The Many Styles of Emma Amos, and Her Drive to Get Free

PHILADELPHIA — Spend a few hours on social media, and you’ll come across heated discussions about who gets to speak for whom. That makes it a good time for an exhibition of art by Emma Amos, a painter, printmaker and weaver who grappled with age-old questions of identity and authority that feel freshly urgent. “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey,” a survey of her work organized by the Georgia Museum of Art and now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, comes at an opportune moment.

Yet the show is also a lesson about the role that Amos, as a Black female artist, railed against in her life and has been cast in even after her death last year. Curated by the Georgia Museum’s Shawnya L. Harris, and in Philadelphia, Laurel Garber, “Color Odyssey” contains about 60 works. It is an exhilarating survey, but it is not, as Amos deserves, a major retrospective (see: the Jasper Johns mega-exhibition down the hall). Additional space to allow for the inclusion of at least one large-scale project and a timeline in the galleries would have been a good start.

The lack feels apparent walking through “Color Odyssey” because the exhibition confirms her brilliance. Amos’s work is rigorous and complex, clever and passionate, jam-packed with intellectual and emotional stimulation. She attempted to recast history — art’s, the country’s, her own — from her position as a Black woman. Amos did not just want a seat at the table; she wanted to remake the table itself.

She began as many U.S. artists did in the 1950s: inspired by then-dominant Abstract Expressionism. Her first solo show, which took place in her hometown, Atlanta, featured abstract etchings. One example is on view here, titled “Pompeii (Red)” (1959), and its saturation anticipates her forthcoming experiments with color. The piece accompanies two other abstractions, including an untitled painting featuring a loosely rendered hand amid insistent passages of black, white and gray. Amos showed this painting in 1965 in the only exhibition mounted by Spiral, an influential but short-lived Black artists’ collective; after moving from Atlanta to New York City in 1960, she became the group’s youngest member and sole woman. In that same Spiral exhibition, she also displayed “Without Feather Boa” (1965), a print of herself wearing blue sunglasses and seemingly nothing else.

These two radically different artworks hang side by side at the Philadelphia Museum, where they seem to represent a crossroads for their maker: abstraction or figuration, black and white or color? She chose chromatic representation and never looked back, but she didn’t give up her commitment to expressive paint either.

In fact, one gets the sense that Amos never fully broke with anything, whether a style or medium. Her whole career was an additive process of expanding her skills and techniques and then finding ways to combine or complement them. In the 1960s, she worked for a commercial textile designer and, later on, taught weaving — occupations she kept hidden at first because the art establishment looked down upon them as craftwork.

Amid the trippy counterculture of the ’60s, Amos made a series of acid paintings with thick blocks and bands of color that seem to act as barriers. The female figures in those beguiling works morph into confident Black women in prints from the 1970s and ’80s. The prints are technically complex: Amos would sometimes combine different methods in a single piece or do something unusual like cut her printing plate to create a thick white outline around a body. Even if you didn’t know the ins and outs of her process, though, the multiple, intricate patterns in a work like “To Sit (With Pochoir)” (1981) are dazzling.

At the same time, there’s a conceptual gambit happening here. Many of the figures wear bathing suits, harking back to the bathers motif taken up by modernists like Cezanne and Matisse. Amos replaced the traditionally stylized, nude, white women’s bodies with contemporary, partly clothed, realistic Black ones, swapping the voyeuristic male gaze with an intimate female one. By doing so, she inserted Black women into art history and claimed the leisure and implied freedom of the water as her own.

The question of liberation — how to get free — became a driving force in her practice in the late ’80s. You can feel it in the third gallery, where her art erupts with new dynamism and energy. Suddenly, her figures are in motion, whether suspended amid feats of athleticism or falling and floating through the air. The solid ground of reality has given way to expressionistic, metaphorical spaces that might be cosmic, as in the delightfully chaotic triptych “Flying Circus” (1987), or more expressly political, as in “Equals” (1992), which features Amos floating against the backdrop of a waving American flag. The flag’s stars have come unmoored, and the blue rectangle that held them has been replaced by a reproduction of a Depression-era photograph of Black southern laborers. “Equals” suggests that the only way for African Americans to achieve equity and justice is to dislodge the existing paradigm of this country, as Malcolm X — whose image repeats along the top and bottom of the piece — tried to do.

It’s not just subject matter that makes such works so potent. Overcoming her reticence (thanks to a stint co-hosting a PBS TV show about craft in America), Amos began bringing fabric into her art, first her own weavings and then various kinds of African cloth. She experimented with forming figures from it but ended up using it mostly to accent and frame her paintings, a device that gives them literal texture as well as historical depth. Even as she painted her works effectually, with swooping lines and vigorous brushstrokes, she included fabric and hung them like scrolls or tapestries. Incorporating bold, bright colors and patterns, she infused her pieces with pleasure while tackling serious topics. Amos scrambled all the categories in which she might have fit: craft and art, women’s and men’s work, African and Western, grave and fun.

The exhibition includes two of her most iconic pieces, “Work Suit” and “Tightrope” (both 1994). Both are wry self-portraits in which Amos borrows imagery from canonical white Western male painters (Lucian Freud and Paul Gauguin, respectively) to comment on the difficulty of her position as a Black woman artist. I had seen them in reproduction but was unprepared for the level of detail and diversity in each one. Amos’s best works can hold your attention for a long time, as your eyes and brain attempt to unpack their technical and conceptual complexity.

Writers in the catalog for “Color Odyssey” identify her approach as essentially a form of collage; in the 1995 book “Art on My Mind,” the scholar bell hooks calls it a “very postmodern quality” that celebrates mixing and miscegenation. However you define it, for Amos, there was resistance and freedom in heterogeneity — an ability to be her multiple selves at once and an opportunity to rethink the tropes and traps of history.

In “Models” (1995), for example, she lines up one of Gauguin’s depictions of his teenage Tahitian wife, Tehamana; an ethnographic photograph of an African woman with printed text around her; and an image of an ancient Greek male nude statue. Bordering them are letters that don’t spell out anything but allude to knowledge. The trio is a challenge to consider how beauty standards are set, but I read it also as a kind of proposition: If the first two have been considered valid objects of study for white men, then the third must be the same for Black women. Twenty-five years ago, Amos posed a question we’re still asking now: Who gets the right to be a subject?

Emma Amos: Color Odyssey

Through Jan. 17 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia. 215-763-8100;