James Little’s Black Paintings are a ‘Volley of Minimalist Ideals’ Exposing the Drama, Richness, and Contrasting Values

Victoria L. Valentine, Culture Type, October 22, 2020

WORKS BY TWO SINGULAR ARTISTS have been brought together for a tightly curated gallery exhibition titled “Louise Nevelson + James Little.” It’s an all black show.


The practice of James Little is devoted to painting. He is known for his abstract works, geometric explorations driven by form and exuberant color. In his latest series, The Black Paintings, he maintains his focus on structure and design and shifts his palette, demonstrating the possibilities of black paint—its depth, various tones and complexity.


Five monumental paintings by Little are on view with three sculptural works by Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), who is closely identified with her monochromatic, painted-wood wall reliefs. Her most iconic one-color works are black. Two wall works by Nevelson are installed in the gallery and a standing sculpture is displayed at the center of the space. Produced between 2015 and 2020, Little’s large-scale paintings are composed of four panels—36-inch square quadrants that form the 72 x 72-inch paintings.


In the exhibition catalog published to accompany the show, Gabriel Diego Delgado wrote about the work of both artists:


“Nevelson described black as the ‘total color’ that ‘means totality’—it contained all color,” he said. “It wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance, submitting to the notion that black encompasses all colors. For her, black was the most aristocratic color of all.” - Gabriel Diego Delgado


About Little, Delgado wrote that “he chose to move away from his more recognizable color palettes and dive into the divine notions of absolutes.” He called Little’s black paintings “a volley of minimalist ideals” and “a catalyst for a quasi-religious experience put forth through non-color mannerisms.” Gabriel Diego Delgado


James Little “chose to move away from his more recognizable color palettes and dive into the divine notions of absolutes.” His black paintings are “a volley of minimalist ideals” — Gabriel Diego Delgado

The artist’s paintings are composed of flat planes of herringbone-style patterns. He mixes his own paints. Working with pure pigments and heated beeswax and a rigorous process of application and removal, he exposed the drama, richness, and contrasting values of black.


Little has said, “What’s important when you use color is what you put next to it. It has to have a purpose and it has to be integrated.” The principle holds with his black paintings.


Throughout his career, Little has said his work is absent of narrative. The Black Paintings, for example, are not about race. His work is designed to provide an aesthetic experience. At the same time, the paintings are not devoid of content and history—art history, American history, his own personal history.


In 1985, Little made a series of “X” paintings titled “El-Shabazz.” In an oral history interview published in BOMB magazine in 2017, the artist mentioned the paintings. He said, “I’ve always dealt with politics and sociology in that kind of way. But it’s never been something that was the subject matter of my work.”


More recent works have carried titles such as “Refugee” (2016), “Immigrant” (2016), “Now Is The Right Time To Do the Right Thing” (2013), and “Democratic Experiment” (2017).


Born in the segregated south, in Memphis, Tenn., Little earned an MFA from Syracuse University (1976). He lives and works in New York City. The titles he gives his paintings reveal what he brings to the studio, his background and perspective. The gallery asked Little about the titles he gave his black paintings.


“Raw Power” was inspired by a quote referencing “power that you haven’t used that you don’t even know that you have.” Little explained: “Even in the worst situations you still have some power, whether it’s prayer, hope, or resistance.”


“I’ve always dealt with politics and sociology in that kind of way. But it’s never been something that was the subject matter of my work.”
— James Little


The title “Cubist Rendezvous” is a nod to the contribution of the Cubists. “I like the way they went about doing what they did. I’m always trying to flatten the plane. Twentieth century Cubism laid down the roadmap. You have to figure out a way to flatten the picture plane and keep the art relevant,” Little said.


Immortalizing legendary creatives he admires, including Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Eartha Kitt, the title “Black Star” acknowledges what it takes to became a Black star—whether musician, singer, actor, or painter.


In the BOMB interview, which was conducted by LeRonn P. Brooks, Little also discussed the relationship between his experiences and political outlook and his mastery of painting and what he puts on the canvas.


“[T]he only thing I really know how to do is make paintings. I want to give you a show, an experience you’ve never had. To show you ways of painting that you hadn’t thought about before,” he said.


“[B]elieve me, I am politically conscious and pissed off about a lot of this stuff that’s going on as much as anybody. If I wasn’t painting I don’t know what the hell I’d do, because I act out my violence in my art. And a lot of other sensibilities. But I can’t allow situations like that to get in the way of my aesthetic intent.”


Little continued: “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, I’d be preoccupied with that kind of subject matter in my work. What would I do then, paint a perfect world? I mean that’s not what drives me.” CT

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