David C. Driskell, whose innovative art and scholarship centered African-American art history and changed the discipline forever, has died of coronavirus-related causes, according to a center he founded at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was 88.
Driskell worked tirelessly as an artist, collector, historian, and curator, helping form a new area of study for a kind of art that mainstream institutions had chosen to ignore. His passion for the subject matter—and his fearless defense of it to establishment figures who doubted him—cemented his place in art history early on, and he has been an influence for many artists, curators, scholars, and others working today.
Among Driskell’s most famous efforts was the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1955,” which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. Now considered one of the most important surveys ever of African-American art, the show did not aim to present an aesthetically coherent overview of its subject matter. Instead, it placed a greater emphasis on discussing the works through a historical lens. The show provided proof positive that black artists had made a significant contribution to American art history—and that it could could no longer be ignored by art institutions led by white officials.
“I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years; and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone,” he told the New York Times when the show traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 1977, after having also stopped at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas.
According to Driskell himself, he was the last person approached by LACMA to present to the museum’s largely white board the curatorial framework for the exhibition, which was to be held on the occasion of the country’s bicentennial. In a 2009 oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Driskell recalled that a Jewish board member expressed doubts about doing a show geared around one identity. He remembered his reply to her: “I’m sure you know your own culture,” and suggested she’d have no problem doing her own survey that included Robert Rauschenberg, Jack Levine, and other Jewish artists who’d been widely praised. A prolonged silence followed that comment, Driskell said.
“Two Centuries of Black American Art” was epic in its scope. Part of the show’s purpose was to offer concrete evidence that African-Americans had always been integral to the artistic and cultural landscape of the United States. Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose paintings received mass acclaim during the 19th century, was among those included. There were also works by Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Charles White, Alma Thomas, and many others.
The show’s deliberately open-ended framework confused some viewers, not least because the exhibition did not include many young artists. Hilton Kramer, the critic known for his conservative-minded screeds, wrote in his Times review of the Brooklyn Museum version, “If there is something that can legitimately be described as a ‘black esthetic’ in the visual arts in this country, Prof. Driskell has yet to tell us or show what it is.”
Kramer’s slap at the show was a common one, but in spite of the negative criticism, its legacy has endured. The exhibition considered the way one’s identity did not necessarily limit artistic output or the themes an artist should address—or even create an overarching aesthetic. Its model has been taken up by many curators since, and it is not uncommon now to see surveys like it in major museums.
“Two Centuries of Black American Art” launched Driskell to fame, and he has since then been a major influence for curators and artists alike. In 2001, he founded the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is widely respected for its scholarship on the subject. And, since 2005, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has been awarding a prize in his name to artists, curators, and thinkers who have made a significant contribution to the study of Black art. Among past winners are artist Amy Sherald and art historian Huey Copeland.
David C. Driskell was born in 1931 in Eatonton, Georgia, and grew up in North Carolina, after which he went to college at Howard University in Washington, D.C. There, he studied art and history, and was mentored by James A. Porter, commonly regarded as one of the first major African-American art historians. Speaking of Porter’s class on African-American art history, Driskell recalled in his Smithsonian oral history, “I don’t think it was being taught any other place perhaps in the world at that time.”
Meanwhile, Driskell studied for a summer at the vaunted Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine. At the time, he wanted to become a painter. One summer after Skowhegan, at Porter’s behest, Driskell studied with Morris Louis, whose abstractions often feature spare stripes of color. (Louis was teaching a one-semester course at Howard University.) Even though Driskell initially pushed against Porter’s recommendation, the studies proved influential, and Driskell ended up producing accomplished abstractions of his own over the course of his long career.
Driskell’s artistic oeuvre remains less widely known than his curatorial and scholarly work, though it is no less important than anything else he did. He worked in a range of mediums and styles, and addressed a host of issues and themes, from apartheid in South Africa to jazz to abstract cosmologies. New York’s DC Moore gallery has regularly shown Driskell’s art since adding him to its roster in 1995.
On the occasion of a survey at the gallery last year, critic John Yau wrote in a review for Hyperallergic, “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.”
Driskell’s most famous artwork may be Behold Thy Son (1956), which is currently held in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The painting was made shortly after the death of Emmett Till, who was murdered by white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. (The woman said later that she had lied.) Driskell represents Till as a crucified martyr, and a female figure appears to be holding his body—a reference both to Till’s mother’s choice to reprint a photograph of her son’s disfigured corpse in Look magazine and to the Virgin Mary. Spirituality was important to Driskell from a young age, and he even went on to teach a course called “Christian Art” when he was a professor at Talladega College in Alabama.
Not only an artist, Driskell amassed an important collection of work by others, too. His star-studded holdings included major pieces by Alma Thomas, James Van Der Zee, Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, and many others. The collection was the subject of an exhibition at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey in 2001.
Beginning in 1976, Driskell also advised the now disgraced actor Bill Cosby in building a respected collection of art by African-American artists, which grew to include hundreds of works.
Driskell’s enthusiasm for Black art was contagious and, over the course of his career, he inspired others to study the subject in teaching positions he held at Talladega College, Fisk University in Nashville, and the University of Maryland, College Park.
Speaking of his passion for Black art, he once told the Baltimore Sun, “My interest is to bring in more young people to grow the field, with an emphasis on art but buttressed by other cultural components as well—literature, drama, music—so more people are looking at African-American art history.”
Correction 4/2/2020, 11:40 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Driskell received an M.F.A. from Skowhegan. A representative for the school clarified that he spent a summer studying there, but that he did not receive a degree from Skowhegan. This article has been updated to reflect this.
Correction 4/2/2020, 1 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated Driskell’s age. He was 88, not 89. Additionally, he has been represented by DC Moore since 1995, not 2006.
Update 4/7/20, 6:40 p.m.: This article has been updated to note that Driskell died of coronavirus-related causes.