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Emma Amos, painter who challenged racism and sexism, dies at 83

Emma Amos, an acclaimed figurative artist whose high-color paintings of women flying or falling through space were charged with racial and feminist politics, died May 21 at her home in Bedford, N.H. She was 83.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said the Ryan Lee Gallery in Manhattan, which represents her.

A key event in Ms. Amos’s career came in 1964. A 27-year-old graduate student in art education at New York University, she was invited to join a newly formed artists group called Spiral.

Its members, all Black, included Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and muralist Hale Woodruff — midcareer artists with substantial reputations.

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Organized in response to the 1963 March on Washington, the group was formed to discuss and debate the political role of Black artists and their work.

As an emerging artist seeking exhibition and teaching opportunities, Ms. Amos had already experienced racial exclusion within the larger art world.

Now, as the only woman admitted to Spiral, she learned that gender was also a liability to acceptance within the Black art community.

In an article published in Art Journal in 1999, she recalled that although she felt honored to be part of Spiral, she thought it “fishy” that the group had not asked older, established women artists to join.

“I probably seemed less threatening to their egos,” she said, “as I was not yet of much consequence.”

The art world, she concluded, was “a man’s scene, black or white.” And she knew that for her, art and activism would be inseparable.

Emma Veoria Amos was born March 16, 1937, in Atlanta from a lineage that was, by her own account, “African, Cherokee, Irish, Norwegian and God knows what else.” Her parents, India DeLaine Amos and Miles Green Amos, were cousins. Her father, a graduate of Wilberforce University in Ohio, was a pharmacist; her mother, who had a degree in anthropology from Fisk University in Nashville, managed the family-owned Amos Drug Store.

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Her parents traveled widely within Atlanta’s Black intellectual circles. At home, Ms. Amos and her older brother, Larry, met Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois. (She would later paint portraits of them standing with her father.)

At age 11, she began taking art lessons.

She showed notable promise and, as a teenager, had work exhibited at Atlanta University (now part of Clark Atlanta University).

In 1954, at 17, she enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she majored in art and learned weaving.

After graduation and further study in London, she settled in New York City. There she worked for Dorothy Liebes, the innovative textile designer; studied printmaking with artists Robert Blackburn and Letterio Calapai; and entered graduate school at NYU.

Her Spiral invitation came through Woodruff, who had taught in Atlanta and knew her family. She remained a member until the group disbanded in 1966.

By that time, she had completed her graduate degree; married Robert Levine, a writer and early computer consultant; and begun a long teaching career — first at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art in New Jersey, then at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where she remained until retiring in 2008.

Skeptical of the overwhelmingly white feminist movement, she held back from involvement in feminist politics until 1984, when writer Lucy Lippard urged her to join the Heresies Collective and contribute to its journal. Heresies was, Ms. Amos wrote in Art Journal, “the group I had always hoped existed: serious, knowledgeable, take-care-of-business feminists giving time to publish the art and writings of women.”

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She soon joined other feminist groups, including Guerrilla Girls, a collective whose anonymous members appear in public wearing gorilla masks to deliver scathing critiques of art-world racism and sexism.

Ms. Amos’s paintings from the 1960s and ’70s often depicted, in bright pop colors, scenes of Black middle-class domestic life, a subject little explored in contemporary art at the time.

Her work from the following decades became increasingly personal and formally experimental, combining painting, print media, and photographic technology. In the 1992 painting “Equals,” a woman — Ms. Amos herself — is seen floating in free fall against the backdrop of a giant American flag. Replacing the flag’s field of stars is a photographic image of a Southern sharecropper’s shack.

The composition is framed in patches of African fabric alternating with printed portraits of Malcolm X.

In the symbolic self-portrait “Tightrope” (1994), the artist wears a black painter’s smock over a Wonder Woman costume. Balancing on a tightrope, she holds paintbrushes in one hand and, in the other, a shirt with an image of bare breasts copied from one of Paul Gauguin’s exoticizing images of the Tahitian women he used as models and sexual partners.

The startling “Worksuit,” from the same year, is a full-length nude self-portrait in which Ms. Amos depicts herself with a male body. The image of the body was lifted directly from a 1993 nude self-portrait by artist Lucian Freud.

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Where Freud’s figure stands in a bare studio, Ms. Amos places herself in an environment of vertiginously tilting planes and swirling color patterns, as if to suggest that old orders of power and identity — sexual and racial — were shifting and giving way.

Although long recognized as an important figure in contemporary American art, and frequently exhibited, Ms. Amos gained mainstream museum notice only within the past few years.

In 2017 she was featured in two important surveys: “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” organized by the Tate Modern in London, and “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” which originated at the Brooklyn Museum. In 2018, she appeared in “Historias Afro-Atlanticas” at the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo and the Tomie Ohtake Institute in Sao Paulo.

A career retrospective, “Emma Amos: Color Odyssey,” is scheduled to open at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Ga., in 2021, and travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y. Her work is in the collections of several American museums. In 2004 she was given a lifetime achievement award by the Women’s Caucus for Art.

Ms. Amos is survived by a daughter, India Amos; a son, Nicholas Amos; two grandchildren; and her brother. Her husband, Levine, died in 2005. The fact that Ms. Amos’s art complicates, rather than narrows, notions of identity, racial and otherwise, makes it pertinent to the present moment, when binary thinking of all kinds is under scrutiny. At the same time, her careerlong belief in art as a form of ethical resistance carries new weight when the promises of the civil rights era seem again under threat.

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“It’s always been my contention,” she once said, “that for me, a Black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.”