Color and Design Matter. So Does Optimism.

Color and Design Matter. So Does Optimism.


“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,” said the artist James Little, 67. “I have this affinity for color, design, structure and optimism.”

Those qualities apply to both the paintings he collects and his own works, which are characterized by hard-edged geometry and shifting colors, with compositions strongly informed by jazz.

The Garment District apartment where Mr. Little lives with his wife, Fatima Shaik, a writer, is hung with dynamic abstractions by artists including Toshio Iwasa, Stanley Whitney, Thornton Willis and Stewart Hitch.

A woven handmade paper piece by Al Loving was a trade between friends who met when Mr. Little arrived in the city in 1976 with a new M.F.A. from Syracuse University. “Al knew everybody in the art world,” he said. Their work was exhibited in a 1977 group show at Just Above Midtown alongside that of other African-American abstract artists.

Through gifts and trades with Harold Hart, a mentor who was once director of the Martha Jackson Gallery, Mr. Little also acquired several vivid abstract paintings by Alma Thomas. Mr. Little said he regrets that Ms. Thomas, who died in 1978, fell ill before his planned trip to Washington to meet her.

Mr. Little recently completed his largest work to date, a commission for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Commuters at Jamaica Station will pass through his 85-foot-long environment made of multicolored glass panels in a prismatic design. And in November, his two-toned black paintings will be paired with sculptures by Louise Nevelson at Rosenbaum Contemporary in Boca Raton, Fla.

“I don’t really follow trends,” said Mr. Little, as can be seen in the couple’s collection of more than 100 works — ranging from a Salvador Dalí print to “Money Lures,” an object made of shredded money by Richard Mock — displayed in the city and at their homes upstate and in New Orleans.

“I’m a painting fanatic,” he added.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How have you typically acquired things?

The majority are through trades, gifts. I buy things, too, but I haven’t bought anything from a gallery. I got the Jake Berthot at an auction. I’ve got works by self-taught artists, like this guy Emitte Hych, that I bought at the Outsider Art Fair. I have three Stewart Hitches that I bought from him. He was really a renegade. He came to New York from Nebraska. He was fearless. He loved the Abstract Expressionists. He loved James Dean. He had gotten sick and was kind of down on his luck. I had a couple bucks.

Who did this piece over the couch?

This is a Toshio Iwasa. We were close friends. He didn’t have much family and had all this art. When he was about to go into assisted living, he called everybody up. It was a room full of Japanese and me. The lawyer asked him, “Who would you like to take care of your art?” Everybody was on pins and needles. And Toshio said, “James Little.” Some of it I gave to museums, some of it went to the State University of New York. I have all his drawings in my studio.

Have any of the works here inspired your own painting?

Oh yes. Artists are thieves, really. We steal from each other all the time. I think the Stewart Hitch, the Al Loving, the Alma Thomas and the Thornton Willis are the ones that I’ve engaged with the most. Like I told Thornton once, “I always struggle with the edge, how to bring things together and give it equilibrium. You’re one of the people that does it well.”

Do you have a favorite piece?

That one from 1957 by Alma Thomas. I know she struggled to make that painting work. She started out doing civil rights paintings. That’s a common thread I found in a lot of artists of my generation and before me. We all started out doing some sort of social commentary.

My mantra is that you have to develop a relationship with the medium. She does that with that painting. You can feel it in the brush and the hand. It’s not aggressive. She was working from nature, from her kitchen window and her flower garden. That’s where this stuff comes from. It hits the mark for me.



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