Betye Saar Commission Debuts

Betye Saar, Drifting Towards Twilight, 2023. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

Betye Saar's commission for the Huntington went on view this weekend. Drifting Towards Twilight converts a white cube in the Scott Galleries into a midnight-blue ganzfeld. The main element is a 17-ft canoe that Saar bought online and customized. The canoe rests on dead branches sourced from Huntington groundskeeping and illuminated by a strip of greenish-blue neon. Two of five symbolic passengers are made from carousel elements, sprouting antlers. The other three passengers are antlers imprisoned in birdcages. 

Detail of Betye Saar, Drifting Towards Twilight. Photo: Joshua White/
An accompanying mini-documentary by Kyle Provencio Reingold situates the piece in Saar's long career. Saar got her start as a commercial artist, designing greeting cards. The assassination of Martin Luther King inspired her to make politically charged art, and the examples of Simon Rodia and Joseph Cornell pointed her toward assemblage. Her 1972 assemblage, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, heralded a career that now spans six decades. In Reingold's film, Saar reacts in mock astonishment to a question about making art at age 96.

Saar's canoe installations are walk-in Cornell boxes meditating on America's founding sin. In Gliding Into Midnight (2019), the canoe casts a shadow that is a vintage abolitionist diagram of a slave ship. In the Huntington piece, canoe reads as a metaphor for middle passage, but Saar also sees it as a transition between emotional states. 

Betye Saar, Gliding Into Midnight, 2019

Drifting Towards Twilight is a pivotal addition to a collection that didn't have much 21st-century or African-American art until recently. It's a gift to the Huntington from Mei-Lee Ney, with support by the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, Terry Perucca and Annette Serrurier, Faye and Robert C. Davidson, Jr., and the Virginia Steele Scott Endowment. The installation will remain on view for two years, through Nov. 30, 2025. 


Betty does not disappoint. My idea of beautiful NOW art.
Although I don't think of the ganzfeld effect when I look in this rich-blue space.
Why doesn't the Met commission a work from her for the roof, or for the facade niches? So annoying!