of protection and confinement. Such isolation limited women’s active participation in the exterior, public realm directed by men.

Many women artists evaluate the complex interrelationships of inside/outside and the female body. Employing imagery and materials that frame, envelop, or reflect the body, they reconfigure our assumptions about personal space.

Gallery Highlights:

Body-art pioneer Kirsten Justesen subverts the conventional approach to sculpting the nude female figure. For centuries, artists positioned figurative sculptures atop a plinth in order to provide the viewer a 360-degree view. Justesen’s compelling Sculpture II (2010), a remake of an object she first created in 1968, upends this tradition. The piece comprises an open cardboard box that reveals a photograph of the artist’s own curled body. This image of a woman in a box disrupts the viewer’s voyeuristic perspective and, perhaps, provides commentary on social constraints imposed upon women.

Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene also depicts a woman in a confining situation. In her photograph Untitled (68) (1999), she positioned her model in a domestic space: hidden beneath the cushions of a living room sofa, like a child at play. The pillows envelop the woman, who rests with her eyes closed, and suggest both containment and comfort.

With her back to the viewer, the figure in Alison Saar’s print Mirror, Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II (2014) is also somewhat concealed, her face visible only through her reflection in the frying pan she holds. The figure and the print’s title evoke the fairy tale Snow White, which contains themes of female self-critique and a culturally narrow standard of beauty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (68), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 x 15 3/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Hellen van Meene, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Alison Saar, Mirror Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II, 2014; Woodcut on chind colle, 40 1/2 x 23 1/3 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Dean Emerita of Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore; © Alison Saar; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Berthe Morisot, The Cage, 1885; Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 15 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Natalie with Birdcages, 1950; Gelatin silver print 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler

Although she worked more than a century before these contemporary artists, impressionist Berthe Morisot created a deceptively serene view in her painting The Cage (1885). She applied paint in vigorous strokes on an unprimed canvas to depict a pair of caged love birds. Huddled close together and positioned beside an exuberant vase of flowers, the birds appear diminutive and vulnerable.

Decades later, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe also used the bird cage. Rejecting studio settings and mannequin-like poses, she brought a formal precision and an irreverent sense of humor to the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 to 1958. Natalie with Bird Cages (1950) depicts a woman standing between two bird cages, seemingly at ease and assured—and by no means confined or caged herself.

These and other works in “Space Explorers” showcase how elements of architecture, mirrors, and other objects highlight the physical and psychological nuances of enclosure.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn: Alison Saar

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Alison Saar (b. 1956, Los Angeles, CA)

Alison Saar’s mother, acclaimed assemblagist Betye Saar, exposed her to the rich mythology of many non-Western traditions. She also learned from her father, a painter and art conservator. Her signature sculptures evoke German Expressionist work in robustness, reference Greek or African mythology in name or form, and often seek to address historical or contemporary social issues in the United States. A master of varied mediums, Saar places special emphasis on the tactility of handcraft, never afraid to experiment with finding new forms for her ideas.

Alison Saar, Tippy Toes, 2007; Wood and cast bronze, 59 x 23 x 23 in.; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Friends of African and African American Art, 2008.2 © Alison Saar

The Artist’s Voice:

“…It was really poignant to me, this idea that a work of art could, somehow, turn a page, or shed a light, or lead back to a source. And that’s one of the things that’s exciting about being an artist; that your work threads people to other places, and not necessarily in straight lines.”—Alison Saar, in an interview with BOMB Magazine

“I realized that by changing the function of objects, I could transform information and work ‘magic.’”—Alison Saar, in “The Saar System” in Mirabella (July 1992)

Revival Highlight:

The theme of hardship unites Saar’s works in Revival. The bodies of her figures often seem challenged, confined, or undermined by external obstacles or internal conflict, although they appear stoic in the face of suffering. Figures in many of Saar’s recent sculptures seem to suffer stabs of pain and loss by touching or consuming brambles. The motif speaks to broader themes of fertility, life cycles, human vulnerability, and hope.

Installation view of Alison Saar’s Barreness (2017)

Although the bramble’s thorns seem insidious at first, figures in works such as Tippy Toes (2007) and Barreness (2017) call that association into question. The brambles encircle and suspend the figure in Tippy Toes, uplifting while also trapping her. However, she appears calm, with her hands outstretched in a welcoming gesture. In Barreness, thorns germinate from the figure’s womb. The punning title of this sculpture plays on two words: “barrenness,” the incapability of producing offspring, and “baroness,” the title given to the wife of a baron, or to a woman who holds the title by her own right.

These suggestions of the “in-between” explore the conflicting identities often thrust upon women of color in an attempt to curtail or categorize them. As a biracial artist, Saar is interested in the complexity of personal history that rejects tidy categories.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Xiaoxiao Meng is the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.

Strong Impressions: Alison Saar’s Powerful Prints

Alison Saar (b. 1956) is primarily recognized for her sculptural works although her woodcuts, lithographs, and etchings are also a remarkable part of her oeuvre. Saar says that one key advantage to printmaking is that it is “accessible to many people.” NMWA’s exhibition Alison Saar In Print reveals the artist’s diverse use of media and techniques in her powerful exploration of race, gender, and identity.

Saar was exposed to art through her mother, acclaimed assemblagist Betye Saar, and her father Richard, a painter and art conservator. “My mother was a printmaker before she became an assemblagist,” Saar remembers, “so I was always around that process as a kid.” Saar often employs symbolism and descriptive titles to reference the African diaspora and obscured African-American histories.

Themes of domesticity and womanhood are woven throughout Alison Saar In Print. The woodcut Washtub Blues (2000) depicts an African American woman holding a washtub. The viewer can only glimpse the woman’s face through her reflection in the washtub. Washtub Blues emphasizes the household work that often goes underappreciated. “Housekeepers and nannies have a huge impact on people’s lives and they are rarely recognized. Often they’re invisible; you don’t even notice them. That’s why in this print of a laundress you see her from behind, with her face reflected in the tub of water,” the artist elaborates. The figure reminds viewers that the economic survival of a family or community is sometimes predicated on the work of a woman.

Alison Saar, Compton Nocturne, 2012; Color lithograph on paper, 19 1/4 x 25 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Alison Saar; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Alison Saar, Compton Nocturne, 2012; Color lithograph on paper, 19 1/4 x 25 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Alison Saar; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Though the artist prefers woodcuts, she also creates prints using lithography and etching. Saar’s lithograph Compton Nocturne (2012) combines art historical references with an African spiritual tradition. The print portrays a nude woman laying horizontally across the length of the paper. In place of hair, a bottle tree appears to sprout from the figure’s head. Constructed from tying bottles to trees, the bottle tree has been used in the Congo, the Caribbean, and the southeastern United States to ward off unwanted spirits or people.

The history of the Western female nude also informs Compton Nocturne. Saar replaces the traditional subject of an odalisque with an African-American woman. The artist repositions her subject as a culture-bearing woman, rather than an exoticized object of desire. A common motif in Saar’s work, she depicts “powerful women who stare down those scrutinizing them.”

Alison Saar In Print is on view through October 2, 2016 in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Meet Alison Saar at the museum on September 6, 2016 for a special artist talk.

—Casey Betts was the summer 2016 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Art Fix Friday: June 24, 2016

The Atlantic writes that women are writing the best crime novels and that their “awareness of that inside-out sort of violence” and their “more psychologically acute” stories sets them apart.

Front-Page Femmes

Iranian-born artist Bahar Behbahani finds inspiration in Persian gardens.

Los Angeles–based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby was awarded the Prix Canson award, which includes a solo exhibition, an artist residency, and about $11,300 worth of Canson paper.

Anna Gibb’s detailed architectural drawings of cities span Hong Kong to Glasgow.

In Al-Ugh-Ories, Nicole Eisenman’s paintings “signal something different: an inkling to stop, to ‘hang out,’ to find love in one’s community.”

Mirror, Mirror … Portraits of Frida Kahlo features 57 photographs of the painter at different stages of her life.

Agnes Martin’s works create an “intimate vibration,” convey feelings of “weightlessness,” and represent the artist’s “inner visions.”

One Hyperallergic essayist follows French photographer Sophie Calle and logs her experience.

Tate Modern’s Switch House extension adds 60% more gallery space to the museum, increasing the number of works on view by women artists from 17% to 36%.

For 30 years, photographer Elaine Ling has captured mystical forms carved from stones.

Hyperallergic raves about Joanne Greenbaum’s abstract paintings and ceramic sculptures.

Jenny Holzer creates a site-specific work in Ibiza.

Artistic Noise, a program created by artist Lauren Adelman and juvenile defender Francine Sherman, offers workshops to incarcerated young people.

The Kilroys, a group of female and trans playwrights, draw attention to otherwise overlooked plays.

Rachel Whiteread’s site-specific, concrete cabin on New York’s Governors Island alludes to Henry Thoreau and “the grimmer, darker underbelly of America.”

Georgian musician Salio discusses the music industry and women artists.

Billboard interviews singer-songwriter Victoria “La Mala” Ortiz.

Actress Ellie Kemper discusses how the television show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was written for her.

The New Yorker and ARTnews discuss a new biography of famed photographer Diane Arbus.

NPR explores Terry McMillan’s latest novel, I Almost Forgot About You.

Five of the six artists on the shortlist for the Jarman film-art prize award are women.

Shows We Want to See

Mai-Thu Perret’s “small yet powerful exhibition” at Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas features life-size female fighters, a ceramic dog, two large eye sculptures, and a glass wall smeared with petroleum jelly. Perret’s works question “the divide between human and artwork, reality and fantasy.”

The Whitney Museum of American Art holds a retrospective of 86-year-old artist June Leaf.

Arlene Shechet’s installation at the Frick Collection pairs early-18th-century Meissen porcelains with sculptures that Shechet recently made at the same German factory.

Silt, Soot and Smut showcases Alison Saar’s works inspired by the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant 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.