AN UNPRECEDENTED RETROSPECTIVE dedicated to Emma Amos (1937-2020) has been in the works for five years and is forthcoming in 2021 at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Amos was a progressive painter. From the beginning, she explored and challenged race, class, and gender norms, both in her work and career. Over six decades, she made works that referenced color-field painting, employed photo transfer techniques, and were trimmed in African fabrics.

 


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

 

Always willing to push herself in new creative directions, vibrant color, figuration, and a conceptual approach were constants. She interrogated art history and often inserted herself into her work, using her own experiences to shed light on universal themes.

“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,” Amos said in her artist statement. “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.”

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. Amos was one of the few black women active in Heresies and she also said she was a member of the Guerrilla Girls.

Born in Atlanta, Amos spent most of her work life in New York. She was in the sunset of her career when she joined a Ryan Lee gallery in 2016, was represented in a series of high-profile group exhibitions at major museums, and experienced a spate of new institutional acquisitions. The artist was largely unaware of the late attention, however. Her death in May, at age 83, followed several years battling Alzheimer’s disease.

Efforts to showcase and explore her work continue posthumously. In the fall, Ryan Lee in New York is mounting its third solo exhibition. Soon after, an in-depth examination of her life and work is forthcoming in her home state. Curated by Shawnya Harris, “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey” is expected to open in January at the Georgia Museum of Art. The retrospective will feature about 60 works spanning 60 years, drawn from the artist’s estate, museums, and private collections, and will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog.

I reached out to Harris, the museum’s Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art, via email to learn more about the exhibition, how she came to focus on the work of Amos, and what she hopes to highlight and reveal about the artist and her practice:

 


EMMA AMOS, “Baby,” 1966 (oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 51 inches). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Whitney Museum of American Art/Studio Museum in Harlem

 

The following are excerpts of Shawnya Harris’s responses, lightly edited for length and clarity

I met Emma Amos around 2009, while I was working and in graduate school.

I met Emma Amos around 2009, while I was working and in graduate school. I had known about her since my undergraduate days (particularly vivid are works such as “Equals” and “Tightrope”) and was always curious about what happened to her. I contacted her then gallery, Flomenhaft, to find out about her work and they allowed me to contact her for a full studio visit. We talked about a small exhibition while I was working in North Carolina (as director of University Galleries at North Carolina A&T State University) but it never transpired.

In 2015, I began working on her as the subject of a more expanded exhibition.

When I started working at the Georgia Museum of Art in 2015, she immediately came to mind. In 2016, our museum awarded her our Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Award and I began working on her as the subject of a more expanded exhibition. I wanted to pull together several decades of her work to show her progression as an artist. 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. Luckily, I had accumulated several images of works over the years and had the beginnings of a checklist. That list has evolved as Amos’s work has been embraced by new audiences through several important exhibitions and previously unknown works have surfaced.

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.

I did know that she was developing Alzheimer’s in the last few years. I have felt gratified in knowing that we spent time together in the years prior.

I stayed in touch with Emma herself until around 2013, 2014. After that my experience was largely mediated by her studio and gallery since her memory and mobility began to worsen by that time. Unfortunately, she was not able to receive the Thompson Award in person (her daughter, India received it in her stead) but she was cognizant that she had won the award.

In terms of the artist’s health, I did know that she was developing Alzheimer’s in the last few years. Ryan Lee Gallery, Emma’s former studio assistants, and her family have been very helpful in providing information and assisting in the process. But I have felt gratified in knowing that we spent time together in the years prior, because as much as she developed complex work, she was warm and generous. When I came to New York, for work or otherwise, I knew I had to stop by and see “Emma.”

She remembered not even being able to visit museums in Georgia due to segregation.

It was interesting. I remember I did visit Amos later in 2016 and she talked about how she remembered not even being able to visit museums in Georgia due to segregation. She said she missed Georgia though and missed the family and friends she had there, although she was not sure who was still around at that point. So the planned retrospective had personal meaning to her.

 


EMMA AMOS, “Streaks,” 1983 (acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric, 85 x 75 inches). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Private Collection (Beth Rudin DeWoody), The Bunker Artspace

 
She was an experienced textile artist as much as she was painter and printmaker.

When I first started working on Amos, I found that the literature and reviews stressed her interest in figuration and some attention to her time in Spiral. Maybe a little to her appropriation of African textiles. But Amos was an experienced textile artist as much as she was painter and printmaker. When I first visited her studio, the first thing I saw were textiles and some remnants of her own weavings. Even certain works on paper gave way to discussions of texture and pattern. So for Amos, I got the sense that her odyssey in exploring color (visual or metaphoric) was that it had to be tangible, like fabric, for people. Textiles were not simply decoration.

When I first visited her studio, the first thing I saw were textiles and some remnants of her own weavings. Even certain works on paper gave way to discussions of texture and pattern.

Her later work began to investigate what we now understand as “intersectionality.”

Her evolution as an artist coincided with the push for acceptance in mainstream art circles for African American artists but also other debates: the merits of seeming feminine ‘craft’ forms versus a more male dominated ‘fine’ art scene focused on minimalist painting; a prevalent ‘black aesthetic’ which favored figuration over abstraction. Her later work began to investigate what we now understand as “intersectionality” in the art world right about the time that the term moved into feminist discourse in the late 1980s with thinkers such as Kimberle Crenshaw and bell hooks. hooks, in particular, was a close friend and collaborator.

Amos inherited a body of images from her late godfather and she begins to use them in her work through a process of photo transfer.

In the early 1990s, Amos inherited a body of images from her late godfather, George Shivery. Shivery was a painter and sculptor himself who worked for years as a social worker for the parole division of the state of New York. He photographed rural blacks in Mississippi and Tennessee during the 1930s. She begins to use them in her work through a process of photo transfer. Amos was interested in this idea that photography does not lie so it gave her a vehicle for generating new ideas in her work.

In “Equals” (1990), she shows herself falling into (or emerging from) what looks like is a U.S. flag, but the “stars” are represented by an image of a rural cabin with black people in front of it. A big red equal sign connects her identity to that of the photograph. Other stars are scattered and represented through star-shaped collage elements of other stars and eyes. It is bordered by more African cloth with the image of Malcolm X. So Amos equates herself to the history of those blacks from the South who inhabit the landscape represented by the American flag while still framed by cloth which represents “Africa.” Through her intervention, Amos also invents her own identity.

 


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

 
In “Tightrope,” she shows her precarious situation as a woman trying to be all things to herself and others.

“Tightrope” (1994), like “Equals,” is another memorable work by Amos. In the mid-1990s Amos created a series of works where she challenged the limitations she believed were imposed on her and other women artists. Her visual strategy was much like hip-hop sampling where she mixed her identity with recognizable images from popular culture and figures from art and cultural history. In “Tightrope,” she shows her precarious situation as a woman trying to be all things to herself and others, thus she is a “wonder woman.” She is wearing a black housecoat (linking her to domesticity) which partially covers her costume, but she is still an artist (paint brushes in hand). She walks the tightrope where she becomes almost a circus act performing all of these roles.

She “upholds” a tee shirt with the torso representing Gauguin’s muse and child bride who is also reproduced in each corner of the painting and pointed out with red arrows. Amos loved artists like Gauguin as painters, but she struggled with the colonizing male gaze and exploitative use of women and brown peoples in their work. As an artist, she wanted to reclaim power over the canon of images and narratives handed to her and other people. In a bit of irony, she “X’s” herself out in this and other paintings, suggesting that she is unheard and often ignored.

Amos loved artists like Gauguin as painters, but she struggled with the colonizing male gaze and exploitative use of women and brown peoples in their work.

It is the first time that works from every decade are represented in one exhibition

The exhibition is a retrospective. Although I would not say it is comprehensive, it covers over six decades of her work (late 1950s-2010s). I do not believe it is the largest in terms of the number of works, but it is the first time that works from every decade are represented in one exhibition. The exhibition will open at the Georgia Museum of Art on January 30, 2021, and it would end on April 25, 2021, should the current pandemic not have further impact on our plans. From there, it travels to the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute in Utica, N.Y., followed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

We look forward to doing this publication because the last known catalog done on her was almost 30 years ago

We are currently developing the publication which will include main essays by Lisa Farrington (Howard University), Phoebe Wolfskill (Indiana University, Bloomington), and Laurel Garber (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and I. Although no publication can completely capture every aspect of an artist, we look forward to doing this one because the last known catalog done on her was almost 30 years ago (and is out of print!). With the interest and attention there is to her work, I wanted to create an “update” that could be the jumping off point for more in the years to come. In addition, it will have previously unpublished works and images of the artist. CT

 

“Emma Amos: Color Odyssey” will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens, Jan 30-April 25, 2021

 

FIND MORE about Emma Amos on her website

FIND MORE Curator Shawnya Harris reflected on the life and work of Emma Amos on the Georgia Museum of Art blog

 

READ MORE about Emma Amos on Culture Type here, here, and here

 

EMMA AMOS - Flying-Circus-Ryan Lee Galery
EMMA AMOS, “Flying Circus,” 1987 (acrylic and fabric on linen). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery

 


EMMA AMOS, “Pompeii,” 1959 (color etching and aquatint on paper, 19 1/8 × 13 5/8 inches, image). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Museum purchase in memory of Berkeley Minor. GMOA 2018.131

 


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

 


EMMA AMOS, “Sandy and Her Husband,” 1973 (oil on canvas, 44 1⁄4 x 50 1⁄4 inches). | © Estate of Emma Amos, Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund

 

BOOKSHELF
A catalog will be published to accompany the forthcoming exhibition “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey.” “Emma Amos: Paintings and prints 1982-92” documents the artist’s 1993 solo exhibition at the College of Wooster Art Museum in Wooster, Ohio. Paintings by Emma Amos were recently featured in two major museum exhibitions. “Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” was published to document the landmark traveling exhibition. Two publications were produced to coincide with “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” a Sourcebook featuring an invaluable collection of historic articles about black women artist’s activities, insights, challenges, and triumphs navigating the art world, along with New Perspectives, a collection of original essays.

 

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