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"Every Time I Think about Color It’s a Political Statement:" Classical Elements in the Art of Emma Amos

Michele Valerie Ronnick

Wayne State University

Fuller appreciation of the octogenarian Atlanta native Emma Amos may come after her retrospective exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens set for 2021, but in support and anticipation of that is my study of the classical elements in her work. The theme can be traced back to her aquatint etchings “Pompeii Red” (1959) and “Pompeii White” (1960), and even to her association with the Spiral Collective, an all male group of black artists whose name was inspired by Archimedes and to which she was invited to join in 1963. Later work includes a 10 painting ensemble “Odyssey” (1988), “Catching my Mother in the Grand Scheme of Things (1988 with a Colosseum falling through space on the right), Bell Jar: bell hooks with Dancers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane on a Greek Jar (1996), three related studies “Models” (1995), “Classical and Universal” (1995) and Measuring, Measuring” (1996), each featuring the Kritios Boy and “Orion” (2012).

Fascinated with Paul Robeson from the time she saw him on stage as Othello at a show she attended with her father, she later placed two portraits of him in youth and in old age in “A Reading at the Grave of Bessie Smith” (1985). A year earlier she had envisioned him in a setting merging Greek myth with American culture in two related pieces: “Zeus as Football Player” and “Billie and Zeus/Swan” (1984).  A decade later in a “deft assimilation of photography into painting.” 2  she positioned a nude photo of Robeson in all his Olympian beauty by Nikolas Murray (1892-1965) in a vertical alignment, i.e. below a Greek vase painting and above a Roman relief which she titled the “Paul Robeson Frieze” (1995). With a set of slides including those attached, this paper will explore how Amos has employed Graeco-Roman culture to “intervene in a history of art dominated by European and white American men” and  challenge “racist and colonialist imperatives.” 3

1 Lippard, Lucy, “Floating Falling Landing: An Interview with Emma Amos,” Art Papers 15(1991): 15.

2 Farrington, Lisa, “Emma Amos: Art as Legacy,” Woman’s Art Journal 28(2007): 5.

3 Wolfskill, Phoebe, “Love and Theft in the Art of Emma Amos,” Archives of American Art Journal 55(September, 2016): 44.

Session/Panel Title

Black Classicism in the Visual Arts

Session/Paper Number

29.6

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