In her acclaimed paintings and prints, artist Emma Amos explores themes of feminism, race, and culture. Beginning her career in the early 1960s, Amos developed a style that was influenced by the abstract expressionist movement and by the civil rights movement. Many of her works deal with overtly political content, including the exclusion of women from full participation in society, the enduring negative stereotypes of racism, and the legacy of colonialism. Hailed for its feeling, intellect, and vibrancy, her work has been exhibited across the country and is held in the collections of several leading museums.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, where her father was a pharmacist, Amos grew up in a middle-class home with parents who encouraged her artistic aspirations. From her earliest childhood she loved to draw, and her talent was apparent to her grade school classmates and teachers, who asked her to copy pictures for them. As Amos explained in an interview with Al Murray in Smithsonian Archives of American Art, she taught herself by looking at pictures in magazines. It wasn't until she enrolled as an art student at Antioch College that she began to realize that "I wasn't the best thing in the world, that there were people who didn't learn how to draw from [copying] Vargas girls [in magazines], who knew what drawing really was and that it wasn't just a technical thing, that there was something to it."
Turned to Printmaking, Design
Though Amos loved Antioch, she became truly inspired when she took art courses in England at the London Central School of Art. She studied there during her senior year at Antioch, and returned for two more years of training. "I was surrounded by real painters and it was wonderful," she commented to Murray. She also became fascinated by printmaking. "I really think I found and stopped worrying about myself as an artist my second year in England," she observed. "Etching and the whole idea of printmaking and having a handsome, a well-thought-out and finished work that satisfies you. Well, I sort of discovered color then too. I think the main thing about my painting now stems from then and it was the discovery of color."
On returning to the United States, Amos moved to New York City, where she got a job teaching at the Dalton School. Not able to produce much art during this time, she left Dalton after a few years to try her hand at designing. Having taken a few weaving courses at Antioch, Amos landed work as a rug designer and textile weaver. Many of the resulting works, Amos told Murray, "were counted as art…They're very modern real life paintings."
In the early 1960s Amos was asked to join Spiral, an organization of African-American artists formed by Romare Bearden. Its goals were to affirm black artistic identity in a white-dominated art world and to provide a forum for members to discuss issues relating to art, politics, and culture. Amos was the only female member of this group, with which she began exhibiting lithographs and silkscreen prints. Amos was also back in school during this period, studying lithography at New York University, where she earned a master's degree in 1966.
Incorporated Textiles and Photographs in Paintings
When Amos turned back to painting in the late 1970s, she began incorporating other materials into her canvases, which often dealt thematically with race, feminism, folklore, and family history. Her work was noted for its elements of collage, with many critics pointing out its similarities to the narrative quilts of fabric artist Faith Ringgold. Onto her painted canvases Amos added photographs, bits of fabric she wove herself, embroidery, and strips of different kinds of African cloth. Art in America writer Anastasia Aukeman described Amos's works from the 1980s, including "Out in Front" (1982), "Runners with Cheetah" (1983) and "Black Dog Blues" (1983), as "banner-sized, celebratory fabric collages of athletic African-Americans, mostly women, dancing, running and diving."
In 1991 Amos completed her Woman Artists series, which included portraits of such mentors and friends as Elizabeth Catlett, Camille Billops, Faith Ringgold, and a group of Amos's mother's friends, as well as a self-portrait in which Amos wears a T-shirt with the word "artist" on the front. The series also includes a reference to one of Amos's students, Giza Daniels Endesha, who died of AIDS.
Amos's 1994 solo exhibition in New York City, Changing the Subject, brought the artist considerable critical respect. The show demonstrated the mature expression of Amos's political awareness and artistic skill. Among the most notable works from this exhibit is "Tightrope" (1994), which depicts the artist on a tightrope high above the ground, wearing a leotard made from the American flag and from the Wonder Woman costume. The image suggests the woman artist as both warrior and temptress. At the same time, the painting—which includes pictorial references to the artist Paul Gauguin's life in Tahiti—also questions attitudes about colonialism. As Amos put it in remarks quoted in the Antioch College introduction to the exhibition Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints, 1983-2003, "I became concerned with the issue of freedom of expression in figurative imagery, particularly the symbolic use of dark bodies. Researching the impact of race, I found that white male artists are free to incorporate any image…. They found that their work which included nonwhite figures was seen as more exciting, more provocative, more sexually charged and more noteworthy." Citing the work of such noted white artists as Picasso and Gauguin, Amos added that though such work continues to be admired for its willingness to cross boundaries, "when African-American artists cross boundaries, we are often stopped at the border."
Though Amos is a passionate critic of Western appropriation of African art, she has also spoken out, through her work, about other kinds of racism in the art world. She particularly objects to collectors focusing only on works by African-American artists that include images of black figures. In response, she has chosen to include human images in her work that represent a broad range of skin tones. "By calling attention to problems of self-censorship and the compartmentalization of artists by race and gender," she observed, as quoted in the introduction to Emma Amos: Thinking Paint at Kenyon College, "I was, and still am, rebelling against the expectation that a black woman does paintings only of and about black people."
A professor of art at Rutgers University since 1980, Amos has participated in numerous group exhibitions and has shown her work in solo exhibitions across the country. Her work is included in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York; the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; the Minnesota Museum of Art in Minneapolis; Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia; and Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
At a Glance …
Born on March 16, 1938, in Atlanta, GA. Education: Antioch College, BA, 1958; London Central School of Art, diploma, 1960; New York University, MA, 1965.
Career: WGBH-TV, Boston, MA, Show of Hands, creator, writer, and co-host, 1977-1978; Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, professor of art, 1980-, undergraduate director, 1994-.
Memberships: Skowhegan [ME] School of Painting and Sculpture, board of governors; Richard Florsheim Art Fund, trustee.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1983; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1989; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1993; Catalog Publication Award, Richard Florsheim Art Fund, 1993; Art Matters fellowship, 1994.
Addresses: Office—21 Bond Street, New York, NY 10012.
Alexander Gallery, Atlanta, GA, 1960.
Davis Fine Arts Gallery, West Virginia State College, 1974.
Art Salon, New York, NY, 1979.
Isobel Neal Gallery, Chicago, IL, 1988.
Clemson University Gallery, Genoa, Italy, 1989.
Douglass College Women Artists Series, NJ, 1989.
Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, 1990.
Bronx Museum, NY, 1991.
McIntosh Gallery, Atlanta, GA, 1991.
College of Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, OH, 1993.
Changing the Subject, Art in General, New York, NY, 1994.
Sherry Washington Gallery, Detroit, MI, 1996.
Emma Amos: Thinking Paint, Kenyon College, OH, 2001.
Emma Amos: New to New York: A Midcareer Survey, New York, NY, 2002.
Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints, 1983-2003, Antioch College, 2004.
Dream Singers, Story Tellers: An African American Presence, New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, 1992.
Reading Prints, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1992.
Engaged Vision, Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York, NY, 1994.
Interamerican De Artistas Plastico, Museum de las Artes, Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico, 1994.
A Women's Place, Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 1996.
Six Artists: The 1990s, New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, 1996.
Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, Atlanta, GA, 1996.
Thinking Print: Books to Billboards, 1980-95, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1996.
Contemporary Women Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, and bell hooks and Valerie Mercer, Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints, 1982-92, Studio Museum in Harlem, 1993.
Farrington, Lisa E., Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Art in America, January 1, 1996, p. 103.
Essence, September 1994, p. 56.
New York Times, March 3, 1995, p. C21; November 1, 2002, p. E2.
Woman's Art Journal, spring-summer, 1996, pp. 43-45; spring-summer, 2007.
"Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints, 1983-2003," Antioch College, www.antioch-college.edu/herndon/html/amos.html (September 5, 2007).
"Emma Amos: Thinking Paint," Kenyon College Art Gallery, www2.kenyon.edu/ArtGallery/exhibitions/0001/amos/amos.htm (September 5, 2007).
"Interview with Emma Amos," Smithsonian Archives of American Art,www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/amos68.htm (September 5, 2007).
Emma Amos: Action Lines, L&S Video.
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