New York

Emma Amos, All I Know of Wonder, 2008, oil on linen, African fabric, 70 1/2 x 55 1/2". © Emma Amos/VAGA, New York.

Emma Amos, All I Know of Wonder, 2008, oil on linen, African fabric, 70 1/2 x 55 1/2". © Emma Amos/VAGA, New York.

Emma Amos


Emma Amos, All I Know of Wonder, 2008, oil on linen, African fabric, 70 1/2 x 55 1/2". © Emma Amos/VAGA, New York.

In Tightrope, 1994, Emma Amos paints herself as a circus performer. In star-spangled underwear and a black duster, she tiptoes on a high wire over a woozy crowd of blurred faces and headless eyeballs. In her left hand are two paintbrushes; in her right, she holds a T-shirt emblazoned with a pair of pendant breasts over a platter of red mango blossoms. This fragment of a body belongs to one of the subjects of Paul Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women, painted during the disaffected Frenchman’s Pacific sojourn in 1899. Amos’s vicious brushstrokes and high-key colors burlesque Gauguin’s colonial primitivism with humor and ferocity, and she disciplines these energies with a border of printed African cloth, studded at each corner with a photo transfer of Gauguin’s painting.

The tightrope walk allegorizes the artist’s precarious and unstable relation to the modernist canon she appropriates. Born in 1938, Amos was the youngest and only female artist in Spiral, a collective of African American artists founded in 1963 for “the purpose of discussing the commitment of the Negro artist in the present struggle for civil liberties, and as a discussion group to consider common aesthetic problems.” About these shared commitments and aesthetics, the group’s fourteen members—among them Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and Norman Lewis—never reached consensus. In a 1966 roundtable, Amos stated, “I don’t believe there is such a thing as a Negro artist.” Even before the formation of Spiral, she had found work as a textile designer and had begun integrating handwoven and, later, store-bought kente cloth and batik fabrics into dense, multitextured figure paintings. Eight of these works, spanning the past four decades, were on view in “Black Bodies.” Thank You Jesus for Paul Robeson (and for Nicholas Murray’s Photograph - 1926), 1995, pays tribute to the African American entertainer, athlete, and civil rights activist blacklisted for his Communist affiliations and opposition to US imperialism. Amos’s painting after Murray’s nude photograph rhythmically retraces Robeson’s muscular back and buttocks across a field of gestural brushstrokes. Robeson’s body is contained within several frames: bracketed on one side by stacked reproductions of Murray’s photograph, and on the other by photo transfers of a Roman frieze. The three images—sculptural, painterly, and photographic—are insulated by a thick border of black-and-white geometric fabric.

“Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement,” Amos told Lucy Lippard in a 1991 interview. “It would be a luxury to be white and never have to think about it.” In All I Know of Wonder, 2008, a woman in a red bikini stands near a winding shoreline, casting her gaze out to the viewer. Her body is partitioned into segments painted in different skin tones. A nude male figure stands in the foreground. Painted onyx black with gleaming white highlights, he appears polished and sculptural. While the two oddly coupled bodies—one reified, the other radically unresolved—make a sibylline statement about the racialization of color and the patchwork character of identity, the title evokes a short poem by an aging Marsden Hartley: “The earth is all I know of wonder. / I lived and was nurtured in the magic of dreams / bright flames of spirit laughter / around all my seething frame.” Whether she was thinking about Hartley’s poem, “the seething frame”—be it a physical body or a limit circumscribing an artwork—seems spookily apposite, capturing something of the layered densities of Amos’s textiles and the sensuous, embodied figures within.

Chloe Wyma