AT THE REAR OF RYAN LEE GALLERY in New York, a 1966 painting by Emma Amos casually sits on the floor leaning against the wall between works by other gallery artists. Blending figuration and Abstract Expressionism, the canvas references Color Field painting and conjures Bob Thompson. The work bears little resemblance to the collage paintings on fabric featured in the front of the gallery. These textile works were produced by Amos in the 1980s and are the focus of “Emma Amos: True Colors,” the artist’s solo exhibition on view at the gallery through April 9.
“What we found so intriguing about the 80s work is it really is a pivotal period for Emma. It’s a commencement of a really important time in her practice where she is moving away, more and more, from the structured canvas, more and more, from working with oil as a paint medium. She is dealing with linen, dealing with fabric, dealing with acrylic and beginning to push these ideas she had in the 60s and 70s to a new place,” says Courtney Willis Blair, assistant director at Ryan Lee.
Born in Atlanta, Amos is one of the last surviving members of Spiral, the short-lived, historically important African American artist collective co-founded by Romare Bearden in 1963. She was the group’s youngest and only female member.
Throughout her practice, from the 1960s to the present, Amos has pushed herself and her work in new directions. Now in her late 70s, she maintains her longtime studio in New York City and, in January, joined Ryan Lee. In February, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia at Athens honored Amos for her contributions to visual art and culture, presenting her with the 2016 Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Award. Her work will also be presented in “The Color Line,” a survey of African American art at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris later this year.
Shortly after the gallery announced its representation of Amos, I spoke to Blair about the relationship, the exhibition and the arc of Amos’s practice.
CULTURE TYPE: How did Ryan Lee Gallery come to represent Emma Amos?
COURTNEY WILLIS BLAIR: Mary Ryan (partner at Ryan Lee) worked with Emma in the late 90s and knew Emma during that time when she was working with another dealer, having included some of Emma’s works in a few group shows. And then a little over a year ago, in the fall of 2014, I was organizing a show. I wanted to show artists who were dealing with how to confront individual and collective histories. I wanted the show to be inclusive in terms of cross-generational artists who were at different stages in their careers. We started putting the list together of artists we were going to invite and Emma’s name kept coming up.
I did a studio visit with her and Mary, it must have been some time later that fall—maybe October, November—to see the work again in person and to visit Emma at her studio. The work just feels so fresh, from as early as the 60s when she was still in Spiral, up until the work that she is creating and making today. We included some of the historic work from the mid-60s in the show, work that she did with Spiral, as well as works on paper and prints that she had done in the 90s. That was the beginning of reconnecting her practice and her work with Ryan Lee.
“We included some of the historic work from the mid-60s in [a 2015 exhibition], work that [Emma Amos] did with Spiral, as well as works on paper and prints that she had done in the 90s. That was the beginning of reconnecting her practice and her work with Ryan Lee.”
— Courtney Willis Blair
We really hit it off and we had conversations at the studio and decided that we wanted to represent her. It’s important that you build a relationship. This has been about a year in the making. We were able to finalize the representation fairly recently and put together a show of hers. This is something that has been in the works for some time. We’ve been longtime admirers of her work, so we are thrilled that we are able to present it in this way and be an advocate for her work.
Did Amos have representation before Ryan Lee came on board?
She was working with another gallery, but it wasn’t a full representation. I think she was looking to work with a gallery in a more direct way. The way we will be working with her is different than the gallery she was working with before. Emma’s been around for quite a while. She’s been in that studio on Bond street for quite some time. Maybe 20 years now. It might be even longer than that. She’s worked with galleries before, but as with every artist, the situation changes over time. When we met with her, she did not have official representation. It was great timing and being able to work with her is fantastic.
Speaking of timing, news of Ryan Lee’s representation came at the same time that Amos was announced as a recipient of the Georgia Museum of Art award and that she is expected to have a forthcoming solo exhibition at the museum. How did these honors come about? Was the confluence organic or strategic?
Emma’s had attention from museums and curators for some time. She’s in some really fantastic collections and she’s been in some fantastic shows that are thematic shows or shows about a specific period and she’s always had attention in that regard. She’s an important post-modernist artist. She was in spiral and she had a tenured professorship at Rutgers. She was a faculty member at Skowhegan [School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine] and a visiting lecturer at Pratt. She’s been very much a part of the New York art scene and a part of the feminist collective The Heresies, which had Joan Semel and Lucy Lippard. She’s always been on the radar as a part of those circles.
The Georgia Museum award was recently announced. It’s a named award for [collectors] Brenda and Larry Thompson and the artists nominated have some sort of connection to Georgia, whether it’s that they are from Georgia or they work there. Emma’s originally from Atlanta and so we were thrilled to hear that she not only won the award but that she was nominated, that her home state was recognizing her in this way and the museum will be organizing a retrospective of her work. For Emma who was born in Atlanta in the late 30s being recognized in this way at a prominent museum in Georgia is really special for her. It’s one of those things where you could be recognized by a lot of different people but this is a nice homecoming for her.
“We were thrilled to hear that she not only won the [Georgia Museum of Art] award, but that she was nominated, that her home state was recognizing her in this way and the museum will be organizing a retrospective of her work.” — Courtney Willis Blair
She has some other museum exhibitions that will be happening that haven’t been announced yet and she’ll be included in the exhibition “Color Line” which opens in Paris later this year. Also, since we started working with her, we have been instrumental in putting her work in some collections. We worked with the Whitney Museum and the British Museum, putting some works in their collections and we’ll continue to do so. We’re really a conduit to other opportunities.
In terms of timing and the Georgia Museum award, the Georgia Museum had been interested in doing a show with her with the curator there. [In September 2015, the museum announced the appointment of Shawnya L. Harris, its first Larry D. And Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African-American and African diasporic art.] Its one of those things where everything is coming together at a really great time and it is really is a significant moment for her.
When is the exhibition at the Georgia Museum? Is it expected in 2016?
No. It will not be this year. It likely will not be for a couple of years.
At the beginning, when you talked about your first visit to Amos’s studio, you said you were arranging an exhibition of collective histories. What was the name of that exhibition?
It’s called “I lost an arm on my last trip home.” It was an exhibition with four artists: Derrick Adams, Emma Amos, Sarah Rahbar, and Bethany Collins. It borrowed its title from the opening line from Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” the science fiction novel that deals with this very messy plot about lineage and violent history that has been passed down. The main character is called back into time by one of her ancestors who is in the antebellum South and eventually rapes and has children with one of his slaves and that’s the line that she exists on. The exhibition itself took this idea of what does this history mean to an individual, the violence of this history, the beauty of this history, and the vulnerability and aggression of this history—how do artists confront these things.
I would like to talk about Amos’s evolving practice—the work she did in the 60s, her work in the 80s, and then what she is doing currently.
Emma has made a long-term commitment to dealing with social code, conceptually and also being very, very interested in formalism, and color as a formal technique as well as a technique to talk about things people don’t want to talk about.
“Emma has made a long-term commitment to dealing with social code, conceptually and also being very, very interested in formalism, and color as a formal technique as well as a technique to talk about things people don’t want to talk about.” — Courtney Willis Blair
In the 60s, when she was a part of Spiral, she was fairly young, in her 20s, and she had been invited to join the group by Hale Woodruff. At the time, he had known her family in Atlanta and had been asked to work with her when she was very young and it didn’t work out. Hale was very busy. Emma was just a child. But he had kept a finger on the pulse of what she was doing. When she returned from London, she had studied there for a few years, she had already graduated from Antioch College in Ohio. She was living in New York and studying at NYU as well, and she was invited by Hale to join Spiral and it turned out that she was the only woman in that group of 14 other members and the youngest member, as well.
Emma, during the early to mid 60s, was working mainly on canvas with oils, very figurative work with references from abstract expressionism and from color field painting, in a way challenging this notion that these movements or techniques were only perpetuated by her white male counterparts.
After this initial period, where did she take her work?
Then in the 70s, she was still working in that vein. In a lot of paintings from the 70s, you started seeing figures who are named figures in her work, friends. Again, Emma was a part of communities of artists and so you started seeing her painting people who are around her.
Then in the 80s, she diverts away from the traditional canvas and starts working with acrylic and linen. She also starts using fabrics a lot more. We are showing work between ’83 and ’89. A lot of those works are—this is when not many people were doing this at the time—incorporating African-sourced fabrics. She was getting fabrics from places like Burkino Faso and Ghana and incorporating them into her work.
“In the 80s, she diverts away from the traditional canvas and starts working with acrylic and linen. She also starts using fabrics a lot more…Africa-sourced fabrics.” — Courtney Willis Blair
She also studied and worked with Dorothy Liebes, who is a very important weaver and so she had honed her skills. Then you see her incorporating these ideas of craft and domesticity, but in a way that is very much about challenging these notions around them. She is breaking down these fabrics. She’s tearing them. She’s ripping them. She’s collaging them on. She’s weaving them into the canvases and again the figures in her work are often times on these abstract backgrounds.
Are some of these methods presented in the exhibition?
There is a piece that we are showing in the exhibition called “Josephine and the Mountain Gorillas.” You have this image of Josephine Baker in a very lush jungle space but at the heart of it, it’s really abstract painting. It’s energetic. A lot of movement. A lot of different bright, bold colors in the background and then Josephine is laying in this beautiful white gown that’s made of cloth that Emma has cut out and collaged on. The gorillas themselves [are collaged on] as well. These chunks of legs that they have, they almost look like tree trunks in a way from that texture you are getting from the cloth that she is collaging onto the work.
She is really dealing with those in the 80s again, incorporating figures. Josephine at the time is arguably one of the most visible black… well entertainers really, she’s also a woman of color and an activist in her own right. It was, for Emma, a way to explore this idea of blackness within this entertainment culture. There’s another work where she is referencing Thurgood Marshall, Miles Davis, and so again, politics, music, entertainment, dance, all of these notions are important and not just to the black experience. It’s the American experience and reframing these images of the black experience.
Can you talk about the series of works she produced during this time in the 80s?
She is also working on a series called Athletes and Animals, where she is comparing the way we consider athletes, black athletes, in particular, both men and women, and the way we consider animals, particularly wild animals. The grace that these animals have, the strength, the aggression that they have, but also to the way we exoticize them. Again, she is using fabrics in these works and showing a lot of movement. A lot of her work has this idea of energy and movement.
All of that switches over when she starts doing The Falling Series. You have these figures who are falling against these beautiful abstract backgrounds and she pulls in references to Surrealism at times. Again, very highly trained as an artist. Very, very knowledgeable of art history. Very knowledgable of what’s happening at the time, not just in art, but also culturally, what’s happening at the time.
The Water series happens during the 80s, too, where she is intrigued by this idea of water at the beach, while she is watching the Summer Olympics in L.A. in 1984. It’s very obvious that with the water sports, there is an absence of black athletes and so she starts to explore this idea of water. Emma, not knowing how to swim, at the time was fascinated with water, not only the fear and anxiety it induced in her, but this idea of liberation and freedom. Those two things are coming together and that continues throughout the work on these non-stretched canvases, incorporating the African fabrics.
After the 80s, how did her practice evolve?
Working on in the 90s she starts looking at university athletes like Paul Robeson, the track team at Fisk [University]. She again is dealing with memories of the South and you start seeing images of Klan members. She’s dealing with images in art history. She has a lot of images where she paints a self portrait and she is wearing Lucian Freud’s skin. Again, we are talking about these canonical figures in art history. All of this is a long-term continued commitment. She’s very prolific.
Now, as she’s getting older she has that the urge to work and to make that continues throughout your life. She has done some beautiful silhouette pieces and recently she’s been doing more intimate drawings and watercolors. It’s really i think a storied career that is still continuing. As you look at the work and understand the periods throughout her career, I think it’s important to note this interest in what’s happening with women, what’s happening with people of color. How are all of these things are related, these moments of beauty and joy that are interlaced with vulnerability, and violence even at times, I think has always been important to her.
She is currently doing drawings and watercolors?
Yeah. She works on a more intimate scale now in terms of size.
What kinds of subjects is she exploring?
She’s always exploring the figure. That’s something she’s done throughout her career and that’s something she continues to push on, but she also has a knack for the abstract composition. Again, this relationship between figuration and abstraction has stayed with her.
Going back to her fabrics works, before her Athletes and Animals series, when she first started working with animals, tell me why the animals? What do they symbolize? How did they come into play?
Emma, the way she introduces work, the logistics of her practice, she always painted what surrounds her. There are animals that appear outside the Athletes and Animals series. There’s a piece that she did when she was a faculty member at Skowhegan where she paints the cows that are in the field and places herself in that context.
There’s a large piece that she did. It’s a triptych that we’ll be showing in the exhibition. I am blanking on the name now. There is a horse figure in there that represents mythology. She has done animals outside of the athletes series and it is for a number of different reasons. Sometimes, it’s as a reference to something else, as a symbol. Oh, its called “Flying Circus.” That is the name of the piece.
She paints what’s around her. She paints what she is thinking of and so there are a number of different reasons why animals come into some of the compositions in her work. I was trying to see if there was an image of an animal from the 70s, and from what I remember, most of them are domestic animals. She’s done cats, for example.
“She paints what’s around her. She paints what she is thinking of and so there are a number of different reasons why animals come into some of the compositions in her work.” — Courtney Willis Blair
There is a piece in the 70s, it’s called “Shirley and the Snapper.” It’s from 1977 and it’s a smaller piece. Shirley is holding this basket of fish. But, again, this is Emma looking at things around her, exploring figuration and realism.
Why does the exhibition concentrate on her works from the 1980s?
What we found so intriguing about the 80s work is it really is a pivotal period for Emma. It’s a commencement of a really important time in her practice where she is moving away, more and more, from the structured canvas, more and more, from working with oil as a paint medium. She is dealing with linen, dealing with fabric, dealing with acrylic and beginning to push these ideas she had in the 60s and 70s to a new place.
The 80s are significant in a way that you see that shift happen and I really think that the work that finds itself happening later in her oeuvre is tied to this period of the 80s. It was also very prolific period. She is doing a number of different series during these 10 years. At the time, she is also working with Robert Blackburn, so printmaking has become an important part of her practice. When I think of the 80s work, I think of it as this signifier for what’s to come. It’s this anticipation for the work later in life.
“When I think of the 80s work, I think of it as this signifier for what’s to come. It’s this anticipation for the work later in life.”
— Courtney Willis Blair
In the 80s, that is when she’s working largely with The Heresies and some other collectives. She’s very active, being a part of these communities that are political and artistic and creative—all these things. She’s awarded tenure at Rutgers in the mid 80s, so it’s not just within her practice, but what she is doing outside of that. How she’s teaching younger artists from a younger generation and building these communities that are cross generational, building these communities that are about marginalized communities, these feminist collectives. All of those things are intrinsically tied and really they sort of explode in the 80s. CT
This interview has been condensed and edited.
TOP IMAGE: At Ryan Lee Gallery, EMMA AMOS, “Seated Figure and Nude,” 1966 (oil on canvas). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine