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Pioneering Artist Betye Saar Wins Top Art Prize Amid Late-Career Revival

Betye Saar.

Betye Saar.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND ROBERTS PROJECTS, LOS ANGELES/DAVID SPRAGUE

Over the past year, Betye Saar has experienced a sudden late-career revival. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York are both devoting solo shows to her work (though neither is a full retrospective—let’s hope that happens soon), and the artist has been profiled by the New York Times and many other national publications. Now, the pioneering 93-year-old Los Angeles–based artist has won another huge accolade.

The Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, has given Saar its Wolfgang Hahn Prize, one of Germany’s top art awards. It comes with a €100,000 (about $110,000) purse, as well as a show at the institution and the addition of works by the artist to the museum’s collection. (The award is given annually to a living artist who is not represented in the Museum Ludwig’s holdings.) According to a recent ARTnews survey, the Wolfgang Hahn Prize is one of the world’s highest-value art awards.

[Read a list of the world’s largest art prizes.]

“Today institutions such as MoMA in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum devote high-profile solo exhibitions to her,” Yilmaz Dziewior, the Museum Ludwig’s director, said in a statement. “In Europe, by contrast, her work is still far too little known. It is our stated goal to change this and finally give the artist the attention she deserves.”

During the 1960s and ’70s, Saar was a crucial figure among a tight-knit circle of black feminists working in the United States. Her tough-willed work has frequently taken the form of installations and assemblages, many of them addressing histories of racism, slavery, and colonialism through the appropriation of objects that caricature African-Americans. Among her most famous works is The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), in which an “Aunt Jemima” mammy figure appears with a broom—and a rifle. Scholars have viewed the work as a critical revision of stereotypes of black women that have long pervaded visual culture in America—a literal weaponization of the past in the present.

Saar was chosen for the prize by a jury that included Dziewior, board members of the Museum Ludwig, and Christophe Cherix, the chief curator of MoMA’s drawings and prints department.

Past winners of the Wolfgang Hahn Prize include Cindy Sherman, Franz West, Andrea Fraser, Huang Yong Ping (who died earlier this year), and Haegue Yang (who now has a work on view in MoMA’s atrium).

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