April 1, 2021 12:50pm
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.