Emma Amos

Shaped by her early exposure to Black artists and intellectuals in Atlanta, Emma Amos experimented across mediums and styles throughout her seven-decade career as a painter, print maker, and weaver, engaging themes of racial and gender identity, art history, and politics.

By Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

Emma Amos, "2/4 Time," 1983

Amos's Early Years in Atlanta

Emma Amos was born into a middle-class Black family in Atlanta in 1937. Her early years were shaped by her proximity to Atlanta University — home of the celebrated art department and the Atlanta Art Annuals founded by Hale Woodruff — and her family’s relationships with figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston.

When Amos was nine or ten years old, her parents attempted to arrange for Woodruff to become her private art instructor, but the arrangement never materialized. Instead, at age eleven, Amos began taking first-year painting classes at nearby Morris Brown College. She later recounted witnessing the completion of Art of the Negro, Woodruff's murals in Clark Atlanta University's Trevor Arnett Hall.

Amos’s connection to the world of Black intellectuals and artists provided her with strong and lasting convictions about her creative freedom, regardless of her race or gender, and in spite of the anti-black racism of the Jim Crow South.

Emma Amos with her print "Horizons" (ca. 1968)Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

As bell hooks noted in "Straighten Up and Fly Right: A Conversation with Emma Amos" (1993):

"[That] little girl who was dreaming of being an artist wasn’t thinking, 'I’ll grow up and be a Black woman artist,' but, 'I’ll grow up and be an artist.'"

New York and Spiral

After studying painting, printmaking, etching, and weaving — first at Antioch College in Ohio and then at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St. Martins College of Art and Design) in London — Amos moved to New York in 1960. After spending a few years navigating the New York gallery scene, which she found rather unforgiving toward emerging artists, Amos returned to graduate school, enrolling in a master's program in art education at New York University in 1964.

While in graduate school, Amos became better acquainted with Hale Woodruff, the legendary figure from her childhood who had departed Atlanta to teach at NYU years earlier. Impressed by Amos's work, Woodruff introduced her to his friends and fellow artists Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston, with whom he had formed the Black art collective Spiral in 1963. They eventually invited Amos to join Spiral, making her both the only woman and the group's youngest member.

Amos later said that she "thought it was fishy" that the group had not asked another woman of their acquaintance, such as Betty Blayton-Taylor or Faith Ringgold, to join Spiral. "I think that they asked me to join the club (which met once a week for discussion) instead of women they knew, because those women represented some sort of threat, and I was only 'a little girl,'" she told bell hooks in 1993.

Amos participated in the group's only exhibition, First Group Showing: Works in Black and White, in 1965, contributing what she described as "a big black and white painting that was a big abstraction with a hand in it." In 1966, Amos received her master's degree in art education, and Spiral dissolved. That same year, Amos created some of the distinctive and colorful paintings for which she is best known, including Seated Figure and Nude, Baby, and Godzilla (all 1966).

Entering the Spelman College Collection

Artworks by Amos entered the Spelman College Collection for the first time as part of an effort to acquire works by contemporary Black women artists during the early 1980s. Jenelsie Holloway, a Spelman alumna who had studied with Hale Woodruff, spearheaded these acquisitions in her role as the chair of the Spelman College Department of Art.

2/4 Time (1983) by Emma AmosSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

Working Across Disciplines and Techniques

In addition to painting, Amos's training in a range of techniques including printmaking, etching, and weaving would fundamentally inform her methods of experimentation as an artist over the course of her career.

Merging Abstraction and Figuration

Amos once told an interviewer: "I want to invent the human figure." She often combined techniques such as printmaking and drawing to create tension between figurative and abstract elements in her work, challenging received notions of representation.

Textiles, Fabrics, and Patterns

Amos's close attention to fabric patterns and clothing in her artworks relates to her lifelong interests in textiles and weaving. Later works, such as "Equals" (1992), would directly include Dutch wax batiks and other fabrics as materials.

During her decades-long career as an artist, Amos held a range of other jobs, working at various times as an illustrator for Sesame Street magazine and as the co-host of a public-access TV show about arts and crafts. Beginning in 1980, Amos taught as an assistant professor of art at the Mason Gross School of Art at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She taught at Rutgers for twenty-eight years, retiring in 2008 after spending two years as the department chair.

Emma Amos at Art Salon reception (1979) by Robert LevineSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

We Wanted A Revolution: Emma Amos's Legacy

Amos's paintings received a resurgence of public attention after their inclusion in major group exhibitions such as We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 - 1985 (Brooklyn Museum, 2018) and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (Tate Modern, 2017).

In the last years of her working career, Amos received gallery representation at RYAN LEE Gallery in New York, and institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the National Gallery of Art, among others, began acquiring her works.

At the time of her death at the age of eighty-three in May 2020, a retrospective of Amos's work — Emma Amos: Color Odyssey — was being organized by curator Shawnya Harris at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia. Including recognizable works such as Sandy and Her Husband (1973) and Baby (1966), it was on view at the Georgia Museum of Art from January through April 2021 before traveling to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After her death, the world learned that Amos had been a member of the anonymous collective the Guerrilla Girls, which formed in New York in 1985 to agitate for greater gender and racial equality in the art world. The rich legacy she left behind follows Amos's conviction that, as she once said, "for me, as a Black woman, to walk into the studio is a political act."

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