Visual arts can revitalize the images of the past, reflecting inspirations and beliefs of those who lived and worked centuries and decades ago. They can also tell powerful stories of people’s sufferings and aspirations, draw attention to social problems that require addressing, inequality, and injustice. Art and architecture have always gone hand in hand, and the recent exhibition “Betye Saar: Call and Response” in the Morgan Library is a vivid example of such a successful coexistence that makes the overall experience of the viewer particularly rich.
Therefore, it is important to start by describing the venue. The building was initially constructed for an American financier J. Pierpont Morgan as a place to contain his collection of books and manuscripts (“J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library”, para. 1). It was designed by Charles McKim as an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo and was completed in 1906 (“J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library”, para 1). The marble of the building’s exterior and the magnificent murals, furniture covered in red silk, and many other décor elements of the interior embodied the atmosphere of remarkable wealth. Later, additional buildings were constructed, creating an impressive ensemble which, in 2006, was renovated by an Italian architect, Renzo Piano (Bloszies 98). He created a central atrium in the courtyard, and administrative support building, and a new entrance from Madison Avenue (Bloszies 98). Piano’s renovations make the building “a part of a broader urban picture” (Ouroussoff, para. 13). The new entrance, pronouncedly simple, lightweight, and modern, creates a so-needed contrast with ponderous older buildings. The same effect is achieved by a glass atrium that invites the natural light.
These days the Morgan’s Library not only houses many important manuscripts and artworks but also regularly welcomes impressive exhibitions. One of them is “Betye Saar: Call and Response”, which presents a collection of works by an African-American artist, Betye Saar, most known for her assemblage sculptures (“Betye Saar: Call and Response”, para. 1). The exhibition highlights the connection between her finished artworks and multiple sketches she has drawn throughout her career (“Betye Saar: Call and Response”, para. 2). It provides the viewer with an opportunity to better understand the artist’s ideas. The central topic of Saar’s works is racism. Three of the most impactful assemblages of the exhibition are “A Loss of Innocence”, “Serving Time”, and “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break”. All of them are accompanied by Saar’s sketches.
These artworks explore racism both in its historical and modern manifestations. “A Loss of Innocence” shows a white dress with racial epithets for Black children sewn onto it (“A Loss of Innocence”). It is an illustration of how a young African-American person first encounters the cruelty of the world facing unfair treatment. “Serving Time” shows a caged Black person, referring both to historical slavery and modern racism when many African-American people are wrongly accused and spend time in jail or locked in poor neighborhoods, being denied an opportunity to get a better job or education (“Serving Time”). “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break” shows an old ironing board with an iron and a white sheet with letters “KKK” as the background (“I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break”). The ironing board alludes to slavery and sexist conceptions of female labor. “KKK” letters stand for Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacy organization that is still active in the United States. Thus, the topics Saar explores continue to be relevant today.
Art can transcend time to invite the viewer to see the most glorious and, often, most shameful episodes of the past, as well as depict that long-gone attitudes and traditions. However, centuries-old stereotypes rarely just disappear without a trace – their reminiscences can still be seen today. The way the Morgan Library after the renovation combines old and new, the works of Betye Saar interwove the historical racism and its present-day manifestations.
“A Loss of Innocence”, The Morgan Library & Museum, n.d. Web.
“Betye Saar: Call and Response”, The Morgan Library & Museum, n.d. Web.
Bloszies, Charles. Old Buildings, New Designs: Architectural Transformations. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.
“I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break”, The Morgan Library & Museum, n.d. Web.
“J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library”, The Morgan Library & Museum, n.d. Web.
Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “Renzo Piano’s Expansion of the Morgan Library Transforms a World of Robber Barons and Scholars.” The New York Times, 2006. Web.
“Serving Time”, The Morgan Library & Museum, n.d. Web.