Women in Art: Emma Amos

I am going to start this post about Emma Amos in the middle. Last October, I saw the retrospective exhibit, Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We are all familiar with Paul Gauguin’s topless portraits of Tahitian women. Growing up, I was given to understand that those women walked around that way all the time. Only it wasn’t true. By the time Gauguin got to Tahiti in 1891, “[i]t had been thoroughly Christianized and colonized. The women were not walking around half-naked. … They tended to be wearing … Christian missionary gowns.”

That made Amos’ painting, Tightrope, pictured below, really resonate with me. It’s is Amos’s depiction of the difficult balance she had to maintain as a Black woman, artist, wife, and mother. The t-shirt she holds is a reference to Gaughan’s painting of his 13-year-old Tahitian wife. For more information on Tightrope, and her other paintings, I recommend Arianna Richetti’s excellent article, Emma Amos: The Story of the Postmodernist African-American Artist.

Tightrope

The vulnerability Amos displays in tightrope brought to mind a passage from a novel by Lorene Carey that I read a few years ago. The protagonist of The Price of a Child is not an artist, but other aspects of her life are uncomfortably similar.

"Mercer pulled her arm tighter over Mattie's shoulders. She thought      of Pryor's long fingers and how she hated him to touch her breasts. Why her breasts? They had always been hard, just getting past that part. Especially when she was pregnant or, worse yet, nursing. She could wall off from the waist down and not make herself mind so much. Maybe her breasts were too close to her head. She couldn't wall off from the neck down which is what she tried to do." Lorene Carey, The Price of a Child: A Novel, 1995.
My Work Suit

How a Black female artist must present herself to be recognized as a painter working. Note that the suit is a pseudo transformation of Amos into a white man. Beading Yoda, who knew Amos, told me that she was a member of the Guerrilla Girls.

All I know of Wonder

Amos often used fabric to frame her work, as she did in the above painting which contains a bathing scene, a female figure with multi-colored skin tones and a black male bather that evokes classical Greek imagery. Amos said, “Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement.”

X-Flag

Before you pass this off as derivative of Jasper Johns, take a closer look. Amos has depicted an American flag backed by a Confederate flag. There’s also fabric, and photographs of children playing and Malcolm X.

Flying Circus is a triptych that is part of Amos’s Falling Series, that is partly a commentary on Ronald Reagan’s social spending cuts in the 1980’s. Amos saw falling through space as both frightening and liberating.

There are some enlightening and instructive videos on the Color Odyssey exhibit from the Georgia Museum of Art. To view them, press here and here.

Why Are There No Great Female Artists?

I hear the question, “Why are there no great female artists?” less these days than I used to. That only means one thing to me: That it’s less socially acceptable to ask the question than it used to be. Instead, we ask “Who are the most famous women artists of all time?” That’s not the same thing as asking who are the greatest, or best women artists of all time. I am sure there are plenty of great women artists we’ve never heard of. Do we equate great artists with famous artists or vice versa? And what makes a piece of art famous anyway? There’s a great New Yorker cartoon captioned, I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. As for me, I like art that challenges me, engages me and draws me in. I don’t have to think it’s pretty. I don’t have to understand it, at least right away.

What passed for art education in high school taught me that African Tribal art was primitive and that Cubism was sophisticated. I know now that that’s hogwash, but it was really driven home to me when I saw an exhibit of the work of Emma Amos at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which had one of her works entitled “Muse Picasso.” I didn’t get a good picture of “Muse Picasso” when I was at the museum, so I Googled the term for an image. Here’s what my search turned up. I love Picasso, but there was nothing about Amos’ work. Bupkis.

I was expressing my frustration to Beading Yoda, when she told me that Amos had been a neighbor and close friend of hers when they both lived in Greenwich Village years ago. Beading Yoda had suspected that Amos was a member of the Guerrilla Girls and later learned that she was. I remembered that I’d seen an exhibition on the Guerrilla Girls at the Tate Modern in London. I did manage to get a good picture of this poster.

I will post about the Emma Amos exhibit in the coming weeks, and about another great exhibit of Suzanne Valadon’s work I saw at the Barnes Foundation. While you’re waiting, here are posts you might find interesting, on Mildred Greenberg and Christina Robertson.