Emma Amos was an African American figural artist, a painter and weaver, who combined printmaking, painting, and textiles in her mixed-media work. Her main subject was usually figurative and was almost always clothed. She approached canvases as woven fabric, which bound painting to weaving. She wove linen thread into large rectangles onto which she affixed African textiles and silhouetted figures in fabric with abstract swatches and trailing threads. Her mastery of color and form celebrated the black body – especially of African American women – so often overlooked.
Amos was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where her family was involved in a rich cultural scene, cultivated by African American colleges, businessmen, and community leaders who thrived in spite of segregation. Amos graduated from Antioch College in Ohio in 1958. In 1959, she attended the London Central School of Art. Returning to New York, she became an assistant at the Dalton School and was introduced to the East Hampton art scene. She became a textile designer, and her designs were transformed into unique carpets before she received her M.A. from New York University in 1966.
Living in New York, Amos found herself closed off from the art world owing to her race and gender. She once said that as a Black woman, just walking into the studio was “a political act.” When she was 23 years old, she was the youngest member and only female artist who joined the Spiral Group, an early collective of 15 African American male artists interested in social change. The Spiral Group included now-celebrated male artists Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff. Before being admitted to the Spiral Group, Amos had to submit her work to the men for approval. “They were very nervous about having a woman in their group,” she later said. “They wanted to make sure I was a real artist and not a dilettante or something.”
In one of Amos’ paintings, a 1966 self-portrait “Flower Sniffer” Amos presented herself alone in a vast abstract field of paint, enjoying the fragrance of flowers. The artist steadily returns the viewer’s gaze, asserting and defining her own place within her work as she arranges a flower bouquet. In “Sandy and Her Husband” 1973 she depicted a happy couple posing in contemporary fashions as she did in her earlier “Flower Sniffer.”
During the 1970s, Amos taught textile design at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. She was able to thrive as a weaver due to the rise of weaving and fiber art in the Feminist Art Movement.
In 1980, she began as an assistant professor at the Mason Gross School of Art at Rutgers University. She worked her way up to full professorship and served as the Chair of the Art Department before her retirement in 2008.
In the early 1980s, Amos joined the feminist collective Heresies as one of its few black members and found that her previous disdain for white feminists disappeared. She felt that female artists of both races were equally discriminated against and that both groups were in the same situation when it came to showing and selling their art. She was also one of the anonymous female artists behind Guerrilla Girls.
Amos wove linen thread into large rectangles onto which she fastened African textiles and silhouetted figures in fabric as in her 1982 “Out in Front.” Her combination of vibrant color and patterns in her paintings presaged her later use of African kangas, Dutch wax prints, and other textiles in her figurative paintings of the 1980s. These works had a great influence on artist Mickalene Thomas.
Amos’s wry work on paper mimicked several tips of fashion magazines, transferring their advice on self-improvement to her own experience as a black woman trying to make it in the art world. In her 1981 “Preparing for a Face Lift,” an etching and crayon on paper, she scrutinized the physical toll of racism and sexism and the tyranny of cultural expectations for women’s beauty.
Amos had her work exhibited in galleries, colleges, and museums such as Douglas College, Bronx Museum, Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, College of Wooster Art Museum, Montclair Museum of Art, California African American Museum, and Antioch College.
Her work was exhibited in Tate Modern’s “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and the Brooklyn Museum’s “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985.” In 2020, she had a solo retrospective, “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey,” at the Georgia Museum of Art which would travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 2, 2022.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Wadsworth Atheneum, New Jersey and Minnesota State Museums, London’s British Museum, Bronx Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Yale University Art Gallery, among others.