James Little, still a gentleman of the Old South after four decades in New York, offers to “rest” a visitor’s coat. In his skylit studio, on the top floor of an old brick industrial building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it’s not immediately apparent where he will find a place for it amid the paint cans and tubes, bottles of varnish, jars of brushes, stacks of plastic utility buckets, and rows of storage racks.
This is the workspace of a maker of labor-intensive geometric compositions executed in silky pearlescent colors. Most measuring at least 6 by 8 feet in size, they glow against the walls of his studio.
Little, 57, was already well known among a small circle of abstract artists when the adulatory reviews of his 2009 show at the June Kelly Gallery in New York brought his work to the attention of a wider audience. That same year he won the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in Painting.
It “meant a lot to me,” he says of the Mitchell prize. He counts Mitchell among the artists he most admires, along with Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Alma Thomas, and George L. K. Morris. “To me,” he says, “the most heroic art produced is abstract art, because… it made us see in a different way. It’s been difficult at the present time, because painting has been ostracized or not looked at in favor of Postmodernism.”
Yet his own work is faring quite well these days. His large paintings sell at June Kelly for $40,000 to $50,000, and his smaller works on paper go for $6,500 to $7,500.
A defiant abstractionist, he intently avoids any sense of horizon or other landscape impressions in his paintings. Through years of experimenting and refining, he has developed his own mixtures of oil paint and beeswax and has mastered the difficult medium of encaustic to achieve restrained but lush pictorial effects. It is a slow process. “A painting takes me three months to make,” he says. He starts by applying five or six coats of stand oil to a canvas so it won’t burn from the hot wax and then uses palette knives to manipulate upward of 20 layers of paint. He produces his varnishes himself. “If I hadn’t been a painter, I would have been a scientist,” he says. “There’s alchemy in it too.”
“I’m a strong believer in modernism in painting—something physical and perceptually tangible,” Little says. “I’m not interested in illusionism, the way a lot of abstract artists are. I’m interested in flatness, the flat plane, and materials that keep illusions at bay.”
Little earned an M.F.A. in 1976 from Syracuse University, where he was strongly influenced by the ideas of Sol LeWitt, Hilton Kramer, and Clement Greenberg. “I was more a Greenbergian than anyone,” he says. “I had my style by the time I got there, but Greenberg gave me my theory. He teaches you to take a stand against decadence in art. You have to set high standards, and reach them.”
Little was held to high standards earlier in life, as a child in Memphis, Tennessee. His mother was a cook and his father a construction worker. They always encouraged James and his siblings to do better than they had—and tried to shield their children from segregation. At a young age, Little desperately wanted to paint. His mother gave him a paint-by-numbers kit, and one day, when he had paint left over, Little recalls, “I started copying Eakins. We had the Encyclopaedia Britannica up on the bookshelf, and I took down ‘A’ and found ‘Art.’ There was a reproduction of an Eakins.” He doesn’t remember which picture it was.
The tragedy of his young life was losing his father to alcoholism. “He was frustrated and depressed and had nowhere to vent it,” Little says. “He drank himself to death.” If Little’s career has been an extended effort to uphold the tenets and viewpoints of earlier abstract artists, it has also been an embrace of their fatherly leadership.
From high school, Little graduated to the Memphis Academy of Art (now the Memphis College of Art). He studied fine art, but he says he absorbed as much from those around him who were being trained in advertising design, architectural drafting, and textile design.
Little rejects the idea that he was influenced by the hard-edge abstractionists. “What I picked up on were the stripes in shirts or plaids, advertising signs, construction,” he says. He likes to walk around the city, soaking up the architecture and signage. A few years ago, he saw the word “Gypsy” on the side of a livery cab, inspiring a painting of the same name; its yellow contrasted with lavender, scarlet with cerulean, purple with green, and green and turquoise with an earth tone traveling across the canvas.
Color, Little says, is his imagery, just as a cup or bowl would be for a still-life painter or trees and mountains for a landscape artist. “It’s subject matter for me—the statement is in the interactions of certain colors, their placement, the temperature of color.”
When he landed in New York, in 1976, Little was taken under the wing of the older artist Al Loving, who drew him into the circle of such black abstract artists as William T. Williams, Jack Whitten, Mel Edwards, Fred Eversley, and Bill Hutson. Little also fell in with a group of SoHo artists, white for the most part and also a generation ahead of him, including Thornton Willis, Peter Pinchbeck, Stewart Hitch, Richard Mock, and Tom Evans.
Ethnicity and its attendant social issues have never been central to his art, nor is it important to him to conform to political and esthetic expectations of black artists. “I just don’t think that art has to do with that,” he says. “I’m more interested in the deft touch of Vermeer.”
Nonetheless, he adds, “your history is your history.” The titles of many of his paintings—Separate but Equal, The First Black, The Problem with Assumptions, The Difference Between Then and Now, Satchmo’s Answer to Truman, When Aaron Tied Ruth—while they may make sly references to the formalism of his paintings, also explicitly or implicitly draw on black history and refer to personal heroes such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose likenesses and sayings adorn a section of Little’s studio.
It was the assassinations of Malcolm X and King, Little says, that determined him, anguished though he was, not to separate himself from American society but “to take on American art and show ownership of it, to be among the best artists of a generation.” Married to the writer Fatima Shaik, who comes from of a prominent New Orleans family of mixed East Indian and African American descent, he says he has absorbed much of the history of her ancestry as well.
“I want an American image,” he says. “I am an American, and that hasn’t been easy for me to say. I grew up with a lot of oppression. But I’m an optimist. American art is what the best art should be—monumental, in that it’s larger than life and arising from or exhibiting boldness, spirit, or daring. And pure, which is a paradoxical word coming from me, with my background being black, Irish, and Native American.”
But he is using “pure” at least partially in a spiritual
sense. In his philosophy, there are echoes of the black church in which he was raised, but also, he says, of the mystical metaphysics of Kandinsky, his precursor in abstraction.
Little says his own studio is just “an emergency room where all the issues we have so urgently in front of us come to get fixed. Then they can go on their way.”
Celia McGee is an arts reporter in New York.