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The Printmaking Practice of Late Artist Emma Amos Was Expansive and Experimental and Her Output Will Endure

OFTEN DESCRIBED as the youngest and only female member of Spiral, the short-lived artist collective co-founded more than half a century ago by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, and Norman Lewis, Emma Amos (1937-2020) bridged that historic period and the current moment.

Based in New York throughout her career, Amos died May 20 in Bedford, N.H., of natural causes, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 83. The news was announced yesterday evening via email by Ryan Lee Gallery, where she has been represented since 2016.

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EMMA AMOS, “Secrets” 1981 (4 parts: etching, aquatint, chine collé and handmade paper with collage and hand weaving; 21 x 20 3/4 inches (53.3 x 52.7 cm) each; 43 x 42 1/2 inches / 109.2 x 107.6 cm – including spacing – Edition of 15). | © Emma Amos. Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

Mary Ryan Gallery (the gallery’s sister space) is showing Amos’s prints this month and next (May 13-June 13) during the online only IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair.

Over the course of her 60-year practice, Amos has weighed the politics of culture, racism and sexism; invoked Western art history; and explored color theory. As the decades have come and gone, she has constantly, reinvented her work.

Spiral had 15 members and was active in New York City from 1963-65, mounting one exhibition. During that period and in the years immediately following, Amos produced vivid canvases that blended figuration, abstraction, and color field painting.

In the 1980s, Amos focused on collage paintings, sourcing fabrics from Ghana and Burkina Faso and depicting athletes, animals, and falling and floating figures. More recently, she has worked with silhouettes.

Amos has also engaged in printmaking over the years. She first visited Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop in the late 1960s. She absorbed the craft and made it her own.

Introducing her work for the IFPDA fair, Mary Ryan Gallery said she is “a wildly inventive and experimental printmaker.” Most of her prints are self-published and she has tried her hand at nearly every technique—lithography, etching, woodcut, silkscreen, collagraph, monotype, offset lithography. Amos has also incorporated weaving, collage and photo transfer in her printmaking.

The works showcased at IFPDA were made between 1962 and 2001. Produced as single works, diptychs, and a four-part work titled “Secrets” (1981), the prints span figuration, silhouettes, and pure abstraction.

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EMMA AMOS, “Springtime,” 1972 (silkscreen on vinyl mylar, 23 x 27 inches / 58.4 x 68.6 cm, Edition of 11). | © Emma Amos. Courtesy of the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

THE SMITHSONIAN ARCHIVES of American Art has conducted two oral history interviews with Amos. The first was in 1968 with Albert Murray, a close friend of Bearden and legendary essayist and jazz critic who helped found Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Forty-three years later, poet Patricia Spears Jones interviewed Amos in 2011. At one point in the conversation, Jones asked Amos, “how small and then how much bigger has the art world become since you first came here (to New York)?”

Amos responded: “It still seems kind of small to me. Here I am at 73, and I wake up in the morning and say, ‘I have one piece at the Museum of Modern Art. I wonder, is it still there?” You know, I wonder if I’ve been deaccessioned. And I wonder how come there’s nobody who knows who I am. In other words, you know, I am not the top artist in this city at all—woman artist. I would have thought that I would have done better, you know. I really thought that I would have done better.”

In the end, about a decade after she lamented her status, Amos did pretty well. Sadly, the attention came at the end of her life, when Alzheimer’s precluded her from fully understanding the wider regard she began to receive. Her late-career recognition continues and is evidenced in her recent exhibition and acquisition record.

A career retrospective is forthcoming in 2021 at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens. She was featured in the landmark international traveling exhibition “Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” and is currently part of “Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition” at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

And major museums have acquired her paintings, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Cleveland Museum of Art, among them. The Museum of Modern Art has her work, too. There are six prints by Amos in MoMA’s collection.

In 2011, when Amos was suggesting the potentially doomed fate of her one work in the museum’s collection, the institution actually owned five by the artist (three individual prints and two included in portfolios of prints alongside other artists) acquired in 1975 (2), 1989, and 2010 (2).

Today, there are six prints by Amos in the museum’s collection. In 2019, MoMA acquired “3 Ladies” (1970). That print is one of the selections Mary Ryan Gallery is presenting at the IFPDA fair.