Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Emma Amos "Tightrope"  1994  Private Collection
Emma Amos (b.1938) was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a graduate of Antioch University, and also attended the London Central School of Art from which she earned a diploma in etching.  She moved to NYC in 1960 to teach at the Dalton School, and a few years later entered New York University, where she received a Master of Art Education. While at NYU she was invited to become part of SPIRAL, a group of black artists that included Romare Bearden and Charles Alston. She was the youngest member of that group and the only female, and although she was grateful to be included, she later remarked upon her solo female status within the group by saying, "I thought it was fishy that the group had not asked Vivian Browne, Betty Blayton, Faith Ringgold, Norma Morgan, or any other woman of their acquaintance to join. I was probably less threatening to their egos, as I was not yet of much consequence." (from Creating Their Own Image, 2005, Lisa Farrington.)

This piece, Tightrope, shows the tricky balance of being an artist and a woman and black, in a profession and a tradition that has been typically male and white. Amos has commented that she was originally drawn to the paintings of Gauguin, who was one of the only painters depicting "beautiful brown women."  (from, Creating Their Own Image.) As she learned more about Gauguin's notorious misogny her admiration for the French artist began to be displaced by feelings of grief and commiseration for his 13 year old Tahitian "bride" to whom she refers in the corner pieces of this multi-media piece,. The same pose is also caricatured in the printed tee shirt carried by the central figure, obviously for personal wear as needed. The central figure is of course Amos herself, navigating the tightrope act of being female, an artist and a person of color. Her costume, partially cloaked, is a cheeky nod to the cartoon character  Wonder Woman, whose superhuman powers are needed to successfully carry off such a difficult feat. I suggest too that the artist is very obliquely referencing beauty. Along with her other attributes of strength and agility and intelligence, Wonder Woman also had the gift of stunning personal beauty. In the real world, beauty can be a source of some power, but can sometimes be a drawback as well, which I believe is the reason for the artist partially concealing her own beauty with a ragged black coat.

Amos seems to have managed the balancing act of life highly successfully. She and her late husband were married for over forty years, and raised two children. While her family was young she focused on textile arts such as quilting, weaving and sewing. In 1980 she began teaching at Rutgers University, receiving tenure in 1992 and continuing to teach there until her retirement from academia  in 2008. She has received many honors and fellowships, including the Pollock-Krasner Grant and a Yaddo Artist Residency.  Her work is in the collection of the Library of Congress (USA), the National Gallery of Art (USA)  and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as well as numerous other public and private collections world-wide. She maintains an active studio practice and is represented by Flomenhaft Gallery in NYC. The artist's website can be seen here.

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