In Conversation

James Little with Benjamin La Rocco

In the midst of his preparation of the new one-person exhibit De-Classified: New Paintings at June Kelly Gallery, which will be on view from May 7 til June 9, 2009, the painter James Little took time to visit Rail Headquarters to talk to Managing Art Editor Benjamin La Rocco about his life and work.

Ben La Rocco (Rail): Let’s start with your background. You were born in Memphis.

James Little: Yes, I was born in Memphis, in 1952. I grew up in a working class family. Mother was a cook, father did construction and various other jobs. I wasn’t aware of it, of course, but it was segregated. Most of my people had migrated from Mississippi. My mother’s family was from that part of the country, and a lot of them were sharecroppers and she just got married and got out of there. My father’s side of the family was Native American, Irish, Black. So, that’s pretty much my ethnic makeup.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: Were there any particular influences that you remember back then that you think might have contributed to your early interest in the arts?

Little: Well, I have an older brother who was the first person I ever saw draw, or make a picture, because he started school before I did and he was introduced to art before I was. He inspired me. But the thing that made a lasting impression on me was my father and my grandfather taking me to a construction site that they were working on. They were pouring cement—it should be done manually. You’ve got a guy to mix it, and you put it in a wheelbarrow, and you walk it down and pour it. And there were some other guys, masons, that would spread it out. So that had a strange influence on my sensibility toward surface, even to this day. I just like the idea of taking this medium, this material and transforming it—making it do something other than what it appeared to want to do. And that sort of stayed with me. They asked me to take the wheelbarrow. They loaded it up and said “take this, and roll it down, and dump it like your father did.” I picked it up on the wheel, and tried to do it, and it flipped over. So then I learned if you lift it up, you have to move. You can’t just lift it.

Rail: [Laughs.] You have to stay on the move.

Little: No, you can’t stay put, you have to lift it up, and you have to move it.

Rail: So, in 74, you went and got your BFA at the Memphis Academy of Art, right?

Little: Yeah.

Rail: And in 76, you went on to Syracuse University.

Little: Yeah, I went to Syracuse University on a fellowship, and earned an MFA there. While I was there I met Clement Greenberg and a number of other people, Hilton Kramer, Sol Lewitt, you name it. It was a pretty high-powered place. There were some serious things going on there, especially in the visual arts, and in painting in particular. It was like a beacon for abstract painting. The visiting artist program was fascinating. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I got up there.

Rail: Yeah, we talked a little bit about the presence of Greenberg there earlier. I want to come back to that, later. But first I’d like to talk about your paintings a little bit.

One of the things that’s always struck me about them is the type of surface you achieve. It’s always seemed both meticulous and free to me. I know that you’re using encaustic. So I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process that gets you that surface.

Little: First of all, I’ve always had this interest in the properties of materials—how they work, and how things become what they are, like the cement. But my surface sensibility is something that evolved over a long time, and I made some sort of conscious, rational decisions about surface. People tend to think that surface always has to deal with texture. And it doesn’t. Surface can be smooth, it can be tactile, it can be rugged, it can be any number of things. I would mix oil and water. I would take paint and put it in a blender. I used knives, I’ve used spritzers, you name it. A lot of it came through experimentation. But I’ve always tried to grasp the essence of the material as it manifests itself. I’ve always tried to respect the integrity of the material. I go in 50-50. I see myself as an instrument. I’m here, the medium’s there, and the success of the painting is based on the marriage between the two of us. I’m never at a point where I’m in charge of anything. I’m always out there seeking something. It’s a delicate material, encaustic. It has its own properties, and all those different colors have their own properties, you’ve got cobalt, you’ve got cadmium, you’ve got umbers, each its own thing. Some of it is heavy, some of it is light. You’ve got titanium. When you mix that up it breaks down in certain ways. Its alchemy. And also you have to be careful with toxicity. I use coffee cans, and heat up the coffee cans. Stand oil and varnish and stir. I don’t take my eyes off it. I take chopsticks to stir it.

Rail: How many layers of paint on a canvas? Forty?

Little: Aw man, I use a bunch of layers. Not forty, but it’s a bunch of them.

Rail: Why chopsticks?

Little: I get them for free. When it’s melting, I stir it. I go to Planet Thailand and you get to keep them. It’s very convenient. I can see the color, I can match color with those sticks. So from start to finish, it must be about fifteen to twenty layers. So it’s like that for three months, three and a half months I’m working like that on just one big painting. Can’t work on two. It’s too much. It’s labor. Real labor. When it comes to painting, its as difficult, as taxing as anything. It’s like unbelievable. So when people say there’s something very unique about my surfaces and that kind of thing, yes there is. [Laughs.]

Rail: So it’s not systematic.

Little: No, it’s not systematic. It’s not formulaic. It really isn’t. A lot of what I do to make these paintings work is hard to quantify. You just know it. I can tell if the mixture is too thick or too thin as soon as I put the stick into it. Now that’s taken years, to learn that. Because before I was putting the paint on no matter what. If it’s too thin it causes cracking. If it’s too thick the paint curls. So to get the surface I’m after, it has to be just right, the right thickness and the right temperature. When its heated that paint is anywhere between 155 and 165 degrees, that’s pretty hot.

Rail: You must have lost a lot of painting while you were figuring this out.

Little: I once spilled a can of paint on my feet. I had on these comfortable shoes. Got wax underneath. Had my gloves on and my respirator on. Put the wax down, unplugged the hotplate, took the gloves off, and tried to get the shoe off while the encaustic is drying. By the time I got it off I had this huge blister on my instep. [Laughter.] So now what I do, I don’t concentrate on anything else. I’ve got four fire extinguishers in the studio because it’s very flammable stuff. It can take the skin right off you, but when you apply it, it sticks. Dry to the touch. You know, wax, wham—its there.

Rail: That’s cool.

Little: I like the painting to have a presence.

Rail: We’ve talked about the category of “hard edge” painting, and I know you shy away from using that in reference to your paintings. You do use tape and you work with diagonals sometimes, verticals, and no horizontals. Could you talk a little bit about the edges of forms in your paintings and how you think of achieving those edges and why you don’t like hard edge specifically as a term.

Little: Well, because when you say hard edge, there’s an objective there. I don’t say hard edge because I’m interested in geometry. And actually the edges aren’t hard, they’re just clean and they’re inviting. Hard edge was a style, a genre at one point, back in the 60s and 70s, when artists sought these hard, acrylic, pristine edges. The emphasis was placed there. In my work, that’s not the emphasis.

James Little, “Einstein” (2007). Acrylic on canvas, 78 × 96 inches. Photo: Bill Orcutt

Rail: Well, they’re oil paintings for one thing, right? The medium is different.

Little: That’s right, so it probably has something to do with the type of continuity, or rhythm that I’m trying to grasp in my paintings. And that’s just one of the ways I get there, if I could get there with a loose brush or a ballpoint pen I would do it that way, but hard edges—that just really doesn’t mean much to me.

Rail: I want to get back to this formative quality that Greenberg had on students at Syracuse, and also what his formalist doctrine might’ve meant to you. At certain times, you have associated yourself with formalism in painting.

Little: Yes.

Rail: But you seem to use the word with qualifications. Formalism is often considered to strictly stress the compositional and tactile elements of a paintings above any other type of content and, as Greenberg put it, formalism tends to privilege contemporary forms of abstraction over representation in painting. So I was just curious about how formalism contributed to your thinking as you developed your mature style, and secondly how your thinking about formalism has changed over time.

Little: Well, I’m gonna quote something that Greenberg said and that I totally agree with. He said, “major art is impossible, or almost so, without a thorough assimilation of the major art of the preceding period or periods.” So, formalism, to me, is associated with structure and a type of discipline, and an understanding of the art of previous periods, the success of that art being based on some sort of order, tried and true. I’ve always looked at it that way.

Rail: Would you talk about it as a sort of historical awareness?

Little: It’s almost like a grid. The old masters used to teach it this way. Things had to correspond to one another within this gridded structure. That’s strict formalism, to me. I think that the formalism that I’m talking about has more to do with the rehabilitation of the medium, and identifying what makes great painting great.

Rail: The issue then becomes distinguishing greatness. And of course, Greenberg did have his notions about what constituted great art and what did not. What do you make of his influence on your peers in that regard?

Little: Well, he had a lot of influence on them, but he also had a lot of influence on me. I think that the failure of it and the reason he raises so much interest and discord was his personality. The thing about Greenberg that I liked was his writing. As a painter, it just made all the sense in the world. And I don’t think it’s something that you arrive at quickly. Everybody seems to be on the same train today, so its almost the most refreshing thing to me, to see a good painting or a good painting exhibition because I know the kind of time and energy that’s been invested in that. Sometimes it reaches back beyond the artist, in years. But there’s an understanding that makes this attainable. And you can get that from Greenberg, or you can get it from somebody else. He just happened to be the guy who struck a chord with me.

James Little, “Satchmo’s Answer to Truman” (2008). Oil, wax, canvas, 76 × 98 inches. Photo: Bill Orcutt

Rail: Greenberg made a sort of equation between his Marxist and socialist beliefs about the ultimate social objectives, and his formalist doctrine and aesthetics, so that what resulted from that is the belief that in art, as in life, you might progress toward some greater good. That’s always seemed to be problematic in that it could tempt a critic to prescribe what’s good. Who’s to judge, ultimately?

Little: Well, I’m not too bound up with this idea of progress. I think that there’s too much out there to narrow it down, to some sort of a generalization. Although I do understand that, if you look back at his background, coming from the Lower East Side, being of Jewish origin, working class, intellectual, feeding his intellect, you can understand him. And he grew up in the McCarthy era when the political landscape was completely different. The things that he said, that have helped shape me were in regard to abstract painting and he takes shots at practically every school of thought since Abstract Expressionism—he didn’t even like all the Abstract Expressionists, for that matter. [Laughter.] Didn’t care very much for minimalism.

Rail: There’s something there, though. You can’t deny that minimalism influenced you.

Little: I’m not a minimalist. But if what I like happens to be minimalist I’ll use it.

Rail: It’s hard to be a painter-minimalist anyway.

Little: It’s too much labor. But I understand what you’re saying. It’s a good point. There’s a fork in the road, you gotta go left or you gotta go right. Or you figure out a way to go under or something. I’ve never given up on the history of painting, never. And I know if anything is going to come out of what I do, it has to be connected to the past. You can call it avant-garde, you can call it new art, postmodernism, you can call it whatever you want to. It still has to be connected to the past. And that’s just the way that I see it.

Moving away from Greenberg, Einstein said that “Imagination is more important that knowledge.” That makes an enormous amount of sense to me.

Rail: Which kind of runs contrary to some of what Greenberg is saying.

Little: Absolutely, but I totally agree with that, you know?

Rail: It’s a paradoxical state, painting, sometimes.

Little: That’s the kind of work that we do, you know? That’s the problem with the whole thing: how do you navigate this?

Rail: It exists sometimes between this idea of what the thing is and the actual thing.

Little: But the thought process keeps going.

Rail: Yeah, doesn’t it. [Laughs.]

Little: And it doesn’t get easier, it becomes more complex. So in order to put something together, to get a true synthesis, is really what is important here: It’s not about one thing and its not about another, its about a multiplicity of things.

Rail: A multiplicity. You’ve said that you borrow from all over to arrive at your forms and color—certain Native American art, West African art, Mexican art, and you’ve even talked about commercial color relationships as influences. So I’m interested in how you think about taking in all these influences and synthesizing them in your paintings.

Little: Well, we’re in the business of visual phenomena and when I see it and I record it, I know I’ve had a response. There’s not what I would call an aesthetic experience, but it’s something close to that. There’s an enlightenment. When there’s something that is striking, if I can, I’ll make some sort of move on it.

Rail: As an African American growing up in the segregated south, it must have been difficult to avoid issues of race in your painting. Some of your titles are very suggestive in that regard.

Little: Yeah, well, I lived it. It’s a juicy subject. Always has been. But now there’s this small type culture, people are being featured as major artists because they’re making statements about their social conditions or political conditions or gender and that kind of thing. I think they are separate entities. Gender is not art. Race is not art. Politics are politics. To take those things and put them under the caption of art, or to try to displace art with politics, is a mistake. And the fact that some of my paintings have titles that refer to different racial issues or ethnic issues—I have a painting called “The First Black.” There’s not a speck of black in the painting, but the reason I called it “The First Black” was because it seemed endless that anytime there was a black person to accomplish something, in any area of our society—school teacher, track star, baseball player, computer analyst, scuba diver, first black person to ever be a scuba diver, the first black person to ever work at Macy’s—you would hear about it. There’s all these “The First Blacks.” But that title, that was my way of getting beyond it. Not that we all got beyond it, but it was my way of getting beyond it. Painters have always made some sort of social comment. There’s a whole history of black artists’ social awareness. When it comes to their work, sometimes to their detriment. I am who I am. I’m black now. I’m gonna be black tomorrow. I mean it’s not something that’s unique to me. This is my genetic makeup. It’s not something that I’m going to spend the rest of my life sitting here and dealing with. It’s somebody else’s problem. The most that I can do in terms of race, gender, and politics, is to be the most successful painter I can be, break new ground, and that’s a political milestone in and of itself. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Take painting and try to do something heroic and successful and ambitious.

Rail: You mentioned a painter earlier, Al Loving?

Little: Al Loving is a good friend of mine. One of my best friends.

Rail: I wonder if there’s any distinction to be made in artists like Al Loving or Stanley Whitney or yourself, if there’s anything in your work that you think is distinctly African American, or if you associate your work with any other abstract painters’ work in particular.

Little: I can say of Al Loving that there are African American or African-esque qualities in his work. To me, they’re manifested in his Stained Canvas pieces. He has mentioned that quilt making influenced the work. His grandmother’s quilts, that kind of thing. But that can affect you, or me, or anybody else the same way. So you can’t really say that that’s any more African. We are who we are. We are different because of who we are. And those subtle differences are really what make us unique. And the product that I produce is always going to be different than the product that you produce. Sociology has a role in it, and the social condition has a role in it, but to get beyond that issue is the thing. If I had wanted to deal with race from the time I was a kid, and I stayed there, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of the things I’ve achieved.

Rail: When you were at Syracuse in 76 there was a big show of Al Held at the Whitney Museum.

Little: The black and white?

Rail: Yeah! What did you think of that?

Little: Well, when I first saw his work, I was impressed with that, more so than I am with what he did later in life. I liked them because they were to a large extent reductive, simple shapes, geometric shapes, primary shapes, along with black and white. I liked the surfaces in the paintings and I thought there was something intellectually stimulating about the paintings. I was impressed when I saw them. I was impressed when I first saw John Seery’s work back then. John Seery was pouring and dripping paint, huge paintings. He sort of fell off the radar. Jack Bush—these kinda painters were on the scene then.

James Little, "The Marriage of Western Civilization and the Jungle." Acrylic on canvas, 78 × 96 inches. Photo: Bill Orcutt.

Rail: John Hoyland is another painter who belongs to that generation. How about people like David Novros? Were you aware of his work?

Little: Novros was pretty good early on. I actually liked Novros more than I did Marden back in the day. He was more interesting to me. He was studying frescoed walls in Italy. Pretty good color. Good sense for design. He was pretty smart. I don’t know why he just stopped. I don’t know him well. I know his wife, Joanna’s work, but don’t know her that well. I like his work. I saw some of Novros’s paintings at the the Menil in Houston. They hold up. That’s what I mean by quality.

Rail: Well that’s a good lead into your recent work. I feel that there is a compression of space in your most recent work, compared to work from say four or five years ago. You’ve worked with the vertical for a long time, the diagonal, could we say since the millennium? You use these axes as divisions, setting color off against itself.

Little: Well, the horizontal suggests landscape, horizon line. I’m not interested in that. The vertical is there because I’m very interested in the up and down, and the flatness of the plane. I really am trying to keep the plane as flat as I can, and the emphasis has shifted more toward color and design than in the previous paintings. Only God knows where I’m gonna go with it. I think that the paintings are more ceremonial in certain ways. You can almost call them compartmentalized.

Rail: Could you elaborate on their ceremonial aspect?

Little: I think the kind of ambience, the energy, the aggression, and the feeling, the optimism in the paintings brings on an air of ceremony.

Rail: These are all sensations, feelings that you associate with the act of painting, generally.

Little: Exactly.

Rail: You do grind your own paint.

Little: I buy the paint in powder form. I also buy some tube paint. But I prime with an oil ground, which I make with copal varnish crystals. It’s a hard varnish and I melt the crystals to make the varnish. I use this varnish along with oil and turpentine, in a blender. So it’s oil based. The varnish, the copal, gives the primer a hard finish, and it dries fast. I use a roller, I roll it on. On cotton duck. When it dries, I just lay out my composition, and I use a thin tinted varnish glaze to highlight my edges. So when I paint the painting there is no negative space between the colors.

Rail: All this generates this really intense optical quality in your work. What are your thoughts about that specifically? There’s a whole tradition of optical art which you don’t seem to associate yourself with, and I don’t think your paintings are really in that category. But nonetheless, they have this optical quality. Is it just something that comes up naturally?

Little: I struggle to keep it at bay. As a matter of fact I don’t really like op art. Because I can’t look at it. I don’t like having something control me that way. But I use colors as imagery, the way figurative artists use imagery, that’s the way I use color. My whole thing is about synthesis. If I put something in a painting it has to have a role, it has to work, its got to do something, otherwise it’s going to come out, or I’m gonna highlight it or I’m gonna tone it down. So the painting, if it jars a little bit or it moves a little bit, sometimes I want that. Most of the stuff that I do when it comes to materials and methods and techniques is 3,000 years old, but the way that I’ve transformed some of those procedures over the years, I’ve learned a lot. Wax is a very fragile substance. I figured out ways of using it to make it stronger.

Rail: It must be really hard keeping those paintings protected.

Little: It is. If you just protect these paintings, they’ll look like they do now, forever. Because the color is frozen in the wax.

Rail: You seem quite positive about the future of art here and I just wonder what you see coming out of this financial mess we’re in now as potentially positive.

Little: I think in a way there’s a silver lining to it because I think the art world needs a correction, and its just been like a runaway freight train lately. Anything goes. It’s like publishing a book that didn’t get edited. It doesn’t happen that way. It never did. It takes time to get there. It really does. The best art is still in the shadows.

Rail: Do you see yourself as part of a painting underground?

Little: I do think there’s an underground. I think there’s a handful of painters that are busting through this thing. I think that there are some good things being done. I think its more important to make painting by consensus among artists rather than by committee. It’s more important to me that a person like you, or a painter like Thornton Willis, or my friend Al—people who are knowledgeable about art, who do this stuff day to day—it’s more important to me that they understand what I’m doing and have an appreciation for what I’m doing than say, a room full of four or five people trading names with each other.

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Benjamin La Rocco