Abstraction represents self-determination and free will.” So avowed the painter James Little at a recent panel discussion held in conjunction with an exhibition of works by his fellow painter Joe Overstreet, but with the broader purpose of examining the question of “Black Artists and the Abstraction Idiom.” Little’s ringing declaration of aesthetic independence was couched in a language both explicitly political (self-determination being a right underwritten by the United Nations in its 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which held that “All peoples have the right to…freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”) as well as theological (though the problem of free will has earlier roots, it became urgent when Christian thinkers had to explain the origin of sin and damnation in a world created by a perfect and benevolent God). The implication of Little’s statement is that abstract art, by eschewing the forms of representation through which political and religious narratives are conveyed, enacts and exemplifies a kind of self-emancipation.

That’s a hefty burden to place on abstract painting, but it gives a distinctly polemical edge to what an earlier wave of black modernists saw, according to the art historian Darby English, as “the opportunity to make a way forward on one’s own terms, to choose one’s own resources according to one’s tastes, and to work them to independently determined ends.” For African-American artists of Overstreet’s generation, even more than of Little’s—Overstreet was born in 1933, Little in 1952—the question of how to paint was urgently bound up with a triple burden of representation: Could art participate in the struggle for equality? If so, could anything but figurative, realist art contribute? And does such a paradigm restrict the artist’s freedom? Overstreet was among the artists who, confronting this question, staked out a skeptical position.

The recent exhibition at the Eric Fire-
stone Gallery in New York, “Joe Overstreet, Innovation of Flight: Paintings 1967–1972,” curated by Horace Brockington, focused on a particularly ebullient period in the artist’s career, leading up to and including a series of paintings he called the “Flight Patterns” (1970–72). Approaching his 40s at this point, Overstreet seems to have retained a young person’s reckless willingness to try anything, coupled with sufficient experience and skill to make it work. Born in tiny Conehatta, Mississippi, Overstreet grew up mainly in Oakland, California, and studied art in the Bay Area, where he gravitated toward the Beat scene. After briefly working in Los Angeles as an animator for Walt Disney, he moved east around 1958, settling on New York’s Lower East Side. In the mid-1960s, he became the art director of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School, founded in Harlem by Amiri Baraka. In 1974, Overstreet co-founded Kenkeleba House, an art center in Lower Manhattan.

Overstreet’s paintings from the early 1960s show him working in several figurative styles, from vehement expressionism (Birmingham Bombing, 1963) to brash political pop (The New Jemima, 1964, in which the no-longer-docile Mammy gleefully wields a machine gun). But by the end of the decade, as shown at Firestone, he had switched to an abstract mode. In the earliest works on view, we see Overstreet experimenting with highly eccentric elaborations on the traditional wall-mounted stretched canvas: North Star (1968) is made of a pair of canvases, both of them shaped with large triangular cuts and extensions and situated one above the other in such a way as to leave a large, roughly W-shaped area open between them. The serrated patterns formed by the painting’s geometric zones of acrylic color, possibly influenced by the jagged patterns of Navajo “eye dazzler” textiles, echo and counterpoint the angular vicissitudes of the canvases’ inner and outer borders.

The composition is divided into five main sections, each with a distinct color scheme. The lower central zone is largely a tawny ocher but also includes green and a sort of twilight orange; this would be the earth and its horizon. The upper zone consists of shades of yellow, along with some dark blue and black—as if the night sky had been cracked open by the brilliant light of the titular star. Two narrow verticals on either side contain patterns of intersecting triangles (darker on the left, where contrasting red and blue zones predominate; more softly hued on the right, with earthy tones that echo those of the lower central portion of the painting). These “wings,” which don’t pick up on the allusions, however abstracted, of the sky and earth at the center of the painting, serve to establish the standard of pure abstraction from which the painting as a whole deviates.

North Star shows that Overstreet had digested the work of a number of mostly New York–based painters who had employed shaped canvases earlier in the ’60s, including Frank Stella, David Novros, Neil Williams, and Kenneth Noland. But Overstreet’s idea of what could be done with a shaped canvas was rather different from theirs. Stella and the others shared a desire to make shape, color, and structure a seamless, interlocking whole in such a way that, as Michael Fried wrote in 1966, “depicted shape may be said to have become dependent upon literal shape.” Not only does Overstreet swerve away from such literalism, but he sets shape, color, and structure into counterpoint rather than unifying them; the paintings open up to the world rather than closing in on themselves. His work is allusive, atmospheric, and metaphorically charged in ways that Stella and his cohort would have avoided.

Made two years later, in 1970, Overstreet’s Mandala and HooDoo Mandala exemplify a different way of working with shape, as well as a different way of working with canvas. A number of artists at this time were pinning their canvases loosely to the wall rather than stretching them across rigid frames. They included, in New York, Alan Shields (whose “unstretched textilelike paintings conjured…pliant mandalas or sky maps,” as Roberta Smith once wrote) and, in Washington, DC, Sam Gilliam, whose stained canvases were draped, bunched, and tied, sometimes effacing all sense of the traditional picture plane. Overstreet, in his adaptations of the circular Hindu and Buddhist symbols, neither stretched his canvases across a wooden armature nor hung them loosely. Instead, he tied them to the wall, floor, and ceiling, using cords to hold the grommeted canvases just in front of the wall. Pulled taut at eight points, the overall shape of HooDoo Mandala recalls a square, but it has arcing edges that curve in a direction contrary to the circles-and-spokes-based composition, like a compass rose, that fills the canvas.

Both mandala paintings seem more abstract and self-contained than North Star, despite the flaunting of their literal tie to architecture. The way their polyrhythmic color sequences move in and out from the edges to the center and back again gives them a force of contraction and expansion that might well justify the assertion by Jeff Chang that HooDoo Mandala’s chromatic patterning contains “a whole worldview”—one that inspired Ishmael Reed, a friend of Overstreet’s, to compose the “Neo-Hoodoo Manifesto” that he published in the Los Angeles Free Press in 1970. In his book Who We Be: The Colorization of America, Chang writes that “Overstreet described the color fields” of HooDoo Mandala to Reed as “‘landing strips for loas,’ the saints of Haitian syncretism.” And Reed thereby “began to see the links between African religion—vodun, santéria, macumba, and candomblé, African American hoodoo—and the absorptive, protean creativity of Afrodiasporic music and art.”

Actually, Overstreet’s syncretism was even more encompassing, finding no contradiction between the symbolic forms of Haitian vodun and those of Hinduism and Buddhism or of modern Euro-American art, from the lyrical Orphism of Robert and Sonia Delaunay to the (arguably) more logical investigations of so many painters of Overstreet’s own time. It’s worth pointing out that this synthesis demands a rereading of all those traditions: Religion can be seen as a set of techniques, art as a system of belief.

Quite quickly, Overstreet made another shift: Still holding his canvases in place with rope, he took them away from the wall and into three dimensions—yet without denying their sense of being a painting (as opposed to, say, a polychrome sculpture). A kind of culmination to the sequence described in “Innovation of Flight” comes in his 1971 painting Purple Flight, installed across the corner of two walls at Firestone. The work plays with singleness and multiplicity in ways that are themselves multiple. A canvas has been stretched by ropes to define three distinct areas: two squarish pieces connected by a trapezium, each on a different plane. Unlike Gilliam’s unstretched canvases, Overstreet’s always have a distinct front and back (though in contrast to traditional wall-mounted paintings, the back is visible), even when the planes multiply or, as in some of his other works at Firestone, the front faces the floor or ceiling rather than the middle of the room.

In Purple Flight, however, the color isn’t organized into geometrically defined zones. Instead, the whole work is covered by a single iridescent field of mutating hue—mostly purple, as the title says, though my eye finds no purple paint in it; a densely layered, multicolored splatter of blues, greens, yellows, and reds, sprayed out in a sort of fine pointillistic shimmer, produces the overall sense of purpleness. The sheer sensuality of color here is surprisingly congruent with an analytical bent; indeed, Purple Flight seems as close as Overstreet ever gets to the kind of self-referential abstraction pursued by Stella or Noland. And yet, maybe not quite. Corrine Jennings, the curator and writer who is married to Overstreet, has said that the work “alludes to New Orleans hoodoo beliefs, traceable back to West Africa, in which the colour purple is linked with various attributes, including the power of spiritual protection.”

Reading that statement, I couldn’t help but think of how Romare Bearden turned from abstraction to a figurative art that resonated with the black folk culture of the American South. Perhaps Overstreet was able to make that same connection without giving up abstraction. But he was not unreservedly committed to abstract art: An untitled 1972 painting at Firestone includes (almost camouflaged by the optically active geometrical patterning of mainly blue and yellow) images of human legs, as if in motion—or dangling in the air. The period following the extraordinarily productive six years traced in “Innovation of Flight” would see a sort of retrenchment on Overstreet’s part. Although he kept painting, he rarely exhibited his work between 1972 and 1988—and when he reemerged, it was with figurative works on conventionally stretched canvas. His art has managed to maintain a lively tension between its abstract and representational impulses ever since.

A Southerner like Overstreet, James Little was born in Memphis and has been living in New York since 1976. His extensive exhibition history includes a one-man show at Kenkeleba House. He is, above all, a colorist, as well as something of a paint technician; he mixes his own oil-and-wax concoction and has stated, “If I hadn’t been a painter, I would have been a scientist. There’s alchemy in it too.”

Little’s compositions employ hard-edged patterns that essentially serve as vehicles for the presentation of color, and yet he finds inspiration for this mode of painting in the everyday world: “What I picked up on were the stripes in shirts or plaids, advertising signs, construction.” His recent show at the June Kelly Gallery in New York, “Slants and White Paintings,” included two very distinct bodies of work. The “slants” will be less of a surprise to those who have followed Little’s work until now, although the geometrical division of the paintings has become a bit more intricate than in the past: Each one is made of four to six slightly misaligned stacks of diagonal bands, rather than the vertical stripes, interlocking rays, or chevronlike arrangements he’s often used before. The British painter Bridget Riley employed a similar kind of patterning in many of her works in the 1990s, with the curious difference that, reading the canvas from left to right, Little’s diagonals point downward, as if toward the earth, while Riley’s were oriented upward, toward the sky (compare, for instance, her 1993 painting Nataraja, in the collection of the Tate Britain, with any of Little’s “slants”). A more significant difference would be the impersonal facture of Riley’s paintings, executed by assistants, and the sense of investment in the mark and in the physical presence of the paint evinced by Little’s work.

Each of the “slants” on view here employs some six to eight different hues in patterns that appear to have been intuitively worked out. Often, Little seems interested in exploring the impact of small differences in color. For instance, in Democratic Experiment (2017), most of the tones are from the blue-green portion of the spectrum, and the work’s effect comes in large part from the interaction between two slightly different shades of greenish yellow or yellowish green, which seem to be continually measuring themselves against each other while somehow trying to convince me that the reiterated turquoises might actually be different.

Three smaller “slants” have been painted using raw pigment rather than Little’s usual mixture of oil paint and wax. The physical sense of the mark on these isn’t as heavy, the color a bit clearer and brighter than in the larger works. And yet the smaller paintings feel just as weighty. The accent in Noticeable Similarities (2017) is on gray and black, despite the quantitative preponderance of moss green, a sort of cream yellow, pale pink, and a couple of different blues—the black, in particular, resounds like a drummer’s rim shots.

Little’s “white paintings” are a distinct change from the geometrical architecture of his other work. These small paintings (23 by 29 inches) aren’t exactly white: Their thick impasto has been stamped out with irregular rows of oval apertures, each slightly different, creating a sort of grille through which one sees seemingly random splotches of soft color. Despite its prevalence, the white is not so much a presence in itself as it is a veil that allows one to glimpse, without quite grasping, the shifting hues behind. It’s as if each of these works wore a mask with a couple hundred eyeholes, from behind which it could see you better than you could see it. If the geometry of Little’s other works comes from the design of manufactured products—clothing, signage, and so on—the cellular structure of the “white paintings” relates more to nature, to the singularity amid similarity of masses of living things. The effect is seductively hypnotic: I found that I could look at these pieces a long time, wondering exactly what it was that I was looking at through this opaque fog of white, without feeling let down at never knowing.

The zigzagging nature of Overstreet’s career suggests considerable self-questioning, perhaps even self-doubt—which, in his case, has been immensely productive. It also hints at an unwillingness to be defined, even by himself. His art seems tied to a sense of what the poet Fred Moten calls “fugitivity.” The “Flight Patterns” inescapably conjure experiences of nomadism by way of their allusions to tents, sails, and even the muslin surfaces of the Wright brothers’ jerry-rigged aircraft, so that “flight” in the sense of air travel is always linked to “flight” in the sense of fleeing, escaping, getting away.

Little, by contrast, has pursued a more narrowly focused project, digging into his chosen territory rather than being tempted, like Overstreet, by the impulse to keep lighting out for new ones. He became convinced (against the grain of the time) that an abstract, modernist formalism remains capable of helping the artist to continue to unfold the as-yet-untold implications not only of 20th-century abstract painting but of African-American vernacular art, from the renowned quilts of Gee’s Bend to the paintings, drawings, and sculptures of folk or outsider artists like Horace Pippin, Bill Traylor, and William Edmondson. “I’m representing black folks,” Little insists, not by painting pictures of them, but by embodying an ethic of accomplishment that is not constrained by external expectations or limitations.

That Little remains what he calls a “sleeper”—that is, an artist who flies under the radar of wider acclaim—suggests that today, just as in the 1960s and ’70s, the public has a hard time coming to terms with black artists who don’t put race at the forefront of their subject matter. The longer arc of Overstreet’s career is a reminder that some artists may not be at ease with any resolution of what Darby English calls “the representational(ist) imperative imposed on them by popular opinion and institutional practice and extended even today in certain histories of art.” Abstraction, in the hands of artists like Joe Overstreet and James Little, is not an evasion of those demands—though it may indicate an impulse to flee—but rather a creative way of wrestling with them.