When art historian, curator, and artist David C. Driskell died last summer from complications related to Covid-19, his loss reverberated throughout the art world. A mentor and supporter of generations of Black artists, curators, and scholars, Driskell organized the landmark exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” which staked a claim for the importance and influence of art-making by Black people in this country. Black art was not something that had just sprung up during the civil rights movement, he argued. Instead, it was a tradition with roots that extended back to the very founding of this country, with artists like Robert S. Duncanson, Joshua Johnson, and Edmonia Lewis represented alongside more recent talents like Norman Lewis, Charles White, and Alma Thomas.
That it opened in 1976 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as part of programming celebrating the country’s bicentennial, further underscores how daring it all was. Driskell successfully championed the art historical analysis of the work by Black artists at a time when most mainstream institutions almost exclusively afforded so much attention to white artists.
As Valerie Cassel Oliver, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, puts it in the new documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light, “1976 doesn’t seem like that long ago but it was remarkable … because up until that point, you really do not have an exhibition, which is authored by a Black curator, which talks about the history and the contemporary manifestations of Black art production in the visual arts. It just didn’t exist.”
Driskell’s “Two Centuries” and his legacy loom large in Black Art, which was directed by celebrated documentary filmmaker Sam Pollard. It will be available to stream on HBO beginning next week. The documentary opens with Driskell’s appearance on The Today Show, where he discusses the exhibition with Tom Brokaw, who asks if “Two Centuries” has the effect of isolating Black artists from the mainstream, to which Driskell counters that it is the mainstream that has, in fact, isolated Black artists from art history.
“An exhibition of this nature gets [these artists’] work before the public,” Driskell continues in the Today Show interview. “Had this exhibition not been organized many of the artists who are shown here never would have been seen.”
There are many more galvanizing interviews with Driskell, shot just months before his untimely death, interwoven throughout Black Art. Reflecting on the exhibition more than 40 years later, Driskell tells Pollard, “For the most part, the general public was not that aware of the contributions that African American artists had made to American culture in general in the 19th or even the 20th century. It was a surprise to most people when you come up with a list of 50 to 100 Black artists who had been working all the time.”
“What David did is he said, ‘This is Black art. It matters and it’s been going on for 200 years. Deal with it,’” the late art historian Maurice Berger, who also died of Covid-related complications last March, adds.
Pollard’s documentary, which runs a crisp 85 minutes, features some of today’s most important artists, including Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, Jordan Casteel, Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Fred Wilson, Glenn Ligon, Lyle Ashton Harris, and more, as well as scholars like Harvard art history professor Sarah Lewis, Spelman College president and former Studio Museum in Harlem director Mary Schmidt Campbell, and Duke University professor Richard J. Powell. Collectors like Bernard Lumpkin and Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean also make appearances.
In Black Art, Pollard recounts some of U.S. art history’s most important moments, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s infamously botched “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition, which spurred on activism led by artists like Ringgold battling for a more equitable art world, to the development of the Spiral group, an all-Black artist collective that broached questions about the relationship between one’s work and their race. (Ringgold reveals that Romare Bearden would not allow her to be a Spiral member.) The film also devotes time to Thelma Golden’s watershed 1994 Whitney Museum exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” which looked at the complicated ways in which Black men have been represented, both in art and in popular culture.
As Pollard’s film goes to show, mainstream museums have some catching up to do—while Black historians and collectors have been advocating for the artists featured here, the MoMAs and LACMAs of the U.S. have been largely focused on advancing the work of white artists.
Schmidt Campbell, who directed the Studio Museum from 1977 to 1987, says at one point, “The people who funded the arts and who supported the arts, some of them thought that we were doing was laughable: ‘Why do you need a Black fine arts museum? You have MoMA, you have the Met, you have the Guggenheim. Why do you even need a museum?’ The fact that people were asking that question was clear evidence that we really did need that museum.”
But more recently, there are signs of change. Sections of the film focus on the importance of the unveiling of the official portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively. Pollard also focuses on the continued importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the Studio Museum, both of which have been integral in promoting many of the most famous Black artists working today.
Throughout the film, Pollard takes us inside these artists’ studios, often giving intimate glimpses of how they work. Casteel effortlessly applies paint to the canvases of her portraits of Harlem residents. Wilson explains how his practice interacts with institutions that have historically marginalized the work of Black artists. Marshall discusses how each of his paintings is composed of various hues of black to create the skin tones of his figures. “Black is not the absence of color—black is particular kinds of color,” he says.
This is a powerful and important documentary—though it is hardly a comprehensive one. In 1963, the same year that Spiral formed, four artists launched the Kamoinge Workshop, a Black photographers’ collective that continues today. Although Kamoinge has spawned several generations of artists, it is not mentioned in Pollard’s film. (There is, however, a show about the Kamoinge Workshop currently on view at the Whitney Museum, thankfully.) Nor is there any mention of Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown gallery, which operated from 1974 until 1986 and similarly cultivated the careers of many Black artists. (A MoMA retrospective of JAM is also forthcoming.)
The focus, in Pollard’s film, is largely painting, in particular portraiture, and that means that various artists who work in other mediums that could have been included—including Howardena Pindell, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, Stanley Whitney, Tourmaline, and Juliana Huxtable—are given short shrift. Abstraction, too, is largely elided, save for Driskell, who produced his own beautiful art that will be the subject of a survey this month at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. And with the exception of Baltimore-based Sherald and L.A.-based Saar, there are no artists based outside New York and Chicago, which means a range of artist communities—from Los Angeles to Atlanta—are left out.
It would be nearly impossible for any documentary to cover all that ground, however, and someone ought to pick up where Pollard left off. Consider his film a call to create more documentaries looking at the work of Black artists—as well as Indigenous, U.S. Latinx, and Asian-American ones. This should only be just the beginning.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light will be available to stream on HBO Max beginning February 9.