Betye Saar’s “Drifting Toward Twilight”

Posted on Tue., Dec. 12, 2023 by Lynell George
Artist Betye Saar stands near a wood canoe in a blue room.

Betye Saar, Drifting Toward Twilight, 2023 (installation view). © 2023 Betye Saar. Photo: Joshua White / | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Over the threshold, into the dream, the light fades, and the world falls away.

Just a few steps into a cool slip of space in The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, visitors shift into another realm—one that is not so much a mappable location, but rather a destination of the mind. As one’s eyes adjust, a laden vessel appears. It rests on a nest of foliage, shot through with spectral threads of blue-green light. The boat almost appears to hover within a wash of blue, the demarcation between water and sky, mysterious and indeterminate. The mind moves, imagination sparks, taking in the vessel’s cargo—or passengers, perhaps—three child-sized chairs holding birdcages that contain antlers. The canoe’s bow, emblazoned with a single enigmatic eye, resembles a talisman out of the pages of myth. There is something at once ancient and portentous about Betye Saar’s Drifting Toward Twilight, an immersive, site-specific installation commissioned by The Huntington and now part of its permanent collection (on view through Nov. 30, 2025).

The piece not only poetically connects the external realm to interior territories—The Huntington’s grounds to its galleries and the life of the body to the mind—but has also been a way to manifest Saar’s personal, place-based history. In a way, it’s a full-circle family moment for Saar, an internationally renowned assemblage artist whose career has spanned six decades. She visited the gardens as a child with her mother in the late 1930s and marveled at the flora. “My first time at The Huntington was with my mother and her friend Leona,” Saar recalled. “They knew so many of the names of the plants. I remember the gardens being so huge and sprawling. And the cactus garden was always a favorite because of their strange shapes and exotic flowers. I also loved looking up from almost anywhere in the gardens and seeing the mountains.”

A black-and-white photo of desert plants with mountains in the distance.

Desert Garden, general view, ca. 1932. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Like art, nature has been a throughline in Saar’s life. “It has always been very important to me,” she said. “I got that from my mother. Plants and flowers and fruits and veggies.”

Eighty years after Saar first came to The Huntington, a serendipitous convergence gave her an opportunity to work with her granddaughter, writer Sóla Saar Agustsson, who is currently the digitization coordinator at The Huntington’s Art Museum. Saar Agustsson has helped shepherd the project alongside fellow exhibition co-curator Yinshi Lerman-Tan, the Bradford and Christine Mishler Associate Curator of American Art. “We always conceived of this commission as an act of remembering for Betye,” Lerman-Tan said. “I think there is an element in which she reflects on her own past, her childhood, and the history of this particular place in this work.”

Betye Saar, the eldest of five children, grew up in northwest Pasadena on a street lined with modest cottages and bungalows where her mother kept a garden—just a couple of doors down from baseball legend Jackie Robinson and his older brother Mack Robinson, the 1936 Olympic silver medalist in the 200-meter race. “We lived at 89 Pepper Street in a house that my stepfather built,” Saar remembered. “Jackie Robinson delivered our newspaper, and his house was 123 Pepper.”

A school yearbook photo of a person with short curly hair.

Betye Saar as a student at Pasadena City College. She transferred to UCLA her junior year and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1949. Still image from Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight, a film directed by Kyle Provencio Reingold.

Considering the physical backdrop of those early years, Saar said: “My touchstone would be the mountains. When I got married, we moved down to Hermosa Beach. On a clear day, I could look across the LA Basin and see the towers on Mount Wilson, and I knew at the base of that mountain was my mother and my family. It helped me be less homesick.” Sensory memories abound. “The other day, we drove by the library on Washington where we used to study,” she said. “I still love Pasadena. I’m also a big fan of the Rose Parade, and when I was studying at Pasadena City College, we designed Rose Parade floats. I love that every surface of the float is covered with natural materials.” Today, when you pass through Pasadena’s small streets, even with the newer housing developments and modern structures, the shapes and forms of quaint dwellings and old-growth deodar and oak trees still climb majestically into the sky.

Just as countless of Saar’s pieces have previously done, Drifting Toward Twilight took root in the shapes, lines, and texture of an object that entranced her. The starting point was the canoe: “I’m inspired by the materials I find at swap meets and estate sales. That’s where I get my ideas,” she said. The canoe popped up in an online sale in Florida. She loved the color and the vintage feel of it and felt compelled to purchase it and have it shipped to California. “I’ve been attracted to the shape of the canoe for some time, and I have used canoes in previous works. This particular canoe was built in the 1940s. It was so beautiful how the old wood curved and was finished, an original patina from years and years of use and weathering. I didn’t really want to cover that up.”

A wood canoe sits on top of a bed of dry branches in a blue room.

Betye Saar, Drifting Toward Twilight, 2023 (installation view). © 2023 Betye Saar. Photo by Joshua White / | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Saar Agustsson had had her eye on that canoe as well. It had been, for years, moored in her grandmother’s Laurel Canyon garage, another found object, a creative portal into possibility. She had grown up not just observing her grandmother but working for her and participating in her creative process. Watching her move about with intention in her home or studio, Saar Agustsson made note of what caught her grandmother’s eye—a ticket stub, computer hardware, rusted objects. She’d watch the rhythm of her busy hands, the sketchbook always at the ready. She’d shadow her on collecting trips to flea markets. “Things would be all over the house and all over the studio,” Saar Augstsson said. “Eventually, she would organize it a little bit more. But my memories were always of hearing her say: ‘Don’t throw that away! Because that could be used for art.’” That recycled object might be imbued with history, a spirit, a story within. “She ruminated on that canoe awhile,” Saar Augstsson said. “She had been collecting antlers, kind of messing around with them. Thinking over in her head what she wanted the artwork to be.”

Two people sit at a table, talking.

Sóla Saar Agustsson, the digitization coordinator at The Huntington’s Art Museum, in conversation with Betye Saar, her grandmother, in Saar’s Laurel Canyon home. Still image from Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight, a film directed by Kyle Provencio Reingold.

Timing was key. By chance, in 2022, when The Huntington was looking to reach out to Saar about the possibility of a site-specific installation, Saar Agustsson made the introductions. “Coincidentally, I had started working at The Huntington. Christina Nielsen, the director of the Art Museum, is a huge fan of Betye’s and wanted to meet her and possibly do some kind of collaboration,” Saar Agustsson recalled. “It was kind of open-ended, and I brought up that Betye had that canoe in her garage. Just an idea. But then later, knowing that it would be for The Huntington, Betye came up with the idea to forage from The Huntington’s grounds, to connect the artwork to The Huntington.”

For years, Saar said, “I’d been putting different elements and objects inside and taking them out of the canoe. But when I was approached by The Huntington, I got serious about making it into art. I bet the owner had no idea it would end up in a museum.”

A wood canoe sits on top of a bed of dry branches in a blue room with phases of the moon painted on the wall.

Betye Saar, Drifting Toward Twilight, 2023 (installation view). © 2023 Betye Saar. Photo: Joshua White / | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

After an early sketch was completed and accepted, Saar was ready to begin in earnest. “She did an initial visit to choose a space that most resonated with her vision,” Lerman-Tan said. “Ultimately, she chose the long, narrow gallery in the back of our American art building, which echoes the shape of the canoe. In studio visits after that, she began describing her idea of bringing the outside and the gardens in, and creating a cool, contemplative space.”

Layered up against the cold on a brisk morning in April 2023, Saar climbed into a golf cart to tour the grounds with Robert Hori, the associate director of cultural programs at The Huntington. “She was always passionate about including the Botanical staff and gardeners in this project,” Lerman-Tan said. “Robert is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about art, as well as a botanical expert. He was the perfect person for Betye to collaborate with.”

Two people hold hands while looking at branches in a garden.

Betye Saar foraging for plant materials on The Huntington’s grounds for Drifting Toward Twilight with Robert Hori, the associate director of cultural programs. Still image from Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight, a film directed by Kyle Provencio Reingold.

While Saar Agustsson drove the golf cart, she watched her grandmother assess possibilities. “She was looking for long, knotted, twisted branches because she had a very bare-bones sketch in mind,” Saar Agustsson remembered. “She’s used natural materials before in larger-scale installations, but never quite like this.”

Saar said, “The grounds people had just cut some oak trees after a bad storm, and we were sifting through the piles. Then we went back to the Botanical Center, and Robert showed me some other materials he had been collecting—eucalyptus bark, palm fronds, agave, and century plant blossom stems. I liked all of it. Then I returned to The Huntington a few months later to make my final choices.”

A pile of branches on a table in a workshop.

Plant materials foraged on The Huntington’s grounds for Betye Saar’s Drifting Toward Twilight. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The time away had only sharpened her vision. Ultimately, Saar said, “I selected simpler-shaped branches and thicker barks and fronds to cover the pedestal of the canoe.” Of the branches that Hori thought would be of interest to her, the longer ones with beautiful designs, Saar Agustsson explained: “She said, ‘No, I don’t want any of that. That’s too beautiful. I don’t want it to compete with the art.’”

From that first submitted sketch, Saar Agustsson said, “she knew what the artwork was on track to become. The canoe, the antlers, the little chairs, and the figures she’d been collecting and rearranging. But the installation came together with the foraging, those natural materials that they were going to throw away.” It was a way to give the fallen flora from the garden a new life, a new way to be seen.

On a blazingly bright morning in mid-October, a few short weeks before the exhibition opening, Saar’s gathered materials—the branches, twigs, fronds, her luminous scavenged artifacts—are arranged meticulously around the small gallery space, waiting for the artist’s hands. The foraged botanical materials—Red Twig Dogwood, Palm, and Live Oak, among others—rest in brown packing boxes labeled “Caution: Art Below.” The materials have been treated by The Huntington’s conservation department to ensure that they’re free from any moths, spiders, and their eggs. The small chairs sit grouped in a corner; the birdcages placed in each seat. The canoe rests near an adjacent wall, on which a painting of a silvery moon in its cyclical phases stretches across a blue gradient.

A wood canoe sits on top of a bed of dry branches in a blue room with phases of the moon painted on the wall.

Betye Saar, Drifting Toward Twilight, 2023 (installation view). © 2023 Betye Saar. Photo: Joshua White / | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

“That blue,” Lerman-Tan explained, “is produced through the blending of four shades, from the darkest on the bottom of the wall to lighter at the top. This gives the viewer a feeling of inhabiting an atmosphere, somewhere between the water and sky.” Along with the gallery’s special lighting, she continued, its “shift evokes a continuous pattern of natural light during dawn, dusk, and twilight. To me, Saar is harnessing the times of day when there is a possibility of magic or a feeling of transition in the natural world.”

Before the exhibition opens, the gallery is a working art space. Saar’s presence is deeply felt in the room. There’s a delicate maquette—featuring a miniature canoe perched atop tiny sprigs of tinder—sitting on a table, which indicates what the arrangement will ultimately look like. Her penned sketches rest nearby on the tabletop, as well as a computer printout of a poem she’s written that will be eventually inscribed on one of the gallery walls: “The moon keeps vigil as a lone canoe drifts in a sea of tranquility seeking serenity in the twilight.”

This is a pause, a moment before the next phase begins, the calm before the rush of intense work. In the quiet, there’s an opportunity to look over Saar’s shoulder, so to speak. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what Lerman-Tan has witnessed during her time working with Saar: “I have learned that she is always curious, fresh, and open, and overflowing with ideas and sketches—a legendary artist who retains access to her beginner’s mind.”

For Saar Agustsson, this process is part of an ongoing, yearslong conversation, and it has also been a way to work in tandem, formally, with her grandmother—to be part of the making, extending the line. “While I make collages, I kind of decided early on that I didn’t want to go into the family business,” she said, a hint of a smile flickering in her eyes. The comment is a reference to her mother and aunts (Lezley, Alison, and Tracye, respectively), all accomplished artists. Clearly, however, she’s a product of its influence; it informs her own way of seeing, listening, and collecting stories.

A black-and-white photo of artist Betye Saar with her daughters.

From left: Alison, Betye, Lezley, and Tracye Saar, Laurel Canyon, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. Photo by Harlan Feltus.

The experience has also been a way for Saar Agustsson to learn more about the art of piecing together a grand life out of the everyday, the tossed away, and to glimpse her grandmother’s perseverance, her multitudes.

Drifting may imply a journey without destination, but the act—its very open-endedness—provides pathways toward revelation. Sitting quietly with an object, for months, for years, between thought and expression, allows Saar to better understand it.

It’s that fervent sense of trust, of process, of pertinacity that inspires Saar Agustsson. “There’s a kind of persistence and perfectionism with her art. She would always say: ‘Good, better, best. Never let her rest.’ She didn’t invent that, but she really does live it,” Saar Agustsson said. “Not in a harsh way. If you keep thinking about something, you don’t have to rush, right? You can just keep thinking about it until you know it’s right. It’s more of a feeling for her.”

Artist Betye Saar stands near a wood canoe in a blue room with phases of the moon painted on the wall.

Betye Saar, Drifting Toward Twilight, 2023 (installation view). © 2023 Betye Saar. Photo: Joshua White / | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

To learn more, you can watch Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight, a film directed by Kyle Provencio Reingold, chief program officer of Ghetto Film School.

Support for the exhibition “Betye Saar: Drifting Toward Twilight” is provided by Mei-Lee Ney and the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation. Additional funding is provided by an anonymous foundation, Terry Perucca and Annette Serrurier, Faye and Robert C. Davidson Jr., and the Virginia Steele Scott Endowment for American Art.

Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles–based journalist and essayist.