David Driskell, who is 87 years old, taught for many years at the University of Maryland. After he retired in 1998, the university honored him with the naming of The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora.
A well-known art historian, Driskell has contributed many important essays to books and catalogues on African American Art and the Harlem Renaissance, as well as organized and curated many vital exhibitions devoted to black artists. In 2000, he was one of 12 people to receive a National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton.
By any measure, Driskell has made a major contribution to American culture through these accomplishments, and yet I have told only a small part of his story. In addition to being an educator, art historian, and curator, Driskell is a major artist who, I would claim, has never gotten his proper due. I would go further and say that one reason for this is because Driskell, whose career spans 70 years and stretches back to the mid-1950s, has never fit into the category of black artist as defined by the art world or by its institutions — the museum and the marketplace — which, as we all surely know by now, are not separate.
I don’t think the problem is because he has worked in many mediums, from painting and drawing to collage and printmaking. I think the problem is because his work cannot be neatly categorized and, in that regard, contained by subject matter, style, or theme — the usual markers used to promote and segregate artists.
Speaking about one aspect of his work, he told the art historian and curator Julie L. McGee, “I am the quilter that my mother was.” He has made portraits of jazz singers, evoked African gods and rituals, painted pines trees around his summer home in Maine, and responded to catastrophic natural events.
In these subjects we see various facets of his preoccupations: memories of his family and growing up in the South; jazz; urban life; spirituality; and nature. He has made work that can be seen through the prism of the Black Arts movement and Afrocentrism, if we wish to employ these ultimately limiting frames, while at the same time he has painted directly from nature. Not even the great Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) achieved such diversity in his practice.
This is why it is so important to see the exhibition, David Driskell: Resonance, Paintings 1965-2002, at DC Moore Gallery (April 11–June 8, 2019), which also includes a beautifully assured self-portrait in ink from 1956.
For one thing, the exhibition helps bring greater clarity to the wide range of Driskell’s inspirations, sources, and subject matter – his openness to the times he is living in and his immediate circumstances, whether in his neighborhood or in nature. The observed and the imaginary, as well as the territories of memory that inhabit him, are all up for grabs in Driskell’s art; he can pivot gracefully from one to another, or he might synthesize them into something fresh.
The other thing that this museum-quality exhibition makes clear — and I think it is an important realization to reflect upon — is that Driskell never tried to fit in or accommodate his work to prevailing, white, avant-garde styles: he never became a Pop artist, Minimalist, Conceptualist, Pattern and Decoration painter, or Neo-Expressionist. Nor did he ever harken back to some earlier style, as a way of avoiding the confusions of his own time. Rather, he absorbed aspects of various styles and, in the cauldron of his art practice, welded them to his personal and cultural history.
Finally, he never made his art into something that was quick, easy, and simple, so that all we had to do was check off the appropriate boxes to understand that we are looking at relevant work. Driskell is that increasingly rare artist: he is committed to making art that demands our engagement, so that we look and look again, as well as ponder our experience after seeing it. Never one to be didactic, entertaining, or fashionable, he is interested in knowledge and the kinds of seeing we experience, from the visible to the invisible.
One thing to consider is the wide range of mediums and materials Driskell uses in his work; oil paint, acrylic, egg tempera, gouache, ink, marker, and collage on paper and on canvas (stretched and unstretched). He has worked both figuratively and abstractly, and he has brought them together.
One thing that Driskell makes evident in his work is the separateness of African American cultural history from mainstream or white society. Given the history of slavery, of Jim Crow, and segregation, whether it’s enforced (Native American reservations and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) or voluntary (gated communities and Hudson Yards) — all cogs in a sanctioned reign of brutality and disenfranchisement visited by one part of society on another — Driskell’s decision to go his own way is to be admired and praised.
In “Linear Waves” (1989) and “In Search of My Mother’s Art II” (1992) — both done on unstretched canvas — Driskell suggests a relationship between painting and quilting, yet his use of layering, collage, and patterning does not become a one-to-one correspondence. He is not interested in replication or copying. In an age of literalism and data, Driskell is driven by the possibilities of transformation and metaphor. This requires a quality of seeing and thinking that many institutionally ensconced white theorists have downgraded and even gone so far as to declare bourgeois and obsolete.
One of the things that struck me about the quilt-like, dirty-bubblegum-pink “Linear Waves” is the outline of a figure among the linear elements dispersed across the scuffed, worn surface. Is the painting, then, also a shroud? Do quilts remember whom they once kept warm? What is anyone’s history made of? How does it sustain us, as well as help us move forward in time? Does the figure’s outline against a quilt or shroud suggest our past and unavoidable future.
The invisibility of one race or ethnicity to another has been an ongoing theme in American culture at least since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published in 1952. Driskell’s “Ghetto Wall #2” (1970) is divided into three horizontal bands of different heights. The bottom section is a beautifully painted brick wall pressed up against the picture plane, spanning the entire lower fifth of the painting. The large middle section takes up more than half of the composition; it is a painting-within-painting imitating an urban mural. Above the middle section, there is a narrow black band on which words have been written, painted over, scratched out, and rewritten. From left to right we read: “You, I, Me, Love.” The wide spacing between the words suggests that they are not part of the same sentence, while their uniform color red posits that they are. All three sections differ stylistically.
A silhouette, its head and left shoulder rendered in black, dominates the middle section, which is largely red, yellow, and brown. A white line delineates the silhouette’s left side and a thinner red line helps define its right. The figure’s chest is a field of cerulean blue cluttered with a blue star, a donut-like circle, scrubby brush marks, and a brown X, which brings to mind Malcolm X, while the black head and shoulder recalls Ellison’s Invisible Man.
To the right of the silhouette, we see part of an American flag, which has been partially painted over with large patches of red and yellow. By layering this section with cryptic imagery and painting over such icons as the American flag, Driskell reminds us that history remains an unfinished story that is constantly being added to, altered, covered and uncovered.
The three paintings I have cited offer a sense of the range and depth of Driskell’s nuanced work, but they hardly scratch the surface of his accomplishment. His collages can be jarringly rhythmic and abstract in such works as “Ancient Alphabets” (1990) and “Festival Bahia” (1985), accessing memories of his mother’s quilts and Bahia bands (aka fitas or bonfirm ribbons), or they can be figurative images derived from mass media, as in his masterful “Sweet Music – Homage to Dizzy Gillespie” (1978).
The visual vocabulary of Driskell’s paintings extends from realist contour lines to fractured planes to symbols inspired by various religious practices, such as Bahia and Yoruban cosmology and mythology. It includes white script-like symbols that share something with Mark Tobey’s “white writing” and Bradley Walker Tomlin’s calligraphic marks. He has responded to particular occurrences in nature, as indicated by the title of his egg tempera and gouache, “Warm Snow” (1977), which brought to mind the wonderful if under-recognized painter, Calvert Coggeshell (1907–1990), who showed with Betty Parsons and lived much of his life in Maine. The reason I mention these artists is to underscore both Driskell’s originality and the depth of his dialog with the work of other artists. Whatever the source or inspiration, he makes it into something that is his alone.
Brimming with visual pleasure, Driskell’s work invites us to slow down and look and think, to ponder our relationship to the past and to the present, to be cognizant of the future. He does not subscribe to the categories of abstraction and figuration, frequently crossing the border between them, which only separate their potentialities.
When Driskell makes a group of works in response to the catastrophic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, he brings together the visionary with his awareness of Tobey and Morris Graves, both of whom lived in Seattle. With the breadth of reference that enters smoothly and easily into his work, Driskell proves himself to be a one-of-a-kind artist — a scholar painter full of love and verve. Surely that is deserving of a museum’s attention. We ought to own up to the fact that it is long overdue.
David Driskell: Resonance, Paintings 1965–2002 continues at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 8.