A Trio of Torch Songs: Resistance, Survival, and Celebration

For a long time, the art form that was healing for Black people was music. —Toni Morrison1

Alison Saar in her studio, 2020. Photo: Graham Emonson. Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

Music in its many guises—song, dance, band, and chorus—is a subject that both Toni Morrison and Alison Saar engage in their work to represent the particularity of Black voices and the history of the African American experience. In Cycle of Creativity: Alison Saar and the Toni Morrison Papers, one can trace this theme through Morrison’s texts, from the cadences of the conversation in the opening pages of Sula (1973) to her lyrics for the orchestral composition Honey and Rue (1992) and in essays in which she speaks to the healing properties of music. For Morrison, the musicality of oral storytelling traditions—especially the integration of call-and-response formats into prose—was an essential characteristic of Black literature and one that she returned to often. Similarly, music is a subject central to Saar’s artistic explorations that appears in her work in various media and guises.

The woman in Saar’s Torch Song works is an embodiment of the multifaceted role of music in African American culture. A tall, striking figure in an elegant and sinuous floor-length gown, she represents the allure of the nightclub chanteuse and the inner force of a social justice warrior, her fiery voice issuing forth from crimson lips. Three of Saar’s four versions of Torch Song, each created in a different medium—a freestanding sculpture, a painting on a carved wood tabletop, and a linocut print—are united for the first time in Cycle of Creativity.

The figure in the sculpture Torch Song wears a set of piano keys across her chest like a bandolier, emphasizing the power of her music as a weapon of resistance. In the painting she wears only a scarlet gown and emerges from a field of deep royal blue; here the flame, carved into the found oval tabletop on which she is painted, is covered in gold. The painting’s rich jewel tones, golden flame, and tondo form lend this Torch Song the aura of a saint.

Cycle of Creativity at Art@Bainbridge. Photo: Joseph Hu

Torch Song, 2020. Wood, copper, ceiling tin, enamel paint, leather belts, and vintage piano keys. Tia Collection, Santa Fe, NM. Photo: Jeff McLane

Embodied metaphor is essential to Saar’s characterization of Torch Song, and she notes, “What’s been so interesting in terms of the history of blues is how the lyrics say one thing, but it’s codified and often they were singing about things beyond that. I remember one song was about some woman complaining about her man not having enough money for this or that, but it was also a criticism of Jim Crow and a criticism of how Blacks didn’t have access to land, and Blacks didn’t have access to the food that they needed. Even though this was a torch song—this romantic song complaining about her lover because she couldn’t just come out and say it as a protest song—all of those things were still there. They were just kind of below the surface, and you had to know what to listen for to understand what they were saying. This is the inspiration of Torch Song.”2 Believing that these voices have resounded across generations of African American female singers, Saar has compiled a playlist for the installation that includes songs by artists from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill.

Torch Song first appeared among the early twentieth-century musicians and nightclub patrons Saar rendered in a series of glass panels installed along Metro North train platforms in Harlem in 2018. With this installation, Saar set out to create a lasting presence for the many jazz clubs and juke joints that once filled the neighborhood, celebrating Harlem’s legacy as a musical epicenter and signaling the importance of this history at a time of rapid gentrification of the area. For Saar and for Morrison, Harlem’s music scene offered a space of creativity, respite, and resistance borne through music, dance, and communion. In Morrison’s words, music offered a particular joy, “a glorious freedom of movement in which rites of puberty were acted out on a dance floor to the sound of brass, strings, and ivory. For dancing was relief and communication, control of the body and its letting go.”3

Torch Song, 2020. Oil on found wood tabletop. Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver Gallery Venice, CA. Photo: Jeff McLane

Torch Song, 2019. Multi-block linocut. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Kathleen Compton Sherrerd Fund for Acquisitions in American Art. Photo: Jeffrey Evans

In her red dress, the singer in the linocut version of Torch Song stands out among the figures in Saar’s print series Copacetic, in which the dynamism and vibrancy of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s come to life. Cycle of Creativity presents all ten linocuts from the series to date, which are also recent additions to the Art Museum’s collections. Here the protagonist of Torch Song, together with her community of fellow musicians and audience of revelers, is brought into chorus with her sisters in paint and sculpture.

Mitra Abbaspour
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

1 Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction, ed. Carolyn C. Denard (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 58.

2 Alison Saar, in conversation with the author, February 12, 2023.

3 Morrison, “Rediscovering Black History,” in Margin, 54.

All artworks © Alison Saar. Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

Art at Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; and Ivy Beth Lewis. Additional support for this exhibition is provided by the Humanities Council; the Lewis Center for the Arts; the Department of Music; the Department of African American Studies; and the Department of English.