David Driskell: the painter

David Driskell was a damn good painter. He doesn’t receive enough credit for that. A new exhibition touring the nation will correct the oversight.

Born in 1931 in tiny Eatonton, Georgia and raised in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, Driskell possessed prodigious intellect and ambition. He would be the rare Black man from the rural South during Jim Crow to attend college. Howard University. Washington, D.C.

After graduating from Howard in 1955, Driskell would go on to become one of the 20th century’s preeminent art historians, educators and curators. A titan in all three fields.

He was an exceptional painter as well.

“David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History,” on view in 2021 and 2020 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta then on to the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art (June 19-Sept. 12, 2021), The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (Oct. 6, 2021-Jan. 9,2022) and Cincinnati Art Museum (Feb. 25-May 15,2022), brings together approximately 60 of his artworks, highlights of a long career.

“There is no question that David’s work as a practitioner was preempted by the enormity of his achievements as a scholar and educator,” Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum in Atlanta told me when I spoke to him about the show. “The absolute need for an African-American art history that redressed the yawning void brought about by historically exclusionary practices, and a vision for charting a course forward to consider the influence of African art and that of the diaspora, was much larger than any individual’s own practice.”

David C. Driskell painting, 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' 1972. Acrylic on canvas Tougaloo College Art Collections, Tougaloo, Mississippi.
David C. Driskell (American, 1931–2020), ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ 1972. Acrylic on canvas Tougaloo College Art Collections, Tougaloo, Mississippi. Purchased by Tougaloo College with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1973.084 .© ESTATE OF DAVID C. DRISKELL, COURTESY OF DC MOORE GALLERY, NEW YORK

David Driskell – the painter

Putting aside Driskell’s scholarly achievements to focus on his painting is akin to focusing on Hank Aaron as a right fielder, ignoring his ability as a hitter. Painting, however, is the focus at the High.

An artist who holds his own with any from the era reveals himself plainly.

“One of his greatest talents as a painter was his constant investigation of syncretic form–whether fusing African and European imagery, investing his images of the natural world with the sacred or metaphysical, or oscillating between the observations of the world around him and pure abstraction,” Rooks explains.

Color. Energy. Exuberance.

Driskell’s paintings burst with life and spirit.  

“Driskell’s command of vibrant color and line, and his attentiveness to what he called ‘the symbolic presence of form,’ endowed his subjects with a kind of frisson, like that of an electrical charge, which made his work esthetically vigorous, bold and spirited,” Rooks said.

The influence of Romare Bearden is apparent, most obvious in Homage to Romare.

Driskell’s “use of collage as a painting medium equivalent to the visceral quality of paint,” as Rooks describes it, mirrors Bearden’s approach.

Loïs Mailou Jones’ chunky blocks of bold color are also recognizable. Jones was one of Driskell’s professors at Howard.

Driskell never lost his individuality, though.

“Among the many gifts Driskell bequeaths to us is the delight of seeing the world through his eyes, and it is a journey of immeasurable beauty and grace,” exhibition guest curator Julie McGee, associate professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware, said.

“Beauty” and “grace,” two words perfectly suited for Driskell who died in April of 2020 at age 88 due to complications from COVID-19. The avalanche of deeply reverential obituaries and remembrances following his death are proof of the decency he walked through the world with.

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History

“His spirit as a man and an artist was so generous and egalitarian that it would not surprise me if, by joining the ranks of fellow artists when he walked into his studio every day, he purposefully avoided the privileging of his own work,” Rooks imagines.

When I think about the giants of Black art from the 20th century, I think about Charles White and Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence and Beauford Delany and Alma Thomas and Jones and Betye Saar. After reviewing this show, I’m adding David Driskell to that list.

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