James Little: A Sharp, Understated Whitney Biennial Looks to the Past to Process the Grief of the Present

Alex Greenberger , ARTNews, March 30, 2022

"...striped abstractions by James Little, done in shades of barely distinguishable shades of black, draw on the perception-bending Op art of Bridget Riley with a sly tweak to her formula."

In the Abstract


The market-supported craze for figurative painting isn’t going anywhere, but you wouldn’t know it based on this biennial, where abstraction is the dominant mode.

Some artists are keen to put their own twists on age-old art-historical tropes.


Dyani White Hawk’s painting Wopila | Lineage (2021), featuring two rows of triangles whose tips touch, may resemble the abstractions of 20th-century giants like Hilma af Klint and Barnett Newman. But its medium—glass beads, a traditional material in White Hawk’s Sičangu Lakota community—differs this painting greatly from anything af Klint and Newman ever produced. Awilda Sterling-Duprey’s abstractions, with their swirls of impasto paint against dark backgrounds, recall Georges Mathieu’s paintings made in postwar France.


Sterling-Duprey’s works are the product of a performance that occurred during the installation of the Biennial in which the artist blindfolded herself and performed movements drawing on Afro-Cuban traditions to apply the paint. A smattering of striped abstractions by James Little, done in shades of barely distinguishable shades of black, draw on the perception-bending Op art of Bridget Riley with a sly tweak to her formula.


The tendency toward abstraction even winds its way here into photography and film, two mediums which produce figurative imagery by default. Lucy Raven’s masterful film Demolition of a Wall (Album 1), 2022, predominantly features static shots of deserts in the American Southwest that feel reminiscent of Edward Weston’s photography. These are interrupted by slices of pure color that are punctuated by a loud boom caused by explosions that go unseen.


White Hawk, Sterling-Duprey, Little, and Raven’s works excite because they recall art from the past that we know all too well and then subvert it before our very eyes. In their hands, art history is not a given but something to be redefined.


Take Little’s words for it. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he told the biennial’s curators for an interview quoted in labels for his paintings. “I’m just trying to improve on it.”


The emphasis on abstraction also suggests a state of life in which figuration is not enough to picture the chaos we all experience. And with communication breaking down as Covid continues to wreak havoc, it’s no surprise that even language is broken out of its typically orderly form and rendered anew.


Whether it’s the wall of text that greets viewers in Jonathan Berger’s installation or the concrete poetry of the deceased writer N. H. Pritchard, words in this show verge on abstraction itself. Bureaucracy is short-circuited in the process.


Rayyane Tabet, a Lebanese-born artist currently seeking citizenship in the U.S., has arranged appropriated bits of text from government-facilitated tests around the Whitney. On any given day, you may find curators meeting in a conference room beneath text that reads “WHAT DID THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE DO?” For a piercing work called Death by 7,865 Paper Cuts (2019), Emily Barker photocopied medical bills accrued during her recovery following a spinal cord injury. They’re stacked in a small tower, where the words pile up and form a text that, if read sequentially, would likely take days to finish.

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