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Emma Amos: Classical Legacies

July 10, 2023 - September 9, 2023


Emma Amos
Classical Legacies
July 10 – September 9, 2023

RYAN LEE is pleased to announce Emma Amos: Classical Legacies, an exhibition of three paintings, six prints, and one cycle of epic monoprints by Emma Amos. The fourth solo presentation of Amos’s work—and sixth overall—at the gallery, the exhibition will focus on the classicist influence on Amos’s œuvre, a fresh take on her substantial body of work.

The exhibition will feature works ranging from 1966 to 2001 that demonstrate Amos’s longstanding interest in the antiquities. Amos would visit Rome as a child with her family, and her early exposure to Roman ruins and epics translated in her work, in which she frequently explored themes of longevity and deep histories within shifting times. Across the works presented at RYAN LEE this summer, Amos displays her deep interest in history, longevity and memory. By implementing themes from Greek and Roman antiquity in her work, Amos marries the wide and converging interests that informed her art for decades and reflected the breadth of her culture. Her incorporation of the ancient West in her work coopted the built-in pedigree connoted with these motifs, which she claimed as her own by right.

This will be the first time that Amos’s landmark Odyssey prints will be exhibited to the public in twenty years. Valerie J. Mercer wrote in an essay accompanying Amos’s major 1995 exhibition Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints, 1982-1992: “Because of the monumental scale of the prints, Odyssey can take up the spaces of a whole room when it is shown. The series focused on 100 years of the history of the artist’s family in Atlanta, from the period shortly after slavery up to the 1960s. It was inspired by the splendid collection of family photographs belonging to Amos’s parents and represents pride in her family and in their achievements.” 

The exhibition starts with Pompeii, made in 1960: a pivotal year for Amos. This marks her departure from her hometown of Atlanta for New York City, which is coincidentally the event that later capped her landmark, 10-panel Odyssey (1988). Equipped with the etching skills she learned at the Central School of Art in London, Pompeii exemplifies Amos’s early interest in rooting her works in ancient traditions. 

This interest resurfaces with her important Falling Figures paintings: a series that reverberates with anxiety, which Amos described as a response to a sense of “the impending loss of history, place, and people” among African Americans. This important work is capped by the monumental Flying Circus, in which Amos’s multi-toned figures are catapulted down a gesturally vivid background. Plummeting along with her are a wealth of Greek and Roman references: with the frightful loss of African American stories, along goes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Coliseum, and the Circus Maximus. The resulting composition is an energetic meditation on memory, legends, and dissipating histories.

By incorporating her own weaving and African fabric in her paintings referencing Greek and Roman antiquity, Amos marries her converging interest in Black history and classical literature. In Way Away (1996), ancient Western symbolism becomes Black symbolism as well. Framed by the African fabrics that Amos frequently uses in her work, she carves herself a place within the Western canon: a mixed-race, Black minority within the Western world, she is just as much an inheritor of Homer, Hercules, and Circe as any of her peers.

Inspired by Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey serves as a counterbalance to Amos’s anxious Falling Figures series by unflinchingly inscribing her own family history in the ranks of the legendary. With this series of ten hand-painted monoprints, the artist and her proud Georgian heritage is never to be forgotten.

Emma Amos: Classical Legacies will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Michele Valerie Ronnick, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Wayne State University; and Gabriella Shypula, PhD Candidate in Art History and Criticism at Stony Brook University. 


Emma Amos (b. 1937 Atlanta, GA – d. 2020 Bedford, NH) was a pioneering artist, educator, and activist. A dynamic painter and masterful colorist, her commitment to interrogating the art-historical status quo yielded a body of vibrant and intellectually rigorous work. Influenced by modern Western European art, Abstract Expressionism, the Civil Rights movement and feminism, Amos was drawn to exploring the politics of culture and issues of racism, sexism and ethnocentrism in her art. “It’s always been my contention,” Amos once said, “that for me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.” Amos was the youngest and only woman member of Spiral, the historic African American collective founded in 1963, as well as a member of the feminist collective and publication, Heresies, established in the 1980s. 

Amos graduated from Antioch College in Ohio in 1958 and the Central School of Art in London in 1960. She subsequently moved to New York and became active in the downtown arts scene, working alongside prominent Spiral artists such as Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, Alvin Hollingsworth and Charles Alston. In 1965, she earned her Masters in Arts from New York University and taught art at the Dalton School in New York. She is a former Professor and Chair in Visual Arts at the Mason Gross School of Art at Rutgers University where she taught for 28 years.

Amos’s work is currently exhibited in It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadbsy at the Brooklyn Museum, NY, and in 2021, Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, a major retrospective of Amos’s work, traveled from the Georgia Museum of Art to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute and Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has also been included in exhibitions at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, Brazil (2022); Modern Art Museum at Fort Worth, TX (2022); Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN (2019); National Portrait Gallery, UK (2018); de Young Museum, CA (2017); Whitney Museum of American Art (2017); British Museum (2017); Tate Modern, UK (2017); and Musée du Quai Branly, France (2016), among others. Her work is held in over 40 museum collections, including the British Museum, UK; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Museo de las Artes, Mexico; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Gallery of Art, DC; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; and Yale University Art Gallery, CT, among others.


Celebrating emerging and established artists and estates, RYAN LEE takes a multi-generational approach to its programming, presenting innovative and scholarly exhibitions across all spectrums of art practices, including painting, photography, video, sculpture, and performance. The gallery takes chances on a wide variety of boundary-pushing artists; their work consistently transcends political, cultural, material, or technical boundaries. In addition, RYAN LEE has, throughout its history, demonstrated its long-standing interest and dedication to feminist, Black and Asian American, as well as queer narratives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Founded in 2013 by Mary Ryan and Jeffrey Lee, the gallery is led by partners of different generations and backgrounds with over six decades of combined experiences informing its unique approach.


July 10, 2023
September 9, 2023
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515 W 26th St, 3rd Fl
New York, NY 10001 United States
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