“I hate this term, purity, but when it comes to painting, that’s what I try to do. I make paintings unadorned, that reflect the relationship I have with the medium and good design.” 

James Little is an American abstract artist whose distinctive aesthetic language is rooted in geometric shapes and patterns, flat surfaces, and emotive color relationships. Little utilizes a method similar to the encaustic painting technique used by ancient Egyptian and Greek artists, blending handmade pigments with hot beeswax.


While developing his unique position within contemporary abstraction, Little has devoted decades to rigorous academic study of color theory, pictorial design, and painting techniques. His practice embodies the complementary forces of simplicity and complexity.


“I’m not cutting edge,” he says. “I’m just trying to stand up next to the great paintings of the past. It’s like building a building. The things that are going to make it stand are the same as they’ve always been. You have to have a solid foundation. I approach painting the same way.”


Speaking about Kenneth Noland, one painter who influenced him early on, Little says, “I just liked the way he went about it. It had immediacy to it, it was fresh, it had to do with color and design and feeling. There was nothing else. He was just another country guy who was making some great paintings.”


About social messages in his art, Little says, “I am politically conscious and pissed off about a lot of this stuff that’s going on as much as anybody. But I can’t allow situations like that to get in the way of my aesthetic intent. If the situation changed overnight, and we had a utopia, where there was no more racism, there were no more police killings, and everybody got along…what would I do then, paint a perfect world? I mean that’s not what drives me.”


Rather than directly addressing the social and political turmoils of the moment, Little chose abstraction because it was a field in which he could express his free will. What drives his continued experiments is a single, burning question that he has never stopped trying to answer for himself: What makes a great painting great?


If he can find the answer, he says he might be able to “advance abstract painting in America.” The quiet confidence of Little’s aspiration is matched by the steady, undeniable life force of his paintings.


Little holds a BFA from the Memphis Academy of Art and an MFA from Syracuse University. He is the 2009 recipient of the Joan Mitchel Foundation Award for Painting. His work has been exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions around the world, including at MoMA P.S.1; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; Studio Museum in Harlem; St. Louis Art Museum; and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC. Currently, his work is on view in The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. His paintings are represented in the collections of numerous public and private collections, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; DeMenil Collection in Houston; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Maatschappij Arti Et Amicitiae, Amsterdam, Holland; Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse; New Jersey State Museum, Trenton; Tennessee State Museum, Nashville; Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock; and Newark Museum, Newark.

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