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Emma Amos at the Art Salon Show, 1979. Courtesy: Ryan Lee.
Emma Amos at the Art Salon Show, 1979. Courtesy: Ryan Lee.

Emma Amos (1937–2020)

Emma Amos, a pioneering artist best-known for her vivid figurative paintings exploring gender, race, and power through an inventive approach to color and form, has died at age eighty-three. The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, according to a statement by New York’s Ryan Lee Gallery, which represents the artist. Over a nearly six-decade career that encompassed both figurative and abstract painting as well as printmaking and weaving, Amos drew from art history, current affairs, and her own life, helping fill the representational void surrounding African American identity and heritage in art institutions and beyond. Influenced by Abstract Expressionism and the civil rights movement, Amos began painting in the early 1960s and, in 1963, became the sole female member of Spiral, a short-lived but momentous group of African American artists in New York City who explored the role of blackness in art.

Born in segregated Atlanta in 1937, Amos studied drawing at Morris Brown College at age eleven. Her parents encouraged her artistic pursuits: Amos’s mother hoped she would study with Atlantan muralist Hale Woodruff, but the opportunity never arose, and he moved; her father introduced her to intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston (a frequent guest). Amos would later paint Du Bois, Hurston, and other important figures alongside her father, asserting the importance of her own ancestry. At sixteen, she enrolled in Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she studied art history. She spent a year learning abroad in London, and in 1960 she moved to New York, where she started making prints in the workshops of Robert Blackburn and Letterio Calapai. She also began apprenticing with master weaver Dorothy Liebes, who infused in Amos a lifelong affinity for craft; many of her paintings incorporate photography and textiles, and from 1977 to 1978, she hosted an arts and crafts television show, Show of Hands.

In 1964, Amos began a graduate program in arts education at New York University, where she finally met Woodruff, who introduced her work to members of Spiral—Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and Norman Lewis among them. After looking at color etchings she had made, they invited her to join, and she became the group’s youngest and only female member. (In 2011, Amos said in an oral history that the collective rejected other female artists, including Vivian Brown and Faith Ringgold.) Spiral disbanded two years after its founding in 1965, the same year Amos married Bobby Levine, a writer and early computer enthusiast. Although it only lasted two years—divergent perspectives on black art, while originally generative, eventually led to irreconcilable differences in philosophy and artistic approach—the group has recently received new attention in traveling shows like “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” organized by London’s Tate Modern in 2017. Amos was included in that survey, as well as in the Brooklyn Museum’s “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” that same year. In addition to her work with Spiral, Amos edited for Heresies, the feminist art journal, and, according to Ryan Lee Gallery’s statement, belonged to Guerrilla Girls, the trailblazing feminist activist group that protests injustice in the art world.

The pernicious whiteness of that world would be taken up repeatedly in Amos’s work. “Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement,” she told Lucy Lippard in 1991. “It would be a luxury to be white and never have to think about it.” An artwork titled The Tightrope, 1994—in which Amos balances over a field of eyes, holding a shirt decorated with a naked female torso and a plate of mango blossoms from Paul Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women, 1899—“allegorizes the artist’s precarious and unstable relation to the modernist canon she appropriates,” wrote Chloe Wyma in a January 2018 Artforum review of an exhibition of Amos’s work at Ryan Lee Gallery.

In 1988, Amos began her “Falling Series,” complex, often multifigure paintings that emphasize the dynamism of bodies plunging through space, sometimes exceeding the limits of the rectangular canvas. “I liked the idea of using the sky instead of having everybody just standing,” she said. “I also had a feeling that we were going into a bad period. And I’m not sure whether [falling] was the proper metaphor, but it seemed to be right.” Two years later, she began “The Gift,” 1990–94, a series of forty-eight watercolor portraits of women in the art world, among them Elizabeth Catlett, Lucy Lippard, Lorna Simpson, Lorraine O’Grady, and Amos’s daughter India, the gift’s recipient.

In 2008, Amos retired from her professorship at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of Art, where she had taught since 1980. Like that of many black artists, her work has only recently enjoyed widespread attention from critics and institutions. Amos’s paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, as well as the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 2021, a retrospective of the artist’s work will open in her home state, at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens.