James Little: Whitney Biennial Selected Artist


Selected Artist for the 2022 Whitney Biennial

Quiet as It's Kept, April 6 – September 5, 2022



James Little is a master in the field of contemporary American abstract painting. In an age that frequently trades durability and patience for ephemerality and instant gratification, Little might be seen as an outlier. A careful, precise, disciplined perfectionist who emphasizes personal improvement over outside recognition, Little offers an alternative definition of influencer to a culture obsessed with quick returns and fame for fame's sake.


Little’s distinctive visual position is based on a rigorous, life long academic study of color theory, pictorial design, and painting techniques. Rooted in simplicity, his work centers geometric shapes, patterns and emotive color relationships.


"I make paintings unadorned, that reflect the relationship I have with the medium and good design,” 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. I’m just trying to stand up next to the great paintings of the past.”


The restraint of his pictures belies the startling complexity of their making—Little makes his own binders and grinds his own pigments, and paints a majority of his works using what is the most complex and difficult-to-master method ever devised: blending handmade pigments with hot beeswax, similar to the encaustic painting technique developed by ancient Egyptian and Greek artists. Properly cared for, his wax paintings will look as vibrant and luminous a thousand years from now as they do today.


As early as his 20s Little was regarded by curators and his fellow artists as a rare talent. In 1980, curator April Kingsley included Little in the group show Afro-American Abstraction at MoMA P.S.1, along with a such luminaries as Mel Edwards, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, Al Loving, Martin Puryear, Jack Whitten, and William T. Williams. Throughout the decades, Little’s works have continued to be showcased in exhibitions across the United States alongside the brightest minds in contemporary abstraction. His paintings have been universally acclaimed as a highlight of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, and in the exhibition The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Little’s paintings hang amongst the works of giants like Kara Walker, Thornton Dial, and William Edmondson.


In 2009, Little received the high honor of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in painting, placing him in the distinguished company of many of his heroes. As an instructor and lecturer at The Art Students League of New York, he has continued fostering the future of abstraction.


As for social messages in his art, rather than directly addressing the political turmoils of the moment, Little chose abstraction because it was a field in which he could express his free will.


“Coming from my background, which was a very segregated upbringing in Tennessee, I felt that abstraction reflected the best expression of self-determination and free will,” Little told the New York Times.


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.”


Little holds a BFA from the Memphis Academy of Art and an MFA from Syracuse University. He is a 2009 recipient of the Joan Mitchel Foundation Award for Painting. In addition to being featured prominently in the 2022 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, NY, his work has been exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions around the world, including at MoMA P.S.1, New York, NY; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC. His work has been included in The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver and traveling to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, with forthcoming catalogue. Upcoming solo exhibitions include Homecoming: Bittersweet, at Dixon Gallery & Gardens: Art Museum, Memphis, TN, with an accompanying catalogue, and at Kavi Gupta, Chicago, IL, in 2022. 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.

Art Fairs