A PIONEERING ARTIST who made captivating, poignant, and culturally insightful works, Emma Amos (1937-2020) has died. She was 83.

Amos passed away on May 20 in Bedford, N.H., of natural causes after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ryan Lee Gallery in New York, where Amos has been represented since 2016, shared news of her death yesterday evening via email.

In a statement, the gallery said, “She will be remembered as a dynamic painter and masterful colorist whose commitment to interrogating the art-historical status quo yielded a body of vibrant, sumptuous and intellectually rigorous work.”

Based in New York since 1960, Amos (shown at right in 2006) was active in several artist collectives. She was the youngest and only female member of Spiral, the African American collective co-founded by Romare Bearden in 1963. She was also associated with feminist groups.

Painting on canvas and on linen trimmed with African fabrics, Amos generally made vibrant images full of color, movement, and energy. At their core, they are more complex than what meets the eye. From her exuberant color-field compositions to her falling figures series, human and wild animal pairings, and meditations on water, she explored America’s cultural and political touchstones—most prominently race, gender, and class.

Decade after decade, Amos pushed her work in new directions, with color and figuration serving as constants in her creative foundation. Drawing on Western art history, Abstract Expressionism, and surrealism, her enterprising and experimental practice includes painting, works on paper, printmaking, and weaving.

“She will be remembered as a dynamic painter and masterful colorist whose commitment to interrogating the art-historical status quo yielded a body of vibrant, sumptuous and intellectually rigorous work.”
— Ryan Lee Gallery

OVER THE YEARS, Amos had relationships with galleries, but lacked official representation when she joined Ryan Lee in 2016. Since then, there has been a slow but steady groundswell of recognition in response to her life’s work—late recognition that came too late for her to experience in a meaningful way, given her declining cognition.

“Growing up as Emma’s children, my sister and I had front-row seats to her struggles as an artist, working so hard to make her way in a world that many times seemed set against her,” Nicholas Amos of Newton, Mass., told Culture Type by email, also speaking on behalf of his sister India Amos of Brooklyn, N.Y.

“We (of course) thought her work was the greatest, and we shared in and cheered her many successes over the years, but the ultimate tragedy of her long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease is that Emma wasn’t able to understand or appreciate her broadened recognition and high critical acclaim in the final years of her life. It makes her passing this week all the more poignant.”

Major museums such as the Brooklyn Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, have recently acquired her paintings and Amos is featured in major group shows including the landmark, international traveling exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”

Currently, Mary Ryan Gallery (a sister space to Ryan Lee that focuses on works on paper) is showcasing prints by Amos at the online only IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair (May 13-June 13), presenting a variety of prints made between 1962 and 2001.

More recognition is on the horizon. In fall 2020, Ryan Lee Gallery is presenting a solo exhibition of Amos’s Falling Figures series. Next year, attention will peak when a long overdue retrospective opens.

In 2021, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens plans a career retrospective of Amos. Curated by Shawnya Harris and featuring about 60 works spanning 60 years, “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey” (Jan 30-April 25, 2021) will be accompanied by a publication and travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y.

Harris first connected with Amos and visited her studio in 2009. In 2016, a year after the curator joined the Georgia Museum of Art, the institution honored the Atlanta-born artist with its Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Award, which pays tribute to “a living African American artist who has a strong connection to Georgia and has made significant but often lesser-known contributions to the visual arts tradition of the state.” India Amos accepted the award on behalf of her mother, who was not in attendance.

Shortly thereafter, Harris began working on an expansive exhibition dedicated to Amos. “I wanted to pull together several decades of her work to show her progression as an artist,” she told me via email. “I noticed that there was a focus on Emma Amos, ‘the only woman in Spiral’ but many individuals knew little about her career, techniques or ideas.”

“The ultimate tragedy of her long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease is that Emma wasn’t able to understand or appreciate her broadened recognition and high critical acclaim in the final years of her life. It makes her passing this week all the more poignant.” — Nicholas Amos


EMMA AMOS (1937-2020), “Baby,” 1966 (oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 51 inches / 118.1 × 129.5 cm). | Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchased jointly by the Whitney Museum of American Art, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee; and The Studio Museum in Harlem, museum purchase with funds provided by Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee T.2018.33a-b. © Emma Amos. Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

 

AMOS WAS BORN IN ATLANTA in 1937. She attended segregated public schools and at the age of 16 enrolled in a five-year program at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. During her fourth year, she went abroad studying printmaking, painting, and weaving at the Central School of Art in London. After earning a BA degree at Antioch (1958), Amos returned to complete a diploma in etching at the Central School (1959).

Her first-ever solo exhibition was at Alexander Gallery in Atlanta, showcasing her prints in 1960. She subsequently moved to New York, arriving at the height of civil rights and women’s rights activities, movements that had a profound influence on Amos’s practice and worldview.

After a few years in the city, she started graduate school in 1964, eventually earning a master of arts degree from New York University (1966). At NYU, Hale Woodruff was one of her professors. Amos knew him through her family growing up in Atlanta and he invited her to join Spiral.

Bearden, Woodruff, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and others first gathered in 1963 to form the group. Prompted by the advent of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Spiral was established to consider the role of artists in the fight for civil rights and justice. Short-lived, the group of 15 artists was active through 1965 and organized one exhibition. The death of Amos leaves one living member of Spiral, artist Richard Mayhew.

“Well, the whole time that I was doing Spiral…,” Amos said in a 2011 oral history interview with poet Patricia Spears Jones for the Archives of American Art, “…I was a member of a very famous clandestine women’s group that worked at night and did not ever go out without masks on our faces.”

Her claim refers to the Guerrilla Girls, the activist group whose actions and artworks inject sharp commentary into the art world’s enduring favor toward white male artists. Members of the legendary feminist group protects their anonymity by adopting pseudonyms and wearing masks in public. The group remains active today. One member goes by the name “Alma Thomas.”

Amos was also one of the few black women active in Heresies, a group of feminist political artists. She took the lead on a special 1982 issue of the collective’s journal focused on race matters in the feminist art movement.

 


Emma Amos in her studio, circa 1990s. | © Estate of Emma Amos, Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

 

IN 1965, PRIOR TO HER GRADUATION from NYU, Amos married Robert Amos Levine. The couple had two children, Nicholas and India. Born in Brooklyn, Levine retired as director of marketing for Standard Motor Products. He died in 2005, preceding his wife in death.

Throughout her career, Amos taught art to supplement her studio practice. But when she first arrived in New York, landing a teaching position proved as challenging as making it as an artist.

The experience is characterized in the obituary statement Ryan Lee Gallery provided: “As a young black woman, Amos faced tremendous obstacles as she attempted to establish herself in the city-obstacles not faced by her white, often male, peers. She was repeatedly turned down for exhibitions and teaching jobs before landing a position as a teaching assistant at the Dalton School, a college preparatory school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.”

Several years after her children were born, Amos returned to teaching. In 1974, she began working at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. Then she developed a series about crafts for public television in 1977. She co-hosted “Show of Hands” with Beth Gutcheon and it aired on WGBH Boston for two years.

In 1980, Amos joined the faculty at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, earning tenure in 1992. She served as chair of the visual arts department from 2005 to 2007, and retired in 2008, after nearly three decades at Rutgers.

Throughout her career, Amos kept up her practice and after retiring continued to work in her New York studio. Several years ago, her health began to fail in face of Alzheimer’s.

“Emma probably stopped working on her art around 2016 or 2017 or so, at least in terms of the types of pieces for which she is known,” her son Nicholas said. “Her studio assistant and some of her caregivers continued to work with her from time to time to draw and even paint, but this probably became more ‘art therapy’ than anything like professional studio work as time and her disease progressed.” In 2019, Amos moved to an assisted living facility in New Hampshire.

 


EMMA AMOS, “Untitled (for Spiral Exhibition, 1965),” circa 1964. | © Emma Amos; Private Collection, DE. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

 

IN 2016, AMOS joined Ryan Lee Gallery. She’s since had two solo exhibitions with the gallery and a special installation in the gallery’s RLWindow overlooking The High Line.

Her representation in two seminal and historic exhibitions has also been key to her attention. Amos was featured in the landmark traveling shows “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” and “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which is scheduled at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (April 26-July 19, 2020), its final destination.

Her work appears in “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985.” Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the group show is traveling to Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College (June 27-Nov. 29, 2020) in Dutchess County, New York.

In addition, her work was included in “Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s,” a major collection exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Amos’s painting “Baby” (1966), which the museum acquired in 2018, was on view.

In 2018 and 2019, her work was also added to the collections of several other major museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Cleveland Museum of Art.

Meanwhile, Amos is currently featured in “Riffs and Revelations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition” at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

On her website, Amos described her practice in an artist statement. It reads in part: “I hope that the subjects of my paintings dislodge, question, and tweak prejudices, rules, and notions relating to art and who makes it, poses for it, shows it, and buys it. The work reflects my investigations into the otherness often seen by white male artists, along with the notion of desire, the dark body versus the white body, racism, and my wish to provoke more thoughtful ways of thinking and seeing.” CT

 

TOP OF PAGE: 2006 Portrait of Emma Amos, with “Head First.” | Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery

 

Please Note: Most museums are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Check directly with institutions regarding scheduling.

 

UPDATES (05/24,05/28): Adding comments from Nicholas Emmos and Shawnya Harris

 


EMMA AMOS, “Tightrope,” 1994 (acrylic on linen with African fabric borders, 82 x 58 inches). | © Emma Amos, Courtesy the estate of the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

 


EMMA AMOS, “Flower Sniffer,” 1966. | © Emma Amos; Collection of the Brooklyn Museum, NY. Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

 


EMMA AMOS, “Eva the Babysitter,” 1973. | © Emma Amos; Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

 


EMMA AMOS, “Black Dog Blues,” 1983 (acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric, 52 x 76 inches). | © Emma Amos. Courtesy the estate of the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is a solo editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.