Emma Amos, a renowned painter whose work confronted racism and sexism, died at age 83.

Benjamin Sutton
May 26, 2020 5:16PM, via Ryan Lee

Emma Amos in her studio with Valued, 2006. Photo by Becket Logan, courtesy Ryan Lee.

Emma Amos—a pathbreaking artist known for her formally daring and politically poignant paintings incorporating textiles, photographic transfers, and more—died on May 20th at age 83. Her gallery, New York’s Ryan Lee, reported that the cause was Alzheimer’s Disease.

Through her lifelong activism, she became involved with groups that agitated for a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse art world. She was a member of the influential but shortlived Spiral collective of black artists (as its only female member), the feminist Heresies Collective (as one of its few black members), and the Guerrilla Girls.

Born in 1937 in Atlanta, Amos left the segregated South when she was 16 years old to attend Antioch College in Ohio, through which she also studied abroad for a year at the Central School of Art in London. She returned there after graduating, receiving an etching diploma in 1959. She had her first solo show the following year, at Alexander Gallery in Atlanta, then moved to New York City, where she would continue to study and then spend decades as an educator. In 1980 she started working as an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of Art, earning tenure 12 years later and serving as department chair from 2005 to 2007, before retiring the following year.

In 1991, Amos told the art critic and historian Lucy Lippard:

Every time I think about color it’s a political statement. [...] It would be a luxury to be white and never have to think about it. [...] The terms used in describing painting have always held a double meaning for me. We’re always talking about color, but colors are also skin colors, and the term ‘colored’ itself—it all means something else to me. You have to choose, as a black artist, what color to make your figures, which I’m very aware of when I paint. [...] I find that I almost never make white people. Butterscotch, brown, or really black-but rarely white.

Emma Amos at the Art Salon Show, 1979. Courtesy Ryan Lee.

Amos’s work features bold figuration rendered in a popping palette, fusing elements from her own weavings and African textiles, photographic transfers, and more. She often dealt head-on with the dynamics of race and gender in the United States in her paintings and prints, and her own position within those systems of power.

Her work gained visibility in recent years following its inclusion in historical traveling exhibitions such as 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, 1965–85.” Ryan Lee, which last held a solo show of Amos’s work in 2017, is planning another in the fall. A retrospective of her work will open at the Georgia Museum of Art in 2021, before traveling to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in upstate New York.

In an interview with bell hooks published in her 1995 book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, Amos said:

I think I’ve had to learn that success is not going to come to me the way it came to the blue-chip artists, and that only a small number of artists are really successful in the marketplace, anyway. And it’s not going to be me, or, if so, it’s going to be a late splurge on the order of what happened to Alice [Neel], Elizabeth Catlett, or Faith Ringgold. Faith didn’t get really well-known until she had been out there for at least 30 years. Hustling that job, that painting—working hard and doing it without a lot of responses. I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do, and that’s what keeps me going. As an eight-year-old, that’s what I wanted. Now I’ve got what I wanted!
Benjamin Sutton