By Alex Greenberger

April 1, 2021 12:50pm

David C. Driskell, 'Woman with Flowers',

For many, David C. Driskell’s name is likely to recall his curatorial endeavors, which shaped and re-shaped the way we understand Black art history. But Driskell was a prolific artist, too, and for the full of his career, he painted vibrant works that bridged the gap between figuration and abstraction, and often paid homage to important Black artists and African art. Many exemplary works by Driskell are currently on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which, with the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, has mounted the first-ever retrospective devoted to him. (That exhibition will also travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.)

Driskell, who died one year ago today from Covid-related causes, had always set out to become an artist. He studied art and history at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where artist and art historian James A. Porter was among his professors, and he also took classes with Morris Louis and Jacob Lawrence at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Madison, Maine.

In his early works, Driskell gravitated more toward figuration. Behold Thy Son (1956), a powerful evocation of Emmett Till as a Christ-like figure, stands as one of his most significant paintings from the early period of his career. But in the 1960s and ’70s, he plunged his paintings further into abstraction, crafting works that often drew on the look of African masks, in an attempt to connect Black Americans’ pasts to their presents. These works often made use of collaged materials and slyly subvert tropes borne out of European modernism. And from the ’80s onward, Driskell’s work had a tendency to be almost wholly abstract.

The following slideshow attests to all of these various modes of painting, and features works currently on view at the High Museum’s retrospective.

David C. Driskell, 'Self-Portrait,' 1953. A Black man with almond-shaped eyes and a blue shirt appears before a green and gold background.

Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Photo Lucy Demers/Collection of Estate of David C. Driskell

David C. Driskell, Self-Portrait, 1953.

In this early work, Driskell offers an image of himself wearing a blue shirt. His features are abstracted only slightly; later self-portraits would render his visage in ways that appeared less like reality.

David C. Driskell, 'Self-Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”)', 1974. A man's is split in two, with one half resembling a mask. Around him are abstract patterns that radiate outward.

Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/High Museum of Art

David C. Driskell, Self-Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), 1974.

Two decades later, Driskell painted another image of himself, this one with his face split in two. The left half resembles an Edo mask that Driskell glimpsed on his travels to Benin City, Nigeria, where the kingdom of Benin once lay.

David C. Driskell, 'Behold Thy Son', 1956. A Black figure is shown on a crucifix while a priest-like figure attends to it.
Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

David C. Driskell, Behold Thy Son, 1956.

One of Driskell’s most important early works, this painting was created not long after the murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager killed by white men who falsely accussed Till of flirting with a white woman. In Driskell’s response, a Black figure is shown crucified, along with a robed figure attending to it in a church-like setting.

David C. Driskell, 'Memories of a Distant Past', 1975.
Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Collection of Joseph and Lynne Horning, Washington, D.C.

David C. Driskell, Memories of a Distant Past, 1975.

During the 1960s and ’70s, Driskell began relying heavily on collage, in this case incorporating elements from a Look magazine story called “Black America’s African Heritage.” The faces here resemble African masks—a reference both to European modernism’s appropriation of these works and to African diasporas.

David C. Driskell, 'Ghetto Wall #2', 1970. A black figure stands behind a mass of abstract forms, with a brick wall covering the lower part of its body.
Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Portland Museum of Art

David C. Driskell, Ghetto Wall #2, 1970.

Drawing on Abstract Expressionism and the political tensions of the moment, Driskell painted this image of a figure whose form appears to be covered by a brick wall and abstract shapes, including one resembling a half-visible flag. Speaking to Culture Type in 2019, Driskell said he was trying to encapsulate “what might be referred to as the black experience in that period.”

David C. Driskell, 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' 1972. Two small figures walk atop a black and blue ground, which hangs over a mass of abstract forms. Superimposed over this is a sun with hands reaching toward it.
Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Tougaloo College Art Collections, Mississippi

David C. Driskell, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1972.

The title of this work pays homage to one of the best-known and oldest African-American spiritual songs. Driskell considered Christianity essential to his upbringing, and he frequently returned to religious themes in his works.

David C. Driskell, 'Yaddo Circle', 1980. A swirling mass of white, purple, green, yellow, and red lines centers around a circle.
Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Collection of Estate of David C. Driskell

David C. Driskell, Yaddo Circle, 1980.

In 1980, Driskell did a residency at the esteemed Yaddo program in Saratoga Springs, New York, and this work acted as a response. The painting’s surface is rough and textured—a touch typical of Driskell’s art from the 1980s onward.

David C. Driskell, 'Homage to Romare', 1976. A Black figure is shown next to a group of sunflowers with its arms crossed.
Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

David C. Driskell, Homage to Romare, 1976.

Driskell’s paintings periodically alluded to some of his artistic heroes and friends, and this one is dedicated to Romare Bearden, a New York–based artist whose collaged works proposed a new way of depicting Black figures. “I think there is something very special about the Southern Black experience,” Driskell once said. “One of my heroes of the Southern experience is a Black artist, Romare Bearden.”

David C. Driskell, 'Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence)', 2007. A figure with a split face sits in an abstracted throne.
Photo : ©Estate of David C. Driskell/Courtesy DC Moore, New York/Collection of Robert Barbara Schiffrin, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

David C. Driskell, Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), 2007.

In this late-career work, Driskell pays homage to artist Jacob Lawrence, whom Driskell counted as a friend and a mentor. Here, a regal-looking figure sits in a chair; in a recurring motif for Driskell, half of its face resembles a mask.

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