Edited by Shawnya L. Harris
(University of Georgia & Georgia Museum of Art, 2021)
Multimedia artist Emma Amos defied being boxed into just one material or movement. As her contemporaries straddled Abstract Expressionism and Pop, Amos painted polychrome freefalling women, designed textiles, wove rugs, made prints, and transferred vintage photographs to canvases bordered with African fabrics. Her Manhattan studio at 21 Bond Street was packed with the materials she used all at once—deftly stitching issues of gender and race into artworks that fused painting, printmaking, photography, and textile.
It’s no simple task to fit the life’s work of an artist like Amos into a monographic exhibition catalogue. Shawnya L. Harris—curator of the current Emma Amos: Color Odyssey retrospective of 60 artworks now at the Georgia Museum of Art and later traveling to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute and Philadelphia Museum of Art—has been laboring on this project for the past five years (a period overlapping with the final years of the artist’s life). Harris assembled a chorus of voices representing expertise in the diverse materials Amos used and loved, and also who she was as a person: mentor, peer, friend. Except for the foreword, written by Georgia Museum of Art director William U. Eiland, these contributors are exclusively women in the arts who knew Amos personally, in a matter befitting a now-unmasked member of the anonymous feminist Guerrilla Girls.
The first contribution is a short personal passage by landscape painter Kay Walkingstick, who remembers Amos urging her to “load up your brush! We are painters and the art should show that!” She also describes posing for Amos’s The Gift, a series of 40 portraits of women artists she’d befriended. “We friends, we women, are gifts to one another,” Walkingstick explains. “We need one another, and we support one another.” Amos famously bolstered her fellow female artists, as many essays describe.
The book also includes a thorough biographical overview written by Harris, with context for some of Amos’s key works. It starts with the artist’s childhood in Atlanta (grounding the exhibition’s starting point in her hometown), and traces her formal art training at Antioch College and London’s Central School of Art before moving to New York in 1960 to get a master’s in art education at New York University. It was there that she met Hale Woodruff, who invited the twentysomething Amos to join Spiral—a Black artists’ collective (where Amos was the youngest and only female member). Around this time, Amos explored different painting techniques and wanted to generate popular interest in weaving. She taught weaving in Greenwich Village and Newark, and in 1977 cohosted a TV series about fabric arts called Show of Hands for a public station in Boston. By 1980, Amos was a tenured assistant professor at Rutgers’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, where she taught for 28 years.
Another portion of the catalogue is devoted to Amos’s use of fabric, granting it the same level of importance that she did in her artistic practice. “Amos’s decision to obfuscate this high/low art divide by consolidating the so-called ‘fine art’ of painting with the ‘artistry’ of textile making was nothing short of alchemy,” writes art historian Lisa Farrington. “Her use of fabric to create texture in her work is a sign of both her African and female birthrights, her maverick nature, her cunning creativity, and, perhaps most appreciably, her feminist consciousness.” An essay on Amos’s printmaking by Laurel Garber, curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explains the artist’s innovations to the medium. In a print titled American Girl (1974), for example, she drew a reclining woman on a printing plate and then cut it in half along the figure’s outline. When printed—alongside each other, but not touching—the plates created a dynamic gap along the fracture. Amos also developed a technique with master printer Kathy Caraccio that she dubbed “silk aquatint,” where she applied ink-resistant paint onto a fabric-topped printing matrix to create both translucent and opaque layers.
Layering images is a theme repeated in the following chapter about Amos’s use of transferred photographs in her paintings. “Photography is interesting because it seems not to lie, when of course we know that it does lie, because it’s very selective about what it shows,” Amos said in a 1993 interview. “Painting is assumed to always lie, because we have so many options when we set paint on canvas. The camera [lies] but in a different way and now I’m playing with that theme.” African American history professor Phoebe Wolfskill notes how Amos inserted historic photographs of Black southern communities into different contexts, such as the crosshairs of a painted Confederate flag, allowing them to tell new stories.
As a conclusion, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier shares a memory of Amos, bookending Walkingstick’s opening reminisce. Frazier met Amos in 2007 at the annual College Art Association Conference, as a recent MFA graduate. “I will never forget how Emma responded to me and my art that day,” Frazier writes. “In the only way Emma Amos would be toward a young aspiring artist, in the most loving, generous and graceful way, she insisted that I stay with her in New York.” Days later, Amos marched Frazier into the dean’s office at Rutgers and got the young photographer hired on the spot for a one-year curatorial position.
In this paper-bound capsule that Harris has crafted of Amos’s life and work, the voices of friends and experts are often supplemented by the artist’s own words. Amos is heavily quoted in most essays, allowing the recently deceased artist to speak for herself. One statement in particular recurs like a refrain: “For me, a Black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.” Mounting a museum retrospective of what she made in that studio and publishing a rich scholarly catalogue to accompany it, then, is political, too. As Amos’s work slowly gets more institutional attention but she is no longer around to explain herself, this book compiled by scholars who knew her will surely be a foundational reference for understanding her work.