A pictorial lyricist, Amato celebrates the joys of domesticated nature found outside his back door.
These are subtle, nuanced gardenscapes; color is delicate, dappled, abruptly stroked. Amato submerges human figures within this radiant atmosphere of fragmented flowers and plants. The result is a charming environment to which the human participants belong.
The figures are an integral part of the floral ambience, appearing and disappearing as the eye travels across the canvas. With this effervescent exhibition, Amato places himself in the top drawer of Southern California painters.
–Sam Amato At The Frank Perls Gallery, Jules Langsner, LA Times, 1957
Expressing a pre-occupation with color and form, Amato appears to concern himself with developing relationships of flat planes juxtaposed into a defined area of space-now in a “realistic” context, now in a formal one.
Having evolved from a kind of impressionist purism where brilliant points of color tended to bring the picture frame forward, here Amato uses large areas of keyed color with tasteful lapses into broken forms and lines which lend dynamic depth to these paintings.
A colorist par excellence, Amato confronts each canvas as a different problem coming into formal grips with the content of a new pictorial situation in terms of solving spatial problems, of making color behave and of using it to define form.
In this day, no one but the completely naïve should be fooled into thinking that these paintings, because they have a joyous air of spontaneity and an almost child-like arbitrary freedom about them, are “easy” or the fruits of a whimsical “expression for expression’s sake”. They are highly sophisticated and studied works which have to their credit the fact that they sometimes appear effortless.
Henri Matisse once claimed that he was very flattered when someone exclaimed upon seeing one of his paintings: “…that looks like something my child might have done!” Matisse evidently felt that the spontaneity, the lack of conventional inhibition, the intense deliberation, and the purity and singlemindedness of purpose in children’s paintings are all qualities to be desired.
Most of Amato’s paintings are lush interiors and what might be considered contemporary genre surroundings such as still lives, decorative statuary, stairways, easels and flowers. Amato’s strong and vibrant “sleep and Revery”, has almost every area filled with enchanting passages of the kind of paint quality which Bonnard endearingly used to refer to as “caressing” rather than painting. A charming line swims in and out of the surface of this blue-keyed canvas, breaks it up into something which is filled with movement and life.
One cannot help but admire the virtuosity of this artist’s sense of color and delicate yet decisive application of paint. That Amato is yet young and is teaching at UCLA is a harbinger of encouragement for American art.
— Arthur Secunda, Santa Barbara News-Press 1959
Sam Amato, whose recent paintings at the Frank Perls Gallery are currently on exhibit, is a complex artist torn between several emotional paths. Well known for his large, brilliant jewel-like tapestries of interiors with figures representing a joie de vivre of the kind of opulent and abundant life most of us have only heard about Exhibit Amato appears to have made a moving personal discovery that have more to do with the passion of Delacroix (and perhaps even Goyas) than with the sumptuousness of Matisse.
The Algerian Women theme with which he is preoccupied in this exhibition is significant because it affords him a momentary rationale – that is, the psychic license to depict a certain lavishness to which he is predilicted while allowing him to render a new-found emotionalism.
His spatial illusions have become deeper, blacker, and mysteriously ominous, and his figures are more solid and sit, rather than pose, squarely and credibly in the picture space. “Morroccan Woman” is an important painting for it represents an elusive turning point in the career of one of the Southland’s leading artists.
—Beverly Hills Times, 1962
As in his earlier paintings, female figures are galore. Their amiable disposition now veiled by sullen moods or pensive day dreaming. Whatever their looks, grave, graceful or of exotic allure, and wherever they may be, here or there or nowhere, they always seem to be waiting.
Creatures of the artist’s fancy and facile brush, they sway and float on waves of color; lush, dark, transparent or opaque.
If Amato’s earlier paintings have been compared with those by Bonnard, the romantic essence of his recent paintings is closer to Delecroix. Their poetic mood evokes dreams of the far-away with no sacrifice of intimate livability.
–Recent Work by Sam Amato, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner 1962
Since 1980, amid claims of hype and art marketeering, New York, Rome and berlin have propagated mainly mediocre waves of Neo-Expressionism, sometimes making us wish the style would breathe its last and perish. An exception to this is a midcareer switch from landscapes to neo-figuration by Los Angeles artist and teacher Sam Amato.
Amato’s monumental nudes, violent brush work and macabre imagery initially look more of the same, but his religious/mythical metaphors about the loss of innocence, its redemption, and the fine line between good and evil are less “neo” and more pure, compelling expression; this is their saving grace.
A consummate painter, Amato exchanges the programmatic muddy palette of the style for bright and varied, intensely lit colors. He avoids the Italian fantasy/dream bandwagon, as well as the American predilection for repeated, personal icons like Rothenberg’s horses. Amato seems to dig deeper and more directly into art history to blend the Renaissance form, composition and draftsmanship with a nonspecific religious expressionism that invokes both Rouault and Beckman. The result is grand, even lyrical work with all the rawness but none of the sloppy technique that often hides behind the New Image rubric.
Amato models dense Massaccio-like female figures with features carved of deep blue shadows. The women seem to lead the way for an amorphous, sketchy king who clutches an incandescent scroll and looks like a hybrid between Roulout’s “Ole King” and a similar figure in the central panel from Beckman’s “Departure”. Contraposto poses, and foreshortened, distorted anatomy are articulated in spare but accurate royal blue lines that recall Renaissance sketches. Our eyes are carried from these foreground figures through craggy grottoes into agitated, brilliant atmospheres via clear receding diagonals right out of Poussin. Counterfoiled by this classical ordering, Amato’s swirling surfaces and psychic tensions gain special valence.
Imagery includes a Christ-like figure crucified on a tree; angels devouring the damned, and an elegant, brutal centaur before temple ruins. Shock value is so tightly linked to painterly and symbolic concerns that we do not feel offended or manipulated, simply moved. This is a rich, complex work better seen than described.
— The Galleries, Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1984
Los Angeles knew Sam Amato first and foremost for his inspirational and nurturing work across three decades as a Professor of Art at UCLA. His friends and colleagues, however, remember him equally as a distinctive, inventive, ever challenging painter, an “artist’s artist” who never got his full due outside certain precincts of the LA art world. Amato’s layered, intricate, yet voluble work, responsive to so many stimuli both inside and around him, in fact exemplifies an underacknowledged but vital tendency in southern California art, one that conflates classic, romantic, expressionist, and naturalist tendencies into an expansive embrace of painting itself. Amato valued image and brushstroke equally; he stressed formidable themes and quotidian objects alike; and he gave like credence to painting as a physical practice and painting as an historical practice. He was eclectic, but always coherent. A lot goes on in a Sam Amato painting because a lot — logic no less than fervor — went into it.
— Peter Frank, 2015