What you see: Let Me Off Uptown, which measures 80 inches by 78 7/8 inches and was created by African-American artist Emma Amos between 1999 and 2000. It incorporates several media, including oil and photo transfer on linen canvas, metallic paint, glitter, collage, and African fabric borders. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
The lot notes say Let Me Off Uptown is “a significant work from Emma Amos’s important series of paintings on fabric from the late 1990s that celebrate African-American women”. How big is the series? Is it still ongoing? She did a large group of work in the 90s where images of women were painted on canvas not on stretcher bars [a traditional treatment for paintings] but on hanging cloth. It extended to the mid-2000s. She’s not working on it now.
What do we know about how Amos made the mixed media work? Artists like Emma Amos and Faith Ringgold, when they came up in the 1960s and 1970s, the gallery system was very difficult for women to get any representation. Male abstract painters predominated. There were few spaces in the art world for empowering images of African-American women. She was very much a part of the African-American movement and the women’s movement. She took all those elements in the 1980s and 1990s and found a way to paint the imagery and make it her own–large figurative subjects about women, the bodies of women, and the roles women had in society. This is more celebratory. It’s about African-American culture and about jazz. It shows how jazz brings different people together.
Is the woman in red a self-portrait? Is she Amos? I don’t believe so.
Why did she name the work Let Me Off Uptown? It’s a reference to Harlem. That was where you got off the train to listen to jazz music.
Did she use models for the main figures or any of the smaller figures? I don’t know precisely her practice, but I would think it’s a variety of sources. [The man] could be someone she knows, I really can’t say, but it’s not portraiture. It’s not important who these people are–it’s what they represent. For centuries, images of African-Americans in art were either put on the sidelines, completely secondary, or they were caricatures. Since the Harlem Renaissance, [African-American artists have] taken over the representation of their figures and made a viable language. Like other contemporary artists, Amos has focused on the figure, and has embraced making figurative art that shows African-Americans doing things. In her case, they have larger symbolic meanings. They speak to a larger discourse about how we view African-Americans and African-American figures in our art. She wants to change the way we look at art.
The lot notes say Amos “has long sought to deconstruct traditional representations of beauty”. How does she do that here? With these images of celebratory figures and dancers [she asks] what is a beautiful figure? Can an African-American woman stand in for other figures that traditionally represent women and ideals of beauty? That is where she’s coming from. The classical models from art history are Eurocentric. Black bodies, shapes and colors and the way they look, are not necessarily considered ideal in art. She makes ordinary people heroic. These [the two main figures] are painted six feet high, at a scale and size that are almost lifelike, if not lifelike. She says they are people we should celebrate.
Do any of the smaller figures carry meanings that might not be immediately obvious? When you first look at it, it looks like lots of fun, dancing figures, but a lot of them are subversive. Some are unclothed. Different races and genders together. Music and freedom. At the beginning of the 20th century, jazz was revolutionary. It represented freedom and improvisation. She’s definitely tapping into that here. It’s a great party of twirling figures, having a great time.
What details stand out to you? The fun thing about her work is the different levels it works on. It’s a really strong image of a dancing couple, but as you look at it, little details show her sense of humor and intelligence. Look at her [the main female figure’s] dress. The bodice is covered with smiling lips. [laughs] It’s a cheeky, fun thing. You don’t notice it at first, and it’s all very seamless. She really integrates everything well. It comes from her great sense of material–from her fabric and printmaking and painting, which she brings together in works from the 1990s and 2000s.
Amos included this work in her 2000 application for a Pollock-Krasner Foundation fellowship, which she won. Does that affect collectors’ interest in the work, or its value, at all? I think it’s a nice plus. It certainly shows the reputation of her work strongly.
I’d been calling her a fabric artist but it seems like “mixed media artist” is better… She’s really a painter, a collage artist, and a printmaker. It’s a bit simplistic to call her a fabric artist. That’s one element of her work. Sometimes she paints on textile, but she’s a multimedia artist, absolutely.
What is Let Me Off Uptown like in person? It has a human scale to it. It’s about six feet high. What you can’t necessarily see in the catalog is there’s a wonderful variety of texture. The surface has a wonderful shimmer. There’s a richness to it. It doesn’t just have a flat, uniform surface.
Are her works usually this colorful and lively? Let Me Off Uptown is not an anomaly. Her works are often dynamic and brightly colored, with large figures taking up the whole picture plane.
How rarely do pieces by Amos appear at auction? We’ve been selling her work in our auctions since the start of our African-American Fine Art auctions in 2007. Primarily they were prints and works on paper. Then last year [in October 2018], we sold Arched Swimmer, the first large, unique painting we had of hers. It was estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 and, with the buyer’s premium, sold for $40,000 and set an auction record for her. That painting set the stage for this one. It’s quite possible this work will set a new record. Her work is in people’s minds. That’s why it felt like a good time to bring this to auction now.
Why might Let Me Off Uptown beat the sum achieved by Arched Swimmer? First of all, it’s a larger, more complex piece. Arched Swimmer was 30 inches by 32 inches, and it was a stretch canvas. It was not one of the larger hanging pieces, and it’s a quarter of the size of the work we’re selling now. I think we’ll have a lot of interest in it.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I think it’s a fantastic image of dance and jazz. It’s a joyous image, and it’s what her work is all about.
Nigel Freeman has appeared on The Hot Bid many times before, talking about a set of Emperor Jones prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, a story quilt that Oprah Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make about Dr. Maya Angelou, an Elizabeth Catlett painting, and a Sargent Johnson copper mask. The Ringgold and the Johnson set records for the respective artists.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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