Two American artists with biographies and themes in common. One has been a household name for over fifty years—the other is only now getting the recognition she deserves.
A 2018 profile of Jasper Johns in the New York Times opens with the declaration that Johns (born 1930) was “widely regarded as America’s foremost living artist.” A year earlier, two traveling group exhibitions—at the Brooklyn Museum and Tate Modern in London—had helped shed light on Emma Amos (1937–2020), another pivotal figure in postwar American art. But unlike Johns, Amos has failed to receive widespread popular attention, even though both were rough contemporaries with common themes that occur across their work. This fall and winter, each artist is the subject of concurrent retrospectives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Emma Amos: Color Odyssey and Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror. For Amos, this is the final venue of the first major solo exhibition devoted to her work.
I have the distinct memory of encountering the work of Jasper Johns for the first time as an undergraduate. Even on a PowerPoint slide in a dark room, the allure of his experimental use of media and the textural qualities of encaustic (basically, hot wax with pigment) were startling. Likewise, my professor’s enthusiasm for Johns was infectious, and soon after, I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to see Three Flags (1958) for myself.
I have no such memories of Amos because she wasn’t mentioned in any art history class I took in high school, college, or graduate school. It was only when I stumbled upon her Flower Sniffer of 1966, on view in 2018 at the ICA/Boston presentation of We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 that I discovered her radical work the first time. It was not until I arrived at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2019 that I had an opportunity to view her work more closely, spending time with 3 Ladies (1970) in the museum’s storage facilities. But it became clear then, too, that Amos was just as innovative as Johns, combining a dizzying array of printmaking techniques in a single work.
In fact, Amos and Johns overlap in their career trajectories despite their differing levels of public recognition and representation in museum collections. Both artists were born in Georgia and raised in the South before establishing their reputations in New York. At the initiation of Hale Woodruff, Amos was invited to join the influential Black artists’ collective Spiral, becoming its youngest and sole female member. Through Spiral she was given the opportunity to exhibit her work alongside Woodruff, Romare Bearden, and Norman Lewis among others. Johns, too, benefited from his close friendships with artists, including John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and collaboration through his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg.
Though it is unlikely that they met, Amos was undoubtedly aware of Johns. Certain motifs, including the American flag and targets, appear with frequency in the work of both artists. In Targets of 1989, Amos paints a Black couple falling precipitously through space and framed with handwoven African cloth. At the top right corner a black-and-white bull’s-eye appears to sway, permeating the image with a sense of terror. Johns also famously depicted concentric circles, occasionally displaying the motif alongside a hinged wooden box with plaster forms, as seen in Target with Four Faces from 1955. The works of both artists push the boundaries of painting, incorporating elements of collage, textile, and sculpture.
Although Amos and Johns shared an exploratory approach to medium and often incorporated similar formal elements in their compositions, they approached their work from starkly different perspectives. In the 1950s, when Johns embarked on a series devoted to the American flag, he stated that he had arrived at the subject because it was “seen and not looked at, not examined.” Through his choice of materials, Johns encouraged the close observation that he felt the symbol warranted.
In contrast, Amos considered the American flag critically in works like Stars and Stripes of 1992. She replaced the blue field of white stars that represent the states comprising the union with a blue-tinted photo transfer of African American children. An X across the composition negates the flag and its traditional interpretation. Amos both saw and examined the American flag, offering a critique that the freedom it symbolized—freedom that Johns likely took for granted—has never been guaranteed for all Americans.
Johns’s work is collected widely and displayed prominently at major museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In recent years, more museums have begun to collect Amos’s work, with significant acquisitions occurring in the years following her inclusion in the major traveling exhibitions mentioned above. I’m thrilled to see her work on view here this fall and hope it will further familiarize visitors with this remarkable artist. I’m also pleased to see her art on view alongside the exhibition Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror. Placing these works in dialogue throughout the museum offers new perspectives on both artists.
When I reviewed pages and pages of my college notes on Johns, it became clear how much the class had been shaped around the objects that had been familiar and accessible to my professor. How might the course have looked if it had coincided with an exhibition devoted to Amos?
I’m optimistic about the opportunities the exhibition Emma Amos: Color Odyssey and its accompanying catalogue will present to future art history students, and for new scholarship on the artist. And I’m hopeful that art history instructors will present Emma Amos and her work with the same passion and enthusiasm with which I was introduced to Jasper Johns—and that museums will take steps to prioritize the display of her work in their galleries.
Theresa A. Cunningham is an assistant curator at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee. From 2019 to 2021 she was the Margaret R. Mainwaring Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.