Artist to Know: Alison Saar

Liz Catalano
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Early Mixed-Media Collage on Paper Available With Rago/Wright

American artist Alison Saar wanted to bridge the divide between personal and political narratives from a young age. The daughter of famed artist Betye Saar and an art conservator, Alison Saar soon learned to draw upon the rich legacy of folk art for her own work. Today, Saar explores Black womanhood through sculpture, mixed media, and assemblage. Ancient techniques and complex histories often appear in her art, equally honoring the past while commenting on the present.

One of Alison Saar’s untitled collages from the 1970s will come to auction with Rago/Wright this fall. The upcoming Post War & Contemporary Art sale will begin on September 17th, 2021 at 11:00 AM EDT. Get to know Alison Saar and her art before placing a bid.

Alison Saar with her sculptures. Image from the Asheville Art Museum.
Alison Saar with her sculptures. Image from the Asheville Art Museum.

Art infused every aspect of Alison Saar’s early life. Her mother, Betye Saar, actively participated in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. She criticized anti-Black racism in the United States through mixed-media assemblages and other pieces. Alison Saar’s father worked at museums as an art conservator while creating original ceramics. Alison Saar and her sisters grew up in an art-positive environment marked by museum visits, trips to public art installations, and easy access to creative materials. 

Watching her father maintain and restore old artworks from around the world kindled a lifelong appreciation for traditional art. Saar was particularly interested in Outsider Art created by Black Americans, as well as African folklore, Native American art, and German Expressionism. Saar drew upon these diverse sources to interrogate her identity and heritage. Social commentary came naturally to Saar as she began her career.

Communicating her thoughts clearly and efficiently was a necessity for Saar from the start: “I wanted to make art that told a story, that would engage people,” she told Hyperallergic in 2018. “I wanted them to be moved by my work, whether it was specifically what my intentions were or not did not matter. I wanted them to be drawn in and affected by my sculpture.”

Alison Saar, untitled collage on paper, 1975. Image from Rago/Wright.
Alison Saar, untitled collage on paper, 1975. Image from Rago/Wright.

Before committing herself to sculpture and installation art, Alison Saar created mixed media works that bear hints of her future projects. The upcoming Rago/Wright auction will feature one of these early pieces by Saar. The untitled collage on paper dates back to Saar’s college years in the mid-1970s. In this example, six people look out at the viewer from a small house rendered in graphite. Saar placed the figures in various domestic poses— a young girl hides behind a seated woman to the left while two women glance out from the center. Another figure stares jauntily from a blue-tinted window. Against the grayscale background, the people stand out in vibrant color. Rago/Wright will present this collage on paper with an estimate of USD 3,000 to $5,000. 

Found objects and traditional subjects appeared more prominently in Saar’s mid-career. She turned to materials such as wood, rope, metal, and tools to explore the bodily autonomy of Black women. Her figures often appear rooted and powerful. This reclamation of Black bodies contrasts the dark historical themes to which Saar alludes. Her sculptures explore the realities and ongoing effects of chattel slavery, as well as the many forms of racism that followed its abolition. Strength and resiliency remain key elements of Saar’s work.

Saar’s sculptures most frequently appear in concert with each other and reside in museums across the United States. At auction, estimates for Saar sculptures can extend up to $120,000. A bust sculpture from the 1990s holds Saar’s current auction record after selling for $37,500 with Los Angeles Modern Auctions in 2014. The wood, tar, tin, and copper piece, titled Rose Tattoo, shows pastel flowers scattered across an unsmiling figure.

Alison Saar, Rose Tattoo, 1991. Image from Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

More recently, Rago offered a Saar sculpture titled Diggin’ in May of 2020. The piece reached $20,000 and quadrupled its high estimate. While Saar’s sculptures tend to achieve the highest prices, her visual art offers collectors a glimpse of her preparatory process and early ideas. 

The artist continues to create new art with the goal of provoking careful thought in her viewers. Saar’s work is currently on view at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College and the Armory Center for the Arts through December of 2021. This split exhibition, titled “Alison Saar: Of Aether and Earthe,” reflects on Saar’s career from the 1980s through the present day. It especially explores recurring themes of duality, spirituality, and balance. Those forces are equally relevant in Saar’s creative process, which she describes as a “balancing act between anger and a kind of serenity.” Though one quality may sometimes overtake the other, Saar successfully blends the two in her ongoing search for resolution. 

Rago/Wright will present Alison Saar’s untitled 1975 collage in the upcoming Post War & Contemporary Art auction. Bidding will begin at 11:00 AM EDT on September 17th, 2021. Visit Wright’s website for more information and to place a bid. 

Interested in other contemporary artists? Auction Daily recently profiled modern Romanian painter Șerban Savu

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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