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Emma Amos Died Just Before Her Retrospective But Her Art Is Alive As Ever

Emma Amos, <em>Identity</em>, 2006
(c) Emma Amos
Courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
Emma Amos, Identity, 2006

This is Emma Amos' moment. Her themes — gender and race — press on our minds now. For six decades Amos explored them in prints, paintings and fabrics. She died May 20, just months before a retrospective of her work, "Emma Amos: Color Odyssey," is to open at the Georgia Museum of Art, in Athens. Complications from Alzheimer's took her at age 83, but she knew the show was in the works.

That picture above is a self-portrait. Here's her photograph.

Emma Amos, 2006
/ Becket Logan
Becket Logan
Emma Amos, 2006

Curator Shawnya L. Harris says Amos came from an educated, middle-class Atlanta family. Her grandfather and father were pharmacists in the drugstore they owned. Amos was, "asked to create a work showing what she and her art were about." Identity is her response. The colors of the face reflect her heritage: "African, Cherokee, Irish, Norwegian, and God knows what else," she once said. Eyes (one blue, one brown — watching), gloves (minstrel show stereotyping), fingers pointing (more watching) are objects that crop up throughout her pieces. "All the things that are imprinted on her are things that energize her work," says Harris.

Emma Amos, <em>Seated Figure and Nude,</em> 1966
(c) Emma Amos / Courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
Courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
Emma Amos, Seated Figure and Nude, 1966

Another racial exploration. The sitting woman's face, shoulders, arms and legs are a rainbow of browns with a punch of pale. "She always wanted to show the diversity within blackness," curator Harris says. The nude along the right hand edge is darker, still multi-colored. And she's walking off the canvas. Walking into invisibility. Becoming part of the margin.

Emma Amos,<em> Equals,</em> 1992
(c) Emma Amos / Courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.
Courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.
Emma Amos, Equals, 1992

Here, the Emma Amos woman is falling through space. It's another self-portrait. Falling, another theme. The curator says her several images of people falling are "not always about hopelessness." But I see helplessness, lack of control, anxiety.

And look where she's falling: against a background of stripes of the American flag, and floating stars with watchful eyes. The photo is of sharecroppers, with a flatbed pulled by mules. It's all framed with pieces of African cloth printed with the image of Malcolm X, dedicated fighter of systemic racism. The painting is called Equals — see the floating equal sign — the two red lines. "Maybe suggesting," says curator Harris, "how the struggle for equality shows up differently over time."

In the 1960s, Amos told a reporter she didn't "believe in such a thing as a Negro artist." She felt she was an artist first, Black second, and wanted to be known for her artistry, not her skin color, or gender. Women were rare in art circles then. Amos thought galleries rejected her because she was a woman. Over the years, especially starting in the '80s when she encountered feminism, her attitudes changed, and her work got more political.

Emma Amos, <em>Does Black Rub Off?,</em> 1992
Collection of the Morris Museum of Art, Ga. (c) Emma Amos / Courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
Courtesy RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
Emma Amos, Does Black Rub Off?, 1992

Sometime in the '90s, Amos was horrified by a Vogue magazine photo of white models in blackface for a photo shoot. Does Black Rub Off puts horror on her paintbrush, asking, says Harris, "is Blackness about color, or culture, or mutable over time, or something that is fixed?"

Emma Amos, born southern and Black in 1937, with artwork now in the collections of the National Gallery and Museum of Modern Art, spent her life raising such questions in strong, sure shapes and beautiful, subtle colors.

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing offerings at museums closed due to COVID-19, or at museums you may not be able to visit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.