“Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1955,” David C. Driskell’s 1976 survey of more than 200 years of Black art in the U.S., is now considered a landmark exhibition. But when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began searching for someone to submit a proposal for it, its success wasn’t assured. As Driskell recounted in a 2009 oral history, LACMA’s largely white board approached him last, and the museum’s trustees had qualms about the exhibition, which would open as part of LACMA’s bicentennial celebrations. Would it really make sense, they wondered, for a show to revolve solely around one identity?
Never one to back down easily, Driskell countered those arguments with aplomb. When one Jewish board member cast doubt on the show’s purview, Driskell responded that that trustee would likely have no problem with a survey of Jewish Americans that included works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jack Levine, and others. “But I’m sure you know your own culture,” Driskell said, leading to an extended pause.
Driskell’s pitch was ultimately accepted, and “Two Centuries of Black American Art” has gone down in history. It is perhaps the ultimate example of a credo that guided Driskell’s practice: the staunch belief that Black artists based in the U.S. had made important and considerable contributions to art history.
Following his death one year ago today of Covid-related causes, Driskell is being reassessed in the art world. Best known as an art historian and a curator, Driskell is now also being remembered for his paintings, which are currently the subject of a survey at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. (After its run there, the show will travel to the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, which co-organized the exhibition with the High Museum; it will also come to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.) With that retrospective—the first ever devoted to Driskell’s art—now on view, below is a look back and his life and painting practice.
For Driskell, Black artists formed the “backbone” of visual culture in the U.S.
There were many game-changing aspects of “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” but perhaps its most groundbreaking one was the assertion that the history of Black art in the U.S. was not short—it extended back to the country’s establishment during the 18th century. Whether explicitly or not, this was a retort to the ways the LACMAs and MoMAs of the U.S. were presenting Black art at the time. On the rare occasions in which work by Black artists were included in major exhibitions, it was almost exclusively art by living Black artists. It was rarer still for Black artists to get solo shows in U.S. museums, however, or for these exhibitions to be organized by Black curators. By contrast, Driskell’s show offered hard evidence that there was, in fact, a centuries-long lineage of Black artists.
Driskell’s exhibition checklist was studded with artists who are now considered bona fide stars. Robert S. Duncanson’s picturesque landscapes from the mid-19th century appeared not far from Henry Ossawa Tanner’s lush vistas from several decades later. Archibald Motley’s dynamic images of Black nightlife in Chicago from the early 20th century hung beside Alma Thomas’s more recent color-based experiments in abstraction. Elizabeth Catlett’s tender sculptures were placed near stylized depictions of episodes from Black history by Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Claude Clark.
Asked by the New York Times why he curated the exhibition, Driskell said, “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.” Looked at today, “Two Centuries of Black American Art” stands as obvious proof of that. But when the show traveled to the High Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, its significance was often lost on white critics, who claimed that Driskell had failed to convey a cohesive “Black aesthetic.”
A look at what has happened with these artists’ work in recent years shows how wrong-minded these critics were, however. In 2021, after being sworn in as President of the United States, Biden was gifted a landscape by Duncanson on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Biden had served as Vice President under Barack Obama, who hung a radiant work by Thomas in the White House’s Oval Office.) This year, Thomas will be the subject of a traveling retrospective due to open first at the Chrysler Museum of Art. White’s work was given the retrospective treatment in 2018 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Motley’s art was surveyed at the Nasher Museum of Art four years before that. “Had this exhibition not been organized,” Driskell said in a Today Show interview, “many of the artists who are shown here never would have been seen.”
While he curated trailblazing shows, Driskell was at work on his own art.
Today, Driskell is most fondly remembered for his curatorial and art historical work. But in fact, Driskell had initially wanted to become an artist. Born in 1931 in Eatonton, Georgia, he studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he enrolled in classes with James A. Porter, who taught a survey of African-American art history—a rarity for the era. (Porter, an artist in his own right, was later included in “Two Centuries of Black American Art.”) All the while, he spent a summer studying at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine. There, on Porter’s recommendation, he took a class with Morris Louis, a Washington Color School painter known for his canvases composed of multihued lines.
Driskell started out as a figurative painter, and among his early works is Behold Thy Son (1956), which features a crucified Black male being tended to by a robed figure resembling a priest. It was painted a year after the killing of Emmett Till, a Black boy who was lynched by white men who falsely accused Till of flirting with a white woman, and it loosely alluded to the choice by Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, to allow Look magazine to reprint an image of her son’s open casket funeral. The title of Driskell’s painting, a quotation from the Gospel of John, elucidates a spiritual dimension in the Till family’s tragedy, and also loosely draws on Driskell’s own experiences with Christianity, which he considered central to his upbringing.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Driskell’s work grew more abstract. He began relying on collage, applying elements culled from Look and other publications in his art, and he started depicting figures whose faces appear to split open, causing them to look as though they are being seen from multiple viewpoints at once. Often, Driskell drew heavily on African art. For one work titled Self-Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), from 1974, Driskell painted himself with half of his face rendered as the kind of mask he glimpsed on a visit to Benin City, Nigeria, where the kingdom of Benin once lay. As Taylor Renee Aldridge wrote in an ARTnews essay about Driskell’s legacy, these works make “visible the allegorical umbilical cord that connects diasporas between Africans and Black Americans.”
In the decades afterward, Driskell made it virtually impossible for anyone to ascribe any one aesthetic to his art. He painted hypnotic abstractions, many of them rendered in dazzling colors, that refer to various subjects, from Driskell’s own ancestry to Abstract Expressionism to Afro-Brazilian traditions. “He absorbed aspects of various styles,” critic John Yau once wrote, “and, in the cauldron of his art practice, welded them to his personal and cultural history.”
He ensured that others would preserve Black art history.
In 1981, Driskell appeared in a salesroom at Sotheby’s, where he was to bid on Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Thankful Poor (1894), a tender domestic scene featuring an elderly Black man a young boy praying at a sparse table. When the painting came up for bidding, it far outpaced expectations, and Driskell placed the winning bid, purchasing it for $250,000 with buyer’s commission and generating a record at the time for an artwork by a Black artist. Behind the scenes, he was working on commission for a person of grand stature: Camille Cosby, the wife of the now-disgraced actor Bill Cosby. (The work now resides with Art Bridges, a collecting entity launched by Alice Walton, which bought it from Camille Cosby in 2020.)
Driskell acted as an adviser to Bill Cosby, even serving as a curator of his collection, and he also helped Oprah Winfrey purchase notable works by Black artists. It was but one way that Driskell made sure that Black art history would fall into the hands of people who were sure to care for it properly. That extended to his teaching and curating practice—he was an art history professor at Fisk University in Nashville, and 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. But it also extended to his own collecting, too.
Over the years, Driskell amassed a vast holdings that included studio portraits by James Van Der Zee, paintings by Loïs Mailou Jones, a landscape by Edward Mitchell Bannister, a silkscreen by Jacob Lawrence, African tribal objects, and many other gems. His collection has been the subject of various showcases, including a 2000 exhibition held by the High Museum, which now facilitates a $25,000 prize in his name given annually to a person who has contributed to the study of Black art.
For Driskell, his collection, housed in his Maine home, added value to his daily life. “Art is a priestly calling,” he told ARTnews in 2000, as a survey of his art went on view at Spelman College’s museum. “It’s the kind of visual mobility that shows us life can be so beautiful.”