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Issue 220

Contextualizing Emma Amos's Creative Freedom

At the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, a retrospective of the artist’s prominent career highlights her ingenuity across various mediums

BY Logan Lockner in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 12 APR 21

‘I want to invent the human figure,’ the late artist Emma Amos boldly claimed in a 2011 oral-history interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Amos, who died in May 2020 at the age of 83, pursued a wide range of technical and material approaches over the course of her seven-decade career as a printmaker, painter and weaver. Although her best-known works from the mid-to-late 1960s have received a resurgence of acclaim following their inclusion in major group exhibitions – such as ‘We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85’ at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2017 – Amos’s first museum solo show in nearly 20 years is a posthumous retrospective organized by the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens. The exhibition, ‘Emma Amos: Color Odyssey’, features a robust selection of Amos’s most recognizable works and deftly contextualizes the many phases of her illustrious career.

Emma Amos, Equals, 1992, acrylic on linen canvas with African fabric borders, 193 × 208 cm. Courtesy: the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens
Emma Amos, Equals, 1992, acrylic on linen canvas with African fabric borders, 193 × 208 cm. Courtesy: the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens

Born into a middle-class Black family in Atlanta in 1937, Amos’s early years were shaped by her proximity to Atlanta University – home of a celebrated art department established by Hale Woodruff – and her family’s relationships with figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston. Amos’s connection to the world of Black intellectuals and artists provided her with strong and lasting convictions about her creative freedom, regardless of her race or gender, and in spite of the anti-black racism of the Jim Crow South. As bell hooks noted in ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right: A Conversation with Emma Amos’ (1993): ‘[That] little girl who was dreaming of being an artist wasn’t thinking, “I’ll grow up and be a Black woman artist,” but, “I’ll grow up and be an artist.”’

The slyly self-referential female subjects in Amos’s early paintings – such as Baby (1966), in which the sole figure smiles faintly behind blue sunglasses – carry this air of self-assuredness. The figure is divided, with its bust-like shoulders and head emerging from the bottom of the canvas. Above, brown shapes suggesting legs fold into thick, curving bands of highly saturated colour, amalgamating elements of figuration and abstraction into a cohesive whole. In a 1968 oral-history interview with Al Murray, again for the Smithsonian Archives, Amos attributed her use of bright, contrasting hues in paintings to her experiences with printmaking, demonstrating her eagerness to translate techniques from one medium to another. Such material translation continued in later years as she placed greater emphasis on the presence of textiles and weaving in her work. Searching for a new sense of motion, she incorporated the figures of athletes and animals into paintings on canvas and woven fabric such as 22 and Cheetah and Runners with Cheetah (both 1983).

Emma Amos, 22 and Cheetah, 1982, acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric, 215 × 190 cm. Courtesy: the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens
Emma Amos, 22 and Cheetah, 1983, acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric, 213 × 157 cm. Courtesy: the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens

In 1992, Amos inherited a collection of photographs taken by her godfather, the artist George Shivery, and began experimenting with photo-transfer methods on her canvases, which were often unstretched and bordered by Dutch wax batik. Framed by fabric arrayed with repeating photographic images of Malcolm X, Equals (1992) shows a figure resembling Amos falling against a visual field that evokes the red and white stripes of the American flag. Replacing the familiar star-spangled blue portion, however, is a photograph of Black workers in front of a rural cabin. Amid all this, the female figure’s facial expression conveys not fear but wonder, signalling a surrender to free motion rather than a descent into peril. These works, in particular, reveal Amos as an early interrogator of the questions that characterize painting today, balancing tensions between figuration and abstraction, wading into the waters of identity and history.

‘Emma Amos: Color Odyssey’ is on view at the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, through 25 April 2021. The exhibition will travel to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, 19 June – September 12 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 11 2021 – January 2, 2022.

Main image:  'Emma Amos: Color Odyssey’, 2021, exhibition view, the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens. Courtesy: the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens

Logan Lockner is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.