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How Emma Amos’s Art and Activism Powerfully Confronted Racism and Sexism

How Emma Amos’s Art and Activism Powerfully Confronted Racism and Sexism

VISUAL ART NEWS

How Emma Amos’s Art and Activism Powerfully Confronted Racism and Sexism

Over the course of a career that spanned more than half a century, Emma Amos profoundly shifted the course of art history through her varied experiments combining painting and textiles. These works exploded with color, and they brought forth new mediations on what figurative painting could be, reckoning in the process with issues of race and gender. “I try to make a painting resonate in some kind of way,” Amos said in an oral history with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 2011.
The influence of Amos, who died last year at 83, now looms large in the art world, but that wasn’t always the case. She struggled to find gallery representation early on in her career, and for much of her life, she didn’t sell many works. Even fewer of her paintings entered museum collections while she was alive. But Amos was never one to give up easily. She used her art to ponder her anxieties about being erased from a canon of which she wanted to be a part, and she joined collectives like Spiral, Heresies, and the Guerrilla Girls, which called out racism and sexism in the art world.

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“Emma always talked about the idea that painting is a political act,” said Jeff Lee, cofounder of Ryan Lee gallery in New York, which represents Amos. For Lee, her work “symbolizes the idea of not having a solid foundation—that there’s slippage, that you can be erased from history. That’s something that Emma was always aware of and concerned with. I think that speaks to our contemporary times.”
Since 2016, Amos’s art-historical stature has risen as her work has circulated around the world and more people have been able to see her art firsthand. Her work was included in the landmark traveling exhibitions “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–1985.” And her work is now the subject of a traveling retrospective, organized by Shawnya L. Harris, which recently ended its run at the Georgia Museum of Art and will open later this year at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Below a look at Amos’s life and art.
Child Prodigy

Emma Amos in her studio in the 1990s.
Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

Amos was born in 1937 in Atlanta to a middle-class Black family that was well-connected with the city’s literary and civil rights figures. Her father and grandfather were pharmacists and the family owned a drugstore. Frequent guests to her family’s home included W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Hale Woodruff; Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, was a childhood friend.

Amos quickly took up drawing as early as first grade. “I was what is loosely known as a child prodigy,” she said in a 1968 oral history with the SAAA. She learned figure drawing from copying Esquire magazine’s World War II–era “Vargas Girls” pin-up girls by Peruvian painter Alberto Vargas, as well as women’s clothing ads in the New Yorker.
She left Atlanta at the age of 16 to attend Antioch College in Ohio. Her program allowed her to take classes for half the year and then work for half the year in cities like London, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. “That’s where I got to go to galleries and museums, that’s when I really got to see the art world,” she said. After graduating in 1958, Amos returned to London and stayed another year, earning a second degree in etching from the London Central School of Art in 1959. She returned to Atlanta for a year, where she had her first solo show, and then decided to move to New York, where she was able to secure a job teaching art at the Dalton School.
While in art school, Amos developed a love for printmaking that would continue throughout her career, and one that she actively pursued upon her arrival in New York. She began working with two of the city’s print masters, Letterio Calapai and Robert Blackburn. (Kathleen Caraccio, who had worked for Blackburn, would later become her longtime collaborator for printmaking.) And in 1961, Amos began working for the famed textile designer Dorothy Liebes. Those connections would prove influential on her art making.

Emma Amos, The Reader, 1967.
©Emma Amos/Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery, New York/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

Balancing Act
Even though Amos is now known best as a figurative painter, she began with a love of abstraction. “She wanted to be a great abstract painter when she first started out,” Shawnya L. Harris, the current Amos retrospective’s curator, said. “She gradually evolved back to the figure by the mid-’60s, during the civil rights movement, and that propelled her forward into figuration.” 

Emma Amos, Untitled (for Spiral Exhibition, 1965), ca. 1964.
©Emma Amos/Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery, New York/Private Collection, Delaware

In 1964, Amos began a graduate program in art education at New York University. She looked up her old family friend, the artist Hale Woodruff, seeking a mentor. Woodruff reviewed her work and invited her to join Spiral, which had formed in 1963 in the lead up to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Amos would become the youngest and only woman member of the now legendary, though short-lived, group of Black artists that also included Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, and Norman Lewis, the latter of whom would become a lifelong friend of Amos. Spiral had no official singular mandate, and its goal was to ponder how Black artists could work together. Lauren Haynes, who curated a 2011 Spiral survey at the Studio Museum in Harlem, said they were asking questions such as: “How do we keep making work in this moment? What does it mean that we have all of these different opinions?”
Though some of the male members might have assumed that Amos was to be their secretary and fetch coffee for them, Amos was quick to assert that she would be these artists’ equal. “That was one of the most political things I ever did. And that wasn’t even very political because it wasn’t a political kind of group,” Amos said in her 1968 oral history.
In 1965, Amos married Robert Levine, who was white, and they had two children, Nicholas in 1967 and India in 1970. Her marriage and raising her children would also become important components of Amos’s art practice going forward. “I think this reconciliation of both imposed, as well as invented, racial identity is something that she always wanted to deal with in her art, because she was dealing with it in her personal life,” Harris said. “It was something that she also felt was a part of the conversation in the art world. These artificial definitions of what Black art is, what women’s art is. She wanted to be able to change the conversation and shake things up and show that our preconceived notions about these things are not always as clear as we want them to be.”

Emma Amos, Two Standing Women, 1966.
©Emma Amos/Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery, New York/Private Collection, Delaware

Weaving History
At first Amos wasn’t sure exactly how to merge her love of painting and craft, especially at a time when critics demeaned practices such as weaving. It wasn’t until the late ’70s and early ’80s that Amos began to connect her weavings and paintings into single artworks. “That was where she really found her niche,” Harris said, adding that Amos treated her materials “much like a weaver would. She’s weaving them all in together into a whole.” Later, in the ’80s and into the ’90s, Amos began incorporating more printed textiles into the work, drawing on cloths from Ghana, Mali, South Africa, and other places, as well as ones she had woven herself. With its racks of textiles, Amos’s studio had the feeling of a fabric store.
As Amos’s work turned increasingly figurative, she began to explore issues of gender, race, and the Western art canon in her work, inserting her own image into the work. “Usually, she was a big protagonist in the paintings,” Harris said. “She would picture herself countering the obstacles of the art world or challenging well-known artists that she may have admired, but then she began to take a second look at what they were actually communicating about women, power.”

Emma Amos, Work Suit, 1994.
©Emma Amos/Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

It’s clear based on these works that Amos admires artists like Picasso and Gauguin, and that, in a way, she hates what they represent, too. One of Amos’s most famous paintings is Work Suit (1994) in which Amos paints Lucien Freud’s nude body. On his white body appears the artist’s own head. Harris added, “She puts on the white body, but you wonder how comfortable she actually would be in it. She’s performing race in her paintings through that physical embodiment.”
Amos felt it was important to make sure that other women artists weren’t also erased from the canon. She served as an editor of the Heresies Collective’s journal, which was first published in 1977 and ran until 1993. And he later became a member of the Guerrilla Girls, which formed in 1985 and sought to highlight the ways in which women artists were underrepresented in museum collections and on gallery rosters. Amos’s dedication to the cause is also clear in the series “The Gift,” made between 1990 and 1994. For it, she made a series of 48 watercolor portraits of Camille Billops, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Lucy Lippard, Mira Schor, May Stevens, and Elizabeth Catlett, among many others. “She talked about the fact that by creating these portraits of them, they can never be negated from history,” Lee, her gallerist, said.
Mining an Archive
In the early 1990s, Amos’s godfather, George Shivery, passed away and his wife gave Amos a cache of photographs that he had taken of Black Americans in rural Mississippi and Tennessee during the 1930s. She wanted to incorporate these images into her paintings, and that’s when she began to use a photo-transfer technique. In one work, she includes Shivery’s two portraits of a Black man, shown proud in one and laughing in another; over the photo-transferred images, she’s drawn a large X. “She’s not marking them out to say that they’re not important,” Harris said. “She’s saying that they’re viewed as unimportant. She’s both resurrecting them, but she’s also signaling that they are being canceled out, ignored, and erased.”
Shivery’s photographs appeared in numerous other works, like Equals (1990), which also includes a falling figure, possibly Amos, set against the stripes of an American flag with stars. Falling figures also recur in Amos’s output from the era. “I liked the idea of using the sky instead of having everybody just standing,” Amos said in her 2011 oral history. “It meant that you had to see the body in different kinds of ways—not a standing figure, not a lying-down figure, but a figure either in a kind of anxious position but also there could be some joy in flying through the air.”

Emma Amos, Tightrope, 1994.
©Emma Amos/Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery, New York/Minneapolis Institute of Art

 The Overseer (ca. 1992), which measures 14 feet wide, is one of Amos’s most important works. In the righthand panel, Amos shows herself tumbling, her scream turning from despair to anger along the way. Above Amos’s figure is another of Shivery’s images, which is also in the left-hand panel. At center is a Confederate flag—another symbol of the disenfranchisement and erasure of the Black community in the South, Harris said—with two white women sitting in a blanket. Bisected by the left and center panels is the namesake overseer. Harris called the work an “attack” on white authority figures—“her paintbrush becomes a weapon to counteract racism that is often embodied in that symbol of the flag.”
Fostering New Generations
For much of her life, Amos worked as a teacher, sharing her knowledge with generations of students and the public. She taught textile weaving and design at the the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts in the 1970s, as well as in the East Village. Between 1977 and 1979, she cohosted, with Beth Gutcheon, a series called Show of Hands that looked at the connections between art and craft and aired on public television in Boston.
In 1980, she became a professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, eventually serving as visual art department’s chair from 2005 to 2007; she retired from teaching in 2008. “I think a good teacher in painting and drawing and any other kind of making and doing is so much how you treat the students and how you try to make them feel that you are not above them,” she said in her 2011 oral history. “You are working with them, and you’re trying to make sure that they don’t stumble on things and get, you know, to feel that they can’t do something.”
She added later, “When I hear that one of my students is having an exhibition somewhere, I take my little behind there. I want to see and I want to support them. And that might be all I can do with them, you know.”

Emma Amos in her studio with Valued (2006).
Photo Becket Logan

‘An Incredibly Positive Person’
Like many others who didn’t identify as white and male when she was active, Amos experienced all kinds of adversity. But even in spite of that, her work continued to nurture her artistic talents, shifting constantly and changing art history along the way, even when the mainstream didn’t notice that she was slowly shaping it behind the scenes. “She was ever-evolving, and always growing and changing,” Lauren Haynes, the Spiral show curator, said. “I think that is, to me, a key factor for an artist who has the lasting power of their work, like Emma Amos did—someone who can constantly push and test and grow their work, and not just be comfortable sitting in one place.”
It’s clear now that a wider public is beginning to take note of Amos’s accomplishments. Fashion designer Duro Olowu created a collection that served as a tribute to Amos’s work, which he first encountered after seeing “Soul of a Nation” at Tate Modern in 2016. Since then, he has sought out her work at the various museums he’s traveled to since—even if it is still hard to find her work on display in most major museums. For Olowu, Amos’s work is a testament to the perseverance it takes to sustain an art career, particularly for a Black woman: “I hope that it inspires younger artists that artists like Emma Amos or Senga Negundi have kept their practices going despite non-recognition. It’s a legacy she would have been very proud of, and somehow, I have a sneaky feeling that she was, because that’s the only way you could continue to make incredible work.”


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