PORTLAND, Maine — At some point during the pandemic the New York Times began featuring a series of obituaries dedicated to those lost to COVID-19. On April 7, 2020, the “Those We’ve Lost” entries included the painter and art historian David Driskell, who had died on April 1 at age 88 in a hospital in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Only one paragraph in the obit mentions Driskell’s art, citing a Holland Cotter New York Times review of a show at Midtown Payson Gallery in 1993. Looking at the work in David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History at the Portland Museum of Art, the magnitude of this oversight is astounding.
The exhibition, which was in the works when Driskell succumbed to the virus, covers the span of the artist’s creative life, from a 1953 oil self-portrait to “Pines at Night, II,” an acrylic and mixed-media work from 2011. The 60 or so paintings and works on paper are roughly chronological, with thematic sections (“Preserving Heritage,” “African Images,” “Iconic Forms”) within the timeline scheme.
“Boy with Birds,” an oil from 1953, reflects Driskell’s early explorations of humanist subjects in a social realist style. The city scene depicts a kid feeding pigeons in front of a phalanx of buildings. The complex painting has the quality of stained glass, the elements outlined in black in a manner that recalls one of the artist’s early influences, the French painter Georges Rouault.
That same year, while a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Driskell adopted the pine tree as a central motif. The way their boughs filtered sun- and moonlight, he told me in a 2015 interview, appealed to him. They became “symbols of eternity” and a source of solace in troubled times.
The Portland Museum show includes a number of pine pieces, allowing visitors to witness the evolution of the subject over time. In “Two Pines, #2” (1964), the trees are deconstructed and recreated as abstractions without entirely abandoning arboreal elements such as clusters of needles. Elsewhere, the tree in “Pine and Moon” (1971) extends its brushy green boughs into the warm blue night sky in a lyric fashion.
In his catalogue essay “Painting as Liturgy,” Michael Rooks, curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where the show originated, notes how these pine paintings “draw their power from [Driskell’s] lively and constructive paint handling but also from the affinity they suggest between pine trees and the salvific image of the crucifix.” He connects some of these pine pictures with Driskell’s 1956 painting “Behold Thy Son,” a crucifixion painted in response to the murder of Emmet Till. The paint handling here has a Soutine-esque brutality.
“Ghetto Wall #2” (1970) finds Driskell delving into sociopolitical territory. The oil, acrylic, and collage is resplendent with graffiti designs and tags. The layering of imagery — the outline of a black head, stripes and stars, lettering — results in a stunning abstraction of bright patches and strokes of color set between a red brick wall at the bottom and a narrow band of black at the top.
Several pieces relate to Driskell’s fascination with masks. The collage and gouache “Homage to Romare” (1976) is centered on a Picasso-esque visage, contorted and off kilter, of a masked figure with broad shoulders bearing an armful of sunflowers. Some critics have noted Driskell’s indebtedness to Romare Bearden’s collages, but as painter William T. Williams notes in an interview in the catalogue, “David’s collage has a different kind of orientation in terms of the application of the material. There’s a richness to the tactile and the thatching in this body of work.”
That thatching lends an abstract gusto to Driskell’s later work as he embraced the freedom of the medium. In the collage and gouache on paper “The Farmer and his Wife” (2005), he creates the two hat-wearing figures out of ragged paper pieces. They resemble scarecrows in a field — and perhaps represent a memory of the artist’s early life in the rural South.
The exhibition catalogue is a thorough study that raises awareness about Driskell and his work, coming at his art from just about every angle by way of essays and interviews. Julie McGee, author of David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar (2006), gets the lead-off spot with an overview that argues for the artist’s place of prominence in American art history, both as artist and as curator/historian of African American art.
Other essays cover different periods of Driskell’s life. Phillips Collection Associate Curator Renée Maurer looks at the “budding modern art scene” in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s. A student at Howard University at the time, Driskell encountered in the Phillips Collection the work of Cézanne, Rouault, and several African American painters, including his teacher James Wells. Visits to the museum inspired him to consider collecting art. (The exhibition travels to the Phillips, where it runs from October 16, 2021, to January 9, 2022.)
Sarah Workneh and Katie Sonnenborn, co-directors of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, team up to examine the influence of Driskell’s 1953 residency on his life and art. The school and his experiences there buoyed him throughout his life: “Driskell’s drive to capture the social conditions that are manifest as inscribed cruelty and palpable violence,” they write, “was balanced by the memory of his time at Skowhegan.”
Former Portland Museum of Art Curator Jessica May’s exchange with painter Lois Dodd, as transcribed in the catalogue, is a more awkward inclusion. Dodd clearly didn’t know Driskell very well; her terse replies reflect that. Even so, you get a sense of kindred spirits and some priceless Skowhegan School reminiscences, such as Dodd recounting how the social realist painter Jack Levine, one of Driskell’s teachers, “used to pull the shades down because he didn’t want to see all that green.”
More revealing is McGee’s interview with the aforementioned Williams, one of Driskell’s colleagues at Fisk University, where he taught from 1966 to 1976. In addition to his insights into his friend’s artistic practice, he highlights Driskell’s awareness of ordinary, humble things: “I recall a visit to a Maine Shaker community where David took me and my family, so he could share the common beauty of their furnishings with us.”
The catalogue also emphasizes Driskell’s contributions to reshaping American art history through his curatorial work. In “Two Centuries: The Canon Redefined,” Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, discusses the impact of his groundbreaking show Two Centuries of Black American Art, mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, America’s bicentennial year. The traveling exhibition, she writes, allowed her “to see curating through an activist lens, to see that the role of a curator could be about more than exhibition making.”
The catalogue reproduces Driskell’s own writings and interviews as well. Lowery Stokes Sims, curator emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design, introduces a selection of his essays, including his introduction to Black Dimensions in Contemporary American Art (1971).
In a 2019 review of Driskell’s solo show at D. C. Moore in Hyperallergic, art critic John Yau presciently noted, “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.” This exhibition goes a long way toward making up for lost time.
Speaking at Skowhegan in 1991, Driskell stated, “As much as we like to talk about the idealism of our democracy and the aims of society toward goodness, we know that we still live in a very difficult world. … I’m not saying everyone has to be a social commentary artist. … We all have a way of fitting into this wheel of action.”
The exhibition features a wall-size blow-up of a photograph of Driskell in his Falmouth, Maine, studio surrounded by his work. In a blue shirt and light-green pants, he is seated before an easel, his head turned slightly toward us, his brush in midair as if his painting had been interrupted. As David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History makes evident time and again, his art and life made for an extraordinary wheel of action.
David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History continues at the Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine) through September 12.
Correction 9/1/2021 11:06pm EST: An earlier version of this article misidentified Renée Maurer’s title as Associate Director of the Phillips Collection. Maurer is instead Associate Curator.
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