A Black person floats, as if falling down through the air, in front of a version of an American flag.

Observed Online Reviews

Emma Amos, They Weren’t Ready For You

A testament to a prolific career, Color Odyssey highlights Amos’s appetite for destabilizing the norms of painting, printmaking, and society at large.

by Rachell Morillo

Emma Amos, Equals, 1992. Emma Amos; Courtesy of RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.


“I’ve had to learn that success is not going to come to me the way it came to the blue-chip artists,” Emma Amos once revealed in an interview with writer and theorist, bell hooks. While deeply aware of the dearth of critical engagement with her work as a painter, printmaker, and textile artist, Amos remained undeterred—continually deriving new pleasures from the process of creating. She explained, “Hustling that job, that painting—working hard and doing it without a lot of responses. I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do, and that’s what keeps me going.”1

Amos (1937–2020) was an audacious artist, one with a voracious appetite for destabilizing norms and embracing complexity. In Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, 60 works spanning over four decades evidence the prolific practice she cultivated in spite of institutional neglect and oppressive structures. Organized by Shawnya L. Harris, Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art at the Georgia Museum of Art, and later presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the traveling exhibition marked what was in multiple senses the ultimate homegoing for the Atlanta-born artist.


Installation view of Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2022. Photo by Joseph Hu, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.

Raised by college-educated parents in the segregated south and in proximity to Black intellectuals and artists of the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights periods, Amos developed a self-assuredness and enterprising spirit early on. In many ways, the particularity of her experience, which broke from stereotypes of Black southerners as isolated and poor, instilled a level of specificity in her understanding of race and gender, which she would return to throughout her career. Her experiences in avant-garde learning environments like Antioch College and London Central School of Arts and Crafts offered opportunities to expand her knowledge of form and marked the beginning of her experimentation with nonrepresentational forms of art.

The exhibition’s presentation at the PMA, curated by Laurel Garber, the institution’s Park Family Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, aptly began with works from this period, foregrounding its influence on her career. Amos’s abstract expressionist etchings helped hone the artist’s selective sense of color and her unique appreciation for texture, both of which are present in her better known figurative and textile works. In this way Amos’s process was cumulative: she would take from one experience and improve upon it further. For example, from her early use of aquatint, seen in early prints like “Pompeii” (1959), she went on to co-develop a multi-layered process called silk aquatint, which allowed for the rich tonal gradation we see in later works like “To Sit (with Pochoir)” and “Sand Tan” (1980). While her experimentation with combining disciplines and mediums broke open formal traditions, her artistic choices were also always politically situated. In this case, her aim was to visualize the depth, richness, and plurality of Black life.


A seated figure, with multi-colored skin tones, looks up at the viewer, while surrounded by swirling primary colors. To their right is another figure, laying down or standing up, who leans back and also looks out at the viewer. This figure is clearly Black.
Emma Amos, Seated Figure and Nude, 1966. © Emma Amos; Private Collection, CA. Courtesy of RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

For Amos, color was always a political choice, a conceptual engagement with issues of racial equity and women’s rights. As the youngest member of the influential Black artist’s collective Spiral (and the only woman invited to join it), Amos distinguished her voice amongst some of the most venerated artists of the time period by portraying a wide range of skin tones, as opposed to the homogenous dark-skinned figures that populated the works of fellow members like Romare Bearden. Reflecting on her choice of colors, Amos noted, “Every time I think about color it’s a political statement. It would be a luxury to be white and never have to think about it.”2 Her painting, “Seated Figure and Nude” (1966) reveals the artist’s acuity and control of materials, each skillfully deployed to craft an active and accurate depiction of Blackness.

In the dense accumulation of brushstrokes that differentiate skin from cloth and bodies from space, I see Amos’s love for the action of expressionist painting, or what she called “pushing the paint around.”3 In the bold, earthy tones is a precision inspired by her practice as a printmaker; its specificity also reflective of her sense of the plurality of Black experiences. Multiple perspectives disorient the viewer, adding to a general sense of motion in a canvas abuzz with reverence and curiosity.


Emma Amos, who is Black, depicts herself wearing a skin-suit of a white person with a penis, while painting a nude white person laying on the ground.
Emma Amos, Work Suit, 1994. Emma Amos; Courtesy of RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

In her later multi-media works, Amos further destabilized and subverted the assumptions underlying racist and patriarchal systems. Seamlessly combining a bevy of printmaking techniques, nuanced uses of textiles, and self-referential painting, she created charged pieces that spoke to the social fragmentation she experienced. In multi-panel woven works like “Flying Circus” (1987) and “Targets” (1989), for instance, people, animals, monuments, and imagined creatures defy gravity, in a dance that implies the disintegration of societal footholds. Neither fearful nor blissful, the characters instead represent a kind of postmodernist existentialism, “when everything is stable and clear, and there are possibilities of loss but there are also possibilities of being found.”4 Amos sought to imagine a completely deconstructed world, with all of its possibilities and pitfalls.

The artist also grappled with her own enmeshment in this social fabric. “Work Suit” (1994), especially, is a treatise on the artist’s role in society. A self-portrait of sorts, the painting depicts Amos’s own face—a recurring motif in her work—affixed to a nude, white male body, specifically that of the British artist Lucian Freud. Staring down, unflinchingly, at the prone body of a naked white woman, the artist is ambiguously incriminated yet preoccupied with her own self-making, as the paintbrush she holds is tilted towards her own face. Here, Amos inserts herself into the Western canon, accentuating the colonial power dynamics that shape who is an object of desire, who is capable of artistic creation, and where there is room for self-determination.


Installation view of Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2022. Photo by Joseph Hu, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.

Although not the all-encompassing retrospective one might hope for, for such a critical artistic voice, Color Odyssey offers a generous glimpse into the practice of an artist who provoked “more thoughtful ways of thinking and seeing.”5 The exhibition successfully builds on Amos’s recent acclaim, due in large part to her inclusion in key revisionist exhibitions such as Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85. Furthermore, it represents Harris’s decade-long engagement with Amos and her extensive archive up until the artist’s passing—just a year shy of the exhibition’s opening. In its incompleteness, the show is a call for archival engagement as alive as the questions and experiments Amos’s artworks represent—for the level of attention which her work has always merited.

Read more about Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, organized by Shawnya L. Harris at the Georgia Museum of Art. The presentation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was curated by Laurel Garber.


Footnotes:

1. “Straighten Up and Fly Right: Talking with Emma Amos” in bell hooks, Art on My Mind, p. 193

2. Lucy Lippard, “Floating Falling Landing: An Interview with Emma Amos,” Art Paper, (1991): 15 -16

3. Emma Amos, quoted in wall texts, Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, The Pennsylvania Museum of Art.

4. Art on Mind, p. 185

5. Emma Amos, “Artist’s Statement,” https://emmaamos.com/wordpress/about/statement/


 

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