Emma Amos, a figurative painter whose visually seductive art stared down racism and privilege, has died at 83. Her gallery, Ryan Lee, said in an email announcement that Amos died in Bedford, New Hampshire, on May 20 of Alzheimer’s disease.
Throughout her career, Amos displayed a knack for crafting imaginative tableaux that blended together aspects of art history, her personal life, and current events, in the process offering up pictures for the ages. Her striking images dove into knotty topics that unfurled ugly histories of racism, sexism, and class struggle—subjects that Amos engaged even when she knew they might be a liability. “Yes,” she wrote in her artist statement, “race, sex, class, and power privileges exist in the world of art.”
That line of thinking extended to the way Amos viewed painting itself. Color, one of the basic formal aspects of painting, took on political undertones, in Amos’s view. “Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement,” she once told art historian Lucy Lippard. “It would be a luxury to be white and never have to think about it.”
In one of her most famous works, Flower Sniffer (1966), Amos paints herself inside a large white circle with blue at its edges. The orange of her shirt and the yellow of her flowers may be warm, but nothing else about the picture counts as the same. Deliberately somewhat lopsided, the painting is meant as a critique of the tradition of self-portraiture, with Amos coming off as significantly less passive than many white female artists who have depicted themselves over the course of art history.
Amos’s canvases had a playful side to them, too. A call-back of Flower Sniffer appears in the background of Sandy and Her Husband (1973), a tender image of a husband-and-wife duo dancing in a living room. And in some of her most dazzling paintings, circus performers, animals, and musical instruments appear to be tumbling through a void, as though the rules of perspective need not apply.
Like many black female artists working during the ’60s and ’70s, Amos was only recognized by large museums in the later stages of her career, thanks in part to the critical success of exhibitions like “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” (organized by Tate Modern in London) and “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” (organized by the Brooklyn Museum in New York). Yet Amos holds an unusual position among her colleagues because she had been involved in a key group of black artists who had received press even during its day.
That collective was the short-lived though massively influential group known as Spiral. With Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Hale Woodruff among its members, Amos was the only woman invited to join, having been brought in by Woodruff, her former professor. (Amos also tried to lure Vivian Brown into the group, but she claimed the idea was shot down by the men around her.) There was disagreement among Spiral’s artists, all of whom worked in vastly different modes, about what the notion of “black art” might mean. “I don’t believe there is such a things as a Negro artists,” Amos told ARTnews in a 1966 article about Spiral. “Why don’t we let white folks in?”
Spiral was formed in 1963 and dissolved soon after. In 1965, the group staged “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White” at a rented gallery space in New York—a first showing that wound up being its last. But Spiral’s influence now looms large. “Spiral tweaked and exploded the European-American lineage from within,” critic Martha Schwendener wrote in the Village Voice when a survey traveled from Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art to New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem.
Spiral was not the only radical collective in which Amos became involved. For a brief period during the ’70s, Amos was an editor at Heresies, a key feminist journal that published texts by artists such as Howardena Pindell, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, and Martha Rosler. “They thought that I was going to, you know, make peanut butter sandwiches and run out and get tea, and I just sat there,” Amos said in a 2011 oral history. “You know, I wasn’t going to do that.”
According to Ryan Lee gallery’s announcement, Amos was also involved with the Guerrilla Girls, a legendary feminist collective that has torn into the art world’s misogyny through protests, writings, and activist artworks. Because the Guerrilla Girls make public appearances in gorilla masks, the identities of its members have long been kept a secret. Amos left her involvement vague, once saying, “I was a member of a very famous clandestine women’s group that worked at night and did not ever go out without masks on our faces.”
Emma Amos was born in 1937 in Atlanta, Georgia. From a young age, she showed a propensity for art and took classes at local institutions. At age 16, she enrolled in a B.A. program at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she continued an art education that later included studying abroad in London for a year. By 1960, she had moved to New York.
After having worked as a teacher at a prep s school, Amos found employment in the studio of Dorothy Liebes, a textile designer who helped elevate the practice of weaving. Amos’s experiences with Liebes, for whom she worked for a decade, instilled an interest in craft that stayed with her for much of her career. In interviews, Amos likened painting to craft. “Even the canvas, to me, is a textile,” she once said. From 1977 to 1978, Amos co-hosted the craft-oriented TV series Show of Hands.
During the ’80s, Amos began creating paintings for a series known as “Falling” that features figures plummeting through vast spaces. “I liked the idea that if you were falling through the air, that there would be somebody who was trying to catch you or there was somebody holding onto you, so there was two of you together,” Amos said. In one memorable work from the series, Amos falls through a bluish sky holding onto a picture of her mother.
After that series, Amos produced works that combined all her interests with her experiences with textiles and printmaking. (She had been involved with artist Robert Blackburn’s print workshop during the ’70s.) Implicit in many of them was a sense that Amos was dissatisfied with the whiteness of art history. For Muse Picasso (1997), she shaped a canvas like a painter’s smock, putting at its center an image of Pablo Picasso and ringing it with roundels featuring pictures of African masks and her own image. Surrounding both are African fabrics and words such as “master”—an explicit acknowledgement of the histories of racism, colonialism, and slavery in Africa that Picasso did not see when he drew inspiration from masks of the continent.
Even into the last decade, Amos had received less recognition than she deserved. The Studio Museum in Harlem mounted a survey in the ’90s, and Art in General in New York presented a show that traveled. But few major institutions had shown interest in her work. “I wake up in the morning and say, ‘I have one piece at the Museum of Modern Art. I wonder, is it still there?’ You know, I wonder if I’ve been deaccessioned,” she said. “And I wonder how come there’s nobody who knows who I am.”
That work at MoMA has not been deaccessioned, however, and now the museum holds five other pieces by Amos. Other institutions that hold important work by her include the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum, and an Amos retrospective is slated to open at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens in 2021.