David Driskell, 1931-2020, American

from an exhibition of the work of David C . Driskell, 1931-2020, American, at the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021 and 2022

 

 

 

David Driskell was born in the state of Georgia.  He received his BA in Fine Art from Howard University in Washington, DC and his MFA from Catholic University in the same city.

 

His life in the arts encompassed not only his own art,

 

but also his scholarship and long teaching career at Howard and Fisk Universities and at the University of Maryland.

 

David Driskell in 1976 mounted the first review of the art of African Americans – Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1750-1950 – at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 60 artists.

 

The 1976 catalogue which he wrote forms an important part of the affirmation of African American art as a distinct body of work in the American whole.

 

He co-authored four catalogues in his career and published more than 40 catalogues of exhibitions he curated.

 

 

 

Boy with Birds, 1953, oil on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2021, in his estate

 

A self-portrait of the artist: a former delivery boy from the rural South on his first trip to the urban North

 

 

David Driskell’s own style paid little attention to the –isms working their way through the art world at the end of Abstract Expressionism:  conceptual art, colour theory, minimalism, pop, performance.

 

He was a close student of the Western classical tradition.

But he chose Black life and art as his idiom.  

 

David Driskell was also very familiar with Yoruba iconography from his historical study. His knowledge was first-hand from his residency at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in 1970.

 

 

 

 

Self-Portrait, oil on board, 1953.

David Driskell, 19312020, American.  In his estate.

 

 

Gouache, collage, encaustic, watercolour, calligraphy. Dense images.  Flattened perspectives. Often  tactile surfaces in a palette reminiscent of stained glass.

 

 

 

City Quartet, 1953, oil in canvas.

David Driskell, 1931-2020.  David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park loan to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Self-Portrait, 1956, oil on canvas board. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American, in the estate of the artist

 

 

Unlike the work of many artists in the Black Arts movement, David Driskell’s work is not overtly political except in its Afrocentricity.

 

 

 

Behold Thy Son, 1956, oil on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American. Smithsonian Musuem of African American History and Culture loan to the Philipps Collection in Washington, DC in 2021/22. 

 

A depiction of Emmett Till who was 14 years old when he was lynched in August 1955 supposedly for whistling at a White woman in Mississippi. 

 

He was beaten very badly.  His mother requested that his casket remain open so that the extent of his injuries – especially to his head – could be seen.  That the artist partially occluded the head of this figure may have to do with this horror which, once seen, cannot be forgotten.

 

 

What you get from David Driskell’s work is of his recourse not to rage or despair but to the spiritual and secular traditions which have sustained African Americans:

 

sacrifice, supplication, spirituals, ceremony, the watchful surveillance of ancestors and the quiet watchfulness of their descendants.

 

 

 

Blue of the Night, oil on canvas, 1959. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Private collection loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

There are no empty spaces in his work (except where his pine trees are concerned, below) for mischief-making. You are not invited in.

 

These tableaux are a safe haven the artist has constructed. A haven which cannot be changed by the evil of the world.

 

The artist has built up dense fortifications of symbols and of collaged man-made materials in jewel earth tones.

 

 

 

Still Life with Sunset, 1966, oil on canvas.  David Driskell, 1931-2020, American. 

Private collection loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

The artist was born in the deep South and came to maturity in segregated Washington DC. 

 

 

 

Masking Myself, 1972, ink and market on paper. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020.  Loan from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

He spoke of the anguish of racism.

 

In his 1953 City Quartet above, one observes that the Black man’s head is the only one bowed.  He does not meet the gaze of his companions or look out in their presence at their’ world.

 

 

As above

 

Only the Black man’s arm is extended in the gesture of a hoped-for greeting.

 

It might not be an exaggeration to describe David Driskell’s artistic itinerary as one long session of reflective prayer for the consoling self.

 

 

 

African, 1972, woodcut. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  In the estate of the artist

 

 

 

 

Our Ancestors, Festival, 1973, oil on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American, in his estate

 

 

 

 

Self-Portrait as Beni  (I dream again of Benin), 1974, egg tempera, gouache and collage on paper. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Loan of the High Museum, Atlanta, GA to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

 

Black Ghetto, 1978-80, oil and mixed media on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Fiske University, Nashville, TN loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Ghetto Wall #2, 1970, oil, acrylic and collage on linen. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020.  Portland, Maine Museum of Art loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Ghetto Wall #1, 1971, oil on canvas with collage. 

David Driskoll, 1931-2020, American.  Birmingham, Alabama Museum of Art loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Woman with Flowers, 1972, oil and collage on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2021, American.  Art Bridges, Arkansas loan to the Phillips Collection in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1972, acrylic on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Loan from the Tougaloo College Art Collection to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Memories of a Distant Past, 1973, egg tempera, gouache and collage on paper.

  David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Private collection loan to the Phillips Collection in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Acrylic and collaged linen on canvas, 1980. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

The artist made quilts behind his mother’s back when he was young.  She said that it was the work of women.  He said that he graduated to making quilts in his work.

 

 

 

 

Peak and Plane, 1980, egg tempera and fabric (cheesecloth) on wove paper sheet. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

 

Bahian Lace, oil and collage on canvas, 1988. 

David Driskell, 1931-2021, in his estate

 

The artist visited Brazil a number of times in the 1980s and the title refers to the lace ornamentation of the traditional dress women wear during celebrations of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. 

 

 

 

Soul X, 1988, oil on linen.

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Colby College, Waterville, Maine loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

 

Flowing Like a River, 1996-97, collage and gouache on paper. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Dance of the Masks, 2000, oil, acrylic and collage on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Private collection loan to the Phillips Collection in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

The Farmer and His Wife, 2005, gouache and collage on paper. 

David Driskell, 1921-2020, American.  Private collection loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), 2005, collage and gouache on paper. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Private collection loan to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Woman in Interior, 2008, twenty-two colour lithograph and seriagraph with collage. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

 

 

 

David Driskell’s introduction to the state of Maine came in 1953 when, still a student at Howard, he was invited to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture’s summer school. 

The Skowhegan School was established for the shaping of creative expression without reference to the race, gender or origin of participants. 

This policy in 1953 was unusual.  David Driskell later became a governor and a trustee.

 

His attachment to Maine remained for life and he later had a house and studio there.

 

 

 

The artist in his studio in Falmouth, Maine.  Unknown date.  Photo from the net

 

The pine tree had especial symbolic importance for David Driskell and he painted its image many times.

 

 

 

Pine Trees #5, 1959, oil on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Loaned by the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

 

 

 

 

Winter Tree, 1962, encaustic on canvas. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  Loaned by Morgan State University to the Phillips Collection of Art, Washington DC in 2021/22

 

 

 

 

Pine and Moon, 1971, oil on Masonite. 

David Driskell, 1931-2021. Loan from the Portland Museum of Art, Maine to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC in 2021/22

 

 

Frost and Ice, Maine, 1977, gouache and watercolour on paper. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020, American.  On loan from the DC Moore Gallery, NY to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

 

These marks evoke the painting of Alma Thomas, a friend and colleague of David Driskell from the time they met in 1953. 

 

 

Winter Landscape, 1978, acrylic on paper. 

David Driskell, 1931-2020.  Tulane University loan to the Phillips Collection in 2021/2

 

 

Pine trees represented the continuity of life to the artist.  Everlasting life.

 

Covid-19 took the artist’s life in 2020. 

 

 

He left a large legacy in the careers of his students and of those artists whose work he displayed and documented.

 

He also left 450 images in a private collection of African-American art said to be among the finest.  Housed now at the David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “David Driskell, 1931-2020, American

  1. Sarah, I feel honored and grateful to be introduced to David Driskell and his powerful,soulful work. Thank you so much.
    I am energized and calmed and elevated-intrigued and saddened as I take in his art.
    I am brought to my knees by ‘Behold Thy Son’ and the memory of Emmett Till.
    I mourn for him and am very thankful.
    Jane

  2. I agree with you, Jane.

    I imagine that David Driskell could address himself to anything but that he did this work because it sustained his spirit and allowed him to keep going.

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