Emma Amos, an acclaimed figurative artist used her art to explore themes of race and sex. She was a painter, printmaker, and weaver, who addressed racial issues in a cheerful and satiric manner through paintings and cartoons.
Amos was a pioneering artist known for her captivating, poignant and culturally insightful works. She cited well-known White male artists, such as Picasso and Gauguin, who were praised for including subjects of colour into their work, while African American artists were seemingly expected to paint other subjects of colour.
According to the Philadelphia Tribune, her high-colour paintings of women flying or falling through space were charged with racial and feminist politics. Amos incorporated white subjects into her art, particularly images of the Ku Klux Klan, challenging its notion.
Art museum director, Sharon Patton, summarizes her works thus: “Amos’s sequence of paintings is anecdotal, but the objective of each is the same: to argue constructively against norms in the field of art as well as society. Her responses are reactive and reflexive; she ably uses her paintings as a means to analyze and assess cultural production, authorship, meaning and consumption”.
“Amos is quintessentially postmodern because she questions the validity of canonical traditions and institutions that for so long have been biased against the inclusion of women and artists of color, especially blacks.”
According to her biography, Amos was born in 1937 and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where her parents owned a drugstore. She began painting and drawing when she was six. At age 16, after attending segregated public schools in Atlanta, she entered the five-year program at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
She spent her fourth year abroad at the London Central School of Art, studying printmaking, painting, and weaving. After receiving a BA from Antioch, she returned to the Central School to earn a diploma in etching in 1959.
Amos’ first solo exhibition was in an Atlanta gallery in 1960. She later moved to New York, where she taught as an assistant at the Dalton School and continued her work as an artist by making prints.
The following year, she was hired by Dorothy Liebes as a designer/weaver, creating rugs for a major textile manufacturer. In 1964 she began a master’s program in Art Education at New York University. She married Bobby Levine in 1965 and received her MA in 1966.
While studying, Hale Woodruff invited her to become a member of Spiral, a group of black artists that included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston. She was the group’s youngest and only female member.
In 1984, writer Lucy Lippard urged her to join the Heresies Collective. Heresies was “the group I had always hoped existed: serious, knowledgeable, take-care-of-business feminists giving time to publish the art and writings of women,” Amos wrote in Art Journal.
Reportedly, she joined other feminist groups, including Guerrilla Girls, a collective whose anonymous members appear in public wearing gorilla masks to deliver scathing critiques of art-world racism and sexism.
Amos later recalled in an article published in Art Journal in 1999 that although she felt honoured to be part of Spiral, she thought it “fishy” that the group had not asked older, established women, artists, to join.
“I probably seemed less threatening to their egos,” she said, adding: “As I was not yet of much consequence.” The art world, she said, was “a man’s scene, Black or white.” And she knew that for her, art and activism would be inseparable.
She received her MA in 1966 while sewing, weaving, quilting, and doing illustrations for Sesame Street magazine. In 1974 she began teaching at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, and in 1977 she developed and co-hosted (with Beth Gutcheon) Show of Hands, a crafts show for WGBH Educational TV in Boston, which ran for two years.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Amos’ paintings often depicted, in bright pop colors, scenes of Black middle-class domestic life, a subject barely explored in contemporary art at the time. Her work, according to the New York Times, became increasingly personal and formally experimental, combining painting, print media and photographic technology.
Amos became an assistant professor at the Mason Gross School of Art, Rutgers University in 1980. She was later promoted to Professor II and served as chair of the department from 2005 to 2007. She continued teaching there until she retired in June 2008.
She won prestigious awards and grants and served on the Board of Governors of Skowhegan and in the National Academy Museum. In 2017 she was featured in two important surveys: “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” organized by the Tate Modern in London, and “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” which originated at the Brooklyn Museum.
In 2018, she appeared in “Histórias Afro-Atlânticas” at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo and the Tomie Ohtake Institute in São Paulo. Amos’ work has been exhibited internationally and is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the New Jersey and Minnesota state museums, and the Dade County and Newark museums.
Amos, who was recognized as an important figure in contemporary American art and a dynamic painter died in Bedford, NH, on May 20, 2020, of natural causes, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.