In the summer of 1963 a group of Black artists in New York came together to form a collective to address the precarious state of creating art amidst societal upheaval caused by politics, racism, and social unrest. Led by Romare Bearden, Spiral was formed to tackle these philosophical issues, and its initial members included Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston, among others. While their artistic practices, genres, backgrounds, and philosophies varied greatly, Spiral looked to find commonalities among one another to anchor their diverse perspectives on.
The sole woman of the 14 member group was Emma Amos. As the only woman in this group, Amos immediately stood out to me, and I wanted her artistic voice to be the first one highlighted in my artist a day series this year. Amos originally hailed from Atlanta, GA and studied art at Antioch University in Ohio, spending a year in London to study printmaking. In the mid 60s Amos was invited to join Spiral by her mentor, Hale Woodruff, but during her short tenure with the group she forged a strong artistic relationship with Norman Lewis who pushed her practice to new levels. Her figurative paintings feature a vivid, bright color palette, yet she also has a strong affinity with textiles which inform the border patterns found in many of her works. After leaving Spiral, Amos joined feminist art collectives that were more attuned to the challenges women faced in the art world. During her career she pivoted to broadcasting, working with PBS on arts and craft related shows and she also taught at Rutgers University before retiring a decade ago.
In a transcript of a 2011 oral interview conducted by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Amos talks about the close friendships she shared with artists over the years, and the death of a dear friend forced her to reflect on mortality and artistic legacy:
“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.”
This quote gutted me, and it speaks to a profound sense of unease, not just on aging, but on one’s career. Even for an artist that’s highly respected, that sense of otherness remains, despite being actively involved in groups and artistic communities that are designed to foster collaboration and support.
Amos’ work first came to my attention in the traveling exhibition We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985. This period of artistic production amid vast social change is also the focus of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which originated at the Tate Modern, traveled to the Brooklyn Museum and makes its Los Angeles debut this spring at The Broad. This intense focus on art and Black artists that were overlooked during this era is long overdue, as many of their stories have slowly been lost to time. I keep thinking about that quote from Amos, and I am disheartened, particularly when I look for her work online and paintings are difficult to examine because the available images are mere thumbnails (her gallery features some of her paintings). Video interviews are sparse despite her being featured in documentaries (that cannot be found online), and catalogs from exhibitions about Spiral are hard to come by. With the exception of the robust Smithsonian oral interview, there isn’t much about her career for the layperson to discover; her website hasn’t been updated since 2016.
Her increased visibility from group shows led to news of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2018 acquisition of her 1966 painting, Flower Sniffer as one of 96 works by female artists that were added to the institution’s permanent collection. This renewed focus is important, and we owe it to our living artists to celebrate and recognize their contributions while they can share their pearls of wisdom from the privileged vantage point of age. This requires cooperation from dealers, galleries, collectors, and executors of trusts to expand accessibility too. While scholarly research is critical to correct the canon, our general exposure to artists who have been left our of the popular conversation is also critical, and sadly I think sometimes the nuance behind these artists and their stories gets lost in group shows. Nevertheless, without a spotlight on these artists, their stories would never be uncovered in the first place. I am excited about Soul of a Nation coming to Los Angeles, and in anticipation of the show, I am going to dedicate much of this month to exploring the artists that have been featured in this groundbreaking exhibition.