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EMMA AMOS FALLING FIGURES


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EMMA AMOS FALLING FIGURES September 10 – November 7, 2020 On view Tuesday through Saturday 10:15 a.m. - 5:15 p.m. by appointment

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Emma Amos in her Bond Street studio (c. 1984) Credit: Fern Logan 5


EMMA AMOS: FALLING FIGURES RYAN LEE is pleased to announce Falling Figures , an exhibition of paintings by Emma Amos. This is the first exhibition to mine this motif in Amos’s work, an exploration that began with her Falling Series (1988-1992) and continued into the twenty-first century. Amos was a celebrated artist and educator who began her career in New York in the 1960s. She was the only female member of the influential African American artist group Spiral, alongside Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff. Amos, whose work ranged from graphic, to expressionist, to figurative, has always understood that, as she put it, “to put brush to canvas as a black artist was a political act.” The falling figures that populate the canvases on view in this exhibition reverberate with anxiety, which Amos described as a response to a sense of “the impending loss of history, place, and people” among African Americans. This fear of alienation from one’s personal history and thus identity is palpable in paintings such as Will You Forget Me? (1991) in which a plummeting Amos clings to a painting of a photograph of her mother, India. The black-and-white photograph, taken many years earlier, seems to slow Amos’s descent, as the stable, elegant India calmly meets our gaze from her seated position. A different sort of anxiety permeates Targets (1989). The central image is of a young African-American couple, gripping each other in a fearful embrace. Their eyes are wide and searching as they plunge into space, flanked by a white rabbit and a bull’seye—two literal targets for sport. This image not only makes painfully clear the sense of helplessness that accompanies falling, but also the very real threats that await the young couple on the ground below. The scenes in both Will You Forget Me? and Targets are set against boldly colored abstract backgrounds and are bordered by African cloth (including Kente, Burkina Faso, and Kanga). Amos, who had a background in weaving and textile design, often included fabric elements in her work, and in these paintings the 6


sumptuous and colorful cloth both grounds the images and reestablishes a connection to one aspect of Amos’s cultural roots. Amos intentionally painted her falling figures in a range of skin tones in order to combat the reductive notion of blackness being propagated by a white male-dominated New York art world. As she explained in a 1994 artist’s statement, “I became especially concerned with the issues of freedom of expression in figurative imagery, particularly the symbolic use of dark bodies. Researching the impact of race, I found that white male artists are free to incorporate any image…. Much of this work continues to be seen as groundbreaking in its expression of the will to cross boundaries. When African-American artists cross boundaries, we are often stopped at the border.” Many of these paintings have never been exhibited to the public before. A selection of these works were last included in Amos’s 1993 solo exhibition Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-92 , curated by Thalia Gouma-Peterson for the College of Wooster Art Museum. This exhibition traveled to the Wayne Cener for the Arts in 1993, the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center in 1994, and the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1995. It was accompanied by an exhibition catalogue with essays by Gouma-Peterson, bell hooks, and Valerie J. Mercer. Further, Amos’s monumental tryptich The Overseer (1992) was also included in Art in General’s 1994 exhibition Emma Amos: Changing the Subject; Paintings and Prints 1992-1994 , curated by Holly Block. This exhibition traveled to the Montclair Museum of Art in 1995, and was accompanied by an exhibition catalogue with an essay by bell hooks.

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Tumbling After, 1986 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders 74 x 49 1/2 inches (188 x 125.7 cm)

“Here the divers, who are very young, are losing their footing, and one of them has fallen over backwards, anxiously looking out of the corner of the composition. She is the blackest of the three figures, but she has a white and pink mask-like face. Unlike the other figures, she has characteristics of a child’s drawing and becomes a visual illusion to the nursery rhyme from which the title derives. The fallen girl also alludes to the gendered and racial stereotypes of such children’s poetry. The other two figures are more ambiguous, and the interpretation of their “butterscotch” color with strokes of pink, white, and black, is left up to the spectator. The fragments of cloth add to the spatial ambiguity, as for example, the orange square between the two divers, and the frayed bathing suit worn by the tumbling figure, which becomes part of the lower border. But the sense of slipping and the lack of stability in this painting are very clear. The woven Kente cloth borders provides the only stable guidelines. Tumbling After is a pivotal work and leads to the Falling Series which Amos started in 1988. It is this series which most dramatically expresses her concern with the impending loss of history, place, and people.”

— Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Reclaiming Presence : The Art and Politics of Color in Emma Amos’s Work, in the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s catalogue, Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992

Exhibited at the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992 (1993), traveled to the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center (1994), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1995)

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Into the Dangerous World I Leapt (Blake) & The Design Falls, 1988 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders Diptych, top: 33 x 65 inches (83.8 x 165.1 cm); bottom: 33 1/4 x 67 1/2 inches (84.5 x 171.5 cm)

Her critical remembering and interrogation of the past enabled Amos to assume new responsibility and confront the crumbling world around her, as it is clear in one of the early works in the series, the two-part painting The Design Falls and Into The Dangerous World I Leapt, completed in 1988. The titles describe the action: Amos lets herself fall into the dark abyss. She hurdles through space like a heavenly body, followed by cat and a dog and a helpless black man. The two paintings can also be seen as Amos’s acknowledgement of her fear of water — that is, her fear of the loss of control — but in being acknowledged, the fear becomes bearable. The black abyss in the painting, shot through by strokes of blue, can be read as the darkness of the atmosphere beyond the sun or the depths of the ocean. In either case the painting is close to being a nightmare and Amos, in her fragmented state, is both a falling body and a spectator of her own condition. Only the lively colorful frames of printed African fabric (Kente and Burkina Faso) provide some stability in this dangerous world of darkness. — Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Reclaiming Presence : The Art and Politics of Color in Emma Amos’s Work, in the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s catalogue, Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992

Exhibited at the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992 (1993), traveled to the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center (1994), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1995); as well as at the Newark Art Museum’s Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity (1999-2000)

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Thurgood and Thelonious, Some Names to Name Your Children, 1989 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric, paper collage and African fabric borders Triptych, overall: 83 x 82 inches (210.8 x 208.3 cm) plus floor panel

When I make a painting, I am trying to use both the expressiveness of the paint flow and the movement of whatever it is I’m using, so that everything is in flux. Sometimes I even tear figures apart and have arms and legs going in different directions. The metaphor of falling helped me discover that I wanted to invent people in the air, because that was a way of having absolute movement. They are not standing on the ground, in doorways, or looking out of windows. There’s nothing that is stationary. This is a thing about flux. —Emma Amos in Straighten Up and Fly Right: Making History Visible, an interview with bell hooks, 1993

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Once Upon a Time, 1989 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders 80 1/4 x 84 inches (203.8 x 213.4 cm)

Many of the paintings in the Falling Series are about remembering and witnessing and retrieving history. In Indian Mound, 1992, Amos focuses on the loss of Native American history here represented by the negative of a photograph of an Indian chief, a device she also uses in Once Upon A Time. (...) Here, as in most of the paintings in the Falling Series, the structure of the painting is such that one person’s identity “does not mark someone else’s otherness.” — Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Reclaiming Presence : The Art and Politics of Color in Emma Amos’s Work, in the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s catalogue, Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992.

Exhibited at the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992 (1993), traveled to the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center (1994), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1995)

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The Root of all Evil, Art Against Apartheid, 1989 Acrylic on canvas with African fabric borders 30 x 24 1/2 inches (76.2 x 62.2 cm)

Emma Amos: “Listen, I’m from Atlanta and lived Black schools, colored sections in stores and white water. The system was vile. Apartheid is death.” —Extracted from Art Against Apartheid : Works for Freedom, Ikon Magazine, with an introduction by Alice Walker, 1986

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Hands Up, 1989 Acrylic on canvas with African fabric borders 58 x 40 inches (147.3 x 101.6 cm)

As a painter, the background voids through which the figures (are) falling gave Amos a chance to experiment and to resurrect some of her abstract expressionist past. “This gave me the opportunity to paint that sky with a lot of brushstrokes in it, to an absence of brushstrokes and then one mad bunch of brushstrokes. It’s very seductive.” She paints in acrylic, working it almost like watercolor, “in order to keep that wonderful wet-intowet feeling of oil.” —Lucy Lippard, Floating, Falling, Landing, 1991

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Targets, 1989 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders 57 x 73 1/2 inches (144.8 x 186.7 cm)

Having leapt into the dangerous world, Amos saw other endangered people of many colors hurtling through space, becoming targets (Curtains, Targets, 1989) falling into a brilliant red Sky (Red Sky Falling, I, II, III, 1989), holding on to each other for help (Catch, 1990). But in spite of great uncertainty and grave danger for all these falling people, the colouristic brilliance of the paintings provides an element of hope and the ever-present frames of woven or printed African cloth add a tangible context, something for the figures to hold on to. They are the margins which remained firm, as a center collapses.” — Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Reclaiming Presence : The Art and Politics of Color in Emma Amos’s Work, in the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s catalogue, Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992

Exhibited at the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992 (1993), traveled to the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center (1994), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1995)

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Women and Children First: Howardena’s Portrait, 1990 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders 74 x 71 1/2 inches (188 x 181.6 cm)

Amos is still working with falling figures. But the people eventually became “not just figures, but real people,” recalling some earlier work. “I do feel there is nothing new. We are running out of text that is ourselves and we modulate slowly over a period of time.” While much of her time now is spent making watercolor portraits of women artists, there are still overlaps with the “falling series.” [Here pictured is her friend Howardena Pindell.] “I’m certainly not saying women artists are beginning to fall or artists are going to help. But our civilization, our way of life, our values, are up in the air. I would like to move away from them as a metaphor for civilization, flying through the air and being disconnected,” she says, “but somehow I just can’t end it.” —Lucy Lippard, Floating, Falling, Landing, 1991

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Pie in the Sky, 1991 Acrylic on canvas with fabric collage and African fabric borders 44 x 34 inches (111.8 x 86.4 cm)

I want people to look at the faces. I spend a lot of time trying to get the expressions right. (...) I want to have connection between the eyes; I want the people to stare out sometimes. Sometimes I want the falling figures to interact with each other, to be looking into each other’s eyes or to be looking away from each other. I want to bring a tension to the relationship. —Emma Amos in Straighten Up and Fly Right: Making History Visible, an interview with bell hooks, 1993

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Will You Forget Me, 1991 Acrylic on canvas with fabric collage and African fabric borders 65 x 45 inches (165.1 x 114.3 cm) “Works from the Falling Series such as Will You Forget Me? illustrate the extent to which Amos is able to effect impulsion by way of an assiduous attention to figural poses and to the deployment of paint and linear thrusts. Here the downward propulsion of the plummeting woman is realized by way of her posture—slightly oblique with hands above her head and legs apart—and by the buffeting of the figure’s skirt and hair, and the surging brushwork of the background, which reprises the figure’s directional momentum. The rush of movement achieved in this work functions emblematically to express the hurtling passage of time within the artist’s own life. An autobiographical piece, Will You Forget Me? portrays Amos tumbling, and it pictures her mother, India, in the oversized photograph that the artist holds above her head. India, who died in Atlanta in 1979, was a twentyyear-old university student when the original photo was taken, and she stares out at the viewer as if into her own future, which in the artist’s present has become the past. (…) In Will You Forget Me?, the unease reflected on the face of the falling artist as she clings to her “precious” photograph signifies Amos’s battle to maintain a connection across the divide that separates her corporeal world from the afterlife that has enveloped her mother, and from a past in which her mother lived and breathed. Amos physically and psychologically struggles to maintain her grip on her mother, who threatens to become an ebbing memory rendered here by the artist, significantly, in sepia tones. The historian Robert Henkes has perceived Amos’s facial expression in the painting as fearful. Indeed, Henkes sees fear as the sentiment most salient in this series, indicative of “a lack of security, having nothing to which to anchor oneself .... there is only limbo.” —Lisa Farrington, Emma Amos: Art as Legacy, 2007

Exhibited at the College of Wooster Museum of Art’s Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints 1982-1992 (1993), traveled to the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center (1994), and the Studio Museum in Harlem (1995); and the American Federation of Arts’ For America: Paintings from the National Academy of Design (2019)

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The Overseer, c. 1992 Acrylic on canvas with photo transfer, hand-woven fabric, and African fabric borders Triptych, overall: 84 x 168 inches (213.4 x 426.7 cm)

Charting in her early work the social construction of the artist’s identity in relation to the private world of kin and family, of loved ones chosen outside the realm of the familiar, in her new work Amos interrogates from the space of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Placing her own image in paintings and prints that depict a world where she could never “belong,” Amos resists objectification and subordination. Subversively announcing her subjectivity via the imaginative appropriation of the space of power occupied by white males, she emerges from the shadows to call attention to subjugated knowledge. In the painting The Overseer, she links repressive white supremacy to attempts to control and define images of whiteness and blackness. — bell hooks, Art on My Mind, 1995

Exhibited at Art in General’s Changing the Subject: Painting and Prints 1992-1994 (1994), traveling to the Montclair Art Museum (1994) 36


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Clouds of Joy, 2002 Acrylic on canvas with African fabric borders 66 3/4 x 43 3/4 inches (169.5 x 111.1 cm)

The falling images give you the sense of disruption, and yet the work really doesn’t make a value judgment about it. It doesn’t say it’s bad for life to be disrupted. Instead, it interrogates the meaning of stability. In many of the pieces, certain things remain intact even as others are drifting, falling. This raises questions about constancy in the middle of change. What things remained solid for us in flux? This is truly expressive post-modernism—it says that we’re not in that period when everything is stable and clear, and there are possibilities of loss, but there are also possibilities of being found. —bell hooks in Straighten Up and Fly Right: Making History Visible, an interview with Emma Amos, 1993

Exhibited at the Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.)’s New to New York (2002)

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Head First, 2006 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders 68 x 53 1/2 inches (172.7 x 135.9 cm) While Amos’s “falling” figures do, indeed, appear to be adrift in ambiguous spaces, they do not have the quality of falling into an abyss so much as hurtling, leaping, sailing and floating through space and time. This is evident in a related work, Head First, in which Amos portrays a collection of male and female figures, garbed in colorful dancers’ dress, hurtling and leaping at oblique angles. Only one of the figures, however, is actually falling “head first,” as the title suggests. This is the largest and principal figure—a woman in a red T-shirt and speckled stockings that resemble army camouflage. The identity of this figure is confounded to some degree by the twotoned color of her arms (one arm is a noticeably lighter brown than the other) and by the fact that she is holding a mask which partially obscures her face. What’s more, the “skin” of the mask is pinkish in hue; and the woman tumbles in the direction of another masked face positioned within the fabric border of the painting, which stares out at the viewer like a sightless kewpie doll. Taken together, the semiotics of this work allude to the “camouflaged” and “masked” racial identity of the principal figure, who is black, white and brown all at once (as are each of the secondary flying players individually). Complemented in their active thrusts by the chevron/hanger pattern of fabric that frames them, these resolute acrobats veritably soar within and beyond the framework of the picture, presumably leaping “head first” into the conundrum of ethnic identity that has for centuries, and continues even in the new millennium, to mark human existence and interaction. —Lisa Farrington, Emma Amos: Bodies in Motion, International Review of African American Art, Volume 21, 2006

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Emma Amos with Head First (2006) Credit: Becket Logan

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