Abstract painter James Little breaks through with inclusion of Whitney Biennial and Kavi Gupta show
Over the past four decades, abstract artist James Little has done everything from monochromatic black paintings rendered with straight lines to colorful canvases filled with repeating rectangles and white surfaces adorned with multicolored circles. Although Little’s paintings cannot be defined by any particular genre, they are all captivating abstract works that transport the viewer into a field of color.
“If I put a painting together, I have geometry,” Little says. “Maybe I have a luminosity. I have all these things that are formal, but not representative. It’s not me painting a tree, a bowl, a human figure or anything like that. [My practice] relies heavily on imagination and feelings, vision and skills.
Today, Little’s virtuosity is finally gaining wider recognition. The Memphis-born painter’s canvases feature prominently at the 2022 Whitney Biennial, Quiet as it is kept (until September 5). A work from the exhibition, stars and stripes (2019), shows a pattern of intersecting black lines when viewed up close and, from a distance, reveals a complicated arrangement of diamonds and triangles. These shapes seem sacred, meditative in a way, and looking at this canvas makes the viewer feel as if they are stepping into the inky black pool of someone’s subconscious.
“There are a lot of different meanings behind these paintings,” Little says. “The Black Star [works] reflect how we perceive ourselves and [have] astrological connotations. I’m sure there will be people who will come in and attach some sort of sociological significance to it, which is fine, but I have other goals as well. I just like to raise the questions and allow the paintings to have a kind of contemplation.
Another piece on display, big hat (2021), also uses black brushstrokes to create a shape that resembles a six-pointed star. This tableau is punctuated by lines that converge to a singular point and inlaid textures that speak to the intricacies of Little’s sacred geometries. He achieves these grainy surfaces using encaustic paint, which requires the artist to carefully apply layers of wax and pigment to a flat surface, a meticulous process that can take months.
“I was drawn to the paintings,” says Chicago-based dealer Kavi Gupta. “I was drawn to their physique. He mixes polishes, encaustics and pigments, which almost no one does. Gupta adds: ‘He has to be so consistent. It’s hard to get the level of pigmentation that he reached because he needs to get those huge swaths of color.
Little recently joined the Gupta Gallery roster, where he will have a solo exhibition in November. It will present new works drawing on the artist’s interests for surface, texture and color.
The relationship between surfaces and materials in Little’s work is informed by her humble beginnings. Born in 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee, the artist came of age at a time when the American South was still deeply segregated. Most of his mother’s family had emigrated from Mississippi, while his father’s family had Native American, Irish, and black ancestry.
“My work comes from necessity,” says Little. “My mother was a cook. My father was a construction worker. My grandmother was a seamstress and she made quilts with her children’s clothes. They were from Mississippi, and they were very poor and found a way to get ahead and fly, and that’s the story of a lot of black people in this country, especially in the South.
Many of these early experiences and family stories had a profound impact on the painter and a vivid memory still inspires him today, as he recounted in a 2009 interview with Benjamin La Rocco for the Brooklyn Railroad. When Little was a child, his father and grandfather took him to a construction site where they worked. When Little arrived, he saw workers mixing and pouring cement, a process that fascinated him.
“It had a strange influence on my sensitivity to the surface, even to this day,” Little told La Rocco. “I just like the idea of taking this medium, this material, and transforming it, making it do something other than what it wanted to do.”
As he entered his teens, Little remained fascinated with materials and continued to hone his practice, working with readily available supplies and copying Old Master paintings by Thomas Eakins from the Encyclopedia Britannica, according to a 2011 study. . ART news article by Celia McGee. Upon graduating from high school, Little decided to pursue these interests formally, enrolling at the Memphis Academy of Art, where he earned his BFA in 1974. He earned his MFA from Syracuse University in 1976 .
When Little began his career, racial tensions were always present in the background. The artist’s adolescence coincided with the height of the civil rights movement and there were not many other black artists exhibiting in mainstream museums and galleries at the time.
“I was 21 before I paid attention to a black artist because it wasn’t available,” Little says. “It was not taught in schools. We haven’t seen it. It was not in the museum, there was no representation. In a way, it allowed me to develop my own ideas about art. But at the same time, I felt cheated because I was just immersed in Western painting.
This lack of representation did not deter Little from refining his practice, and over the years he became a true painter of painters, committed to abstraction even as external events and prevailing trends sought to impose figurative readings to his work.
Some of Little’s earlier works demonstrate the artist’s interest in color and craftsmanship. El-Shabazz (C) (1985), for example, depicts four pastel colored triangles that intersect at a single point. The lines in this painting are crisp and clean; they demonstrate a diligence that underlies all his work. Eventually, others took note of Little’s attention to detail and commitment to his singular brand of abstraction. He began exhibiting at the June Kelly Gallery in New York in 1988 and has works in the permanent collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Menil Collection in Houston.
Little’s meticulous approach remains a cornerstone of his practice and he continues to use his skill to evoke emotions with his materials.
“I love rhythm in my work,” Little said in a 2017 BOMB magazine interview. “Music and dance. Speed and color. And it’s the things I see that are just as important as what we say or how we act.