David Clyde Driskell was one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject of African American Art. Driskell was an artist, art historian and curator who was pivotal in bringing recognition to African-American art and its importance in the broader story of art in the United States and beyond.
Driskell was born in 1931 in Eatonton, Georgia, southeast of Atlanta. His father, George Washington Driskell, was a minister, and his mother, Mary Cloud Driskell, was a homemaker. His mother, he said, passed on to him a washing pot that had belonged to her grandmother.
“…she said Grandma Leathy would tell her stories about this pot,” Driskell said in an oral history recorded in 2009 for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. “This was the pot that her mother used to cover her head to pray in slavery so nobody would hear her praying for freedom.”
Driskell’s family moved to western North Carolina when he was five, where he had to ride the school bus 35 miles each way to attend a segregated school. He remembered his mother thinking he was very smart, because he could draw and copy things out of books when he was in grade school.
“I sat in that one-room school with seven grades, and I heard everything that every grade discussed. I would help my sisters with their homework. When I was in Grade 3, they were in Grade 7. If anything, I had a good memory…and that was equated with being smart. My teacher, Miss Edna Freeman, encouraged me to draw. When I went on to the three-room school, the word had preceded me: ‘David can draw!’ A lot of the other kids would be out playing sports, or doing other things…and I’d be drawing. I felt very comfortable there.”
When it came time for college, Driskell decided to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. His decision was last minute – he arrived three weeks after the term began, and refused to leave. After starting out studying history, Driskell took a drawing class in 1951. A pivotal interaction took place in that classroom that altered Driskell’s life.
James Porter, the acclaimed African-American art historian and a teacher at Howard, observed Driskell’s drawing and told him, “You don’t belong over there [in the history department]; you belong here.” Under Porter’s mentorship, Driskell went on to receive residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and graduated with a BFA in art and a minor in art history in 1955.
“You have a good mind so you can’t just be a painter; you’re going to have to help define the field and keep the tradition going,’” Driskell remembered Porter telling him.
After teaching a number of years at Talladega College in Alabama, Driskell earned an MFA from Catholic University of America in 1962 and joined the Howard University faculty. Four years later, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to teach at Fisk University.
During his time at Fisk, Driskell curated a number of shows highlighting black artists. He was a rigorous scholar and due to his careful cataloging of African American works he began creating the archive and context for research into black art. Part of Driskell’s duties also included oversight and maintenance of a collection of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings. He was included in an elite reception when one of the O’Keeffe pieces was included in an exhibit at The Whitney Museum in New York in 1970. Instead of being received with the same deference as the other guests, Driskell was mistaken for a worker in the building. It was an experience that underscored for him that the art world was still largely white. He later said, “We don’t go around saying white art, but I think it’s very important for us to keep saying black art until it becomes recognized as American art.”
In 1974, Driskell was asked to be a guest curator and propose an survey of African American art for the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA). The Black Arts Council of the Los Angeles County Museum wanted an exhibition of African American artists as part of that museum’s Bicentennial observance. In 1976, Driskell mounted Two Centuries of Black American Art, which was the highest-profile exhibition of its kind at a major U.S. museum, and according to ARTnews, “staked a claim for the profound and indelible contributions of black and African American art makers since the earliest days of the country.”
Approximately 88,000 people attended the show, the highest number of visitors for any exhibition at the museum. This landmark exhibition traveled to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition featured more than 200 works by 63 artists as well as anonymous crafts workers and cemented the essential contributions of Black artists to American Visual culture.
Driskell recounts his approach to the exhibit, “I said to the committee, ‘I don’t think we should concentrate only on painting and sculpture. We need to bring in the crafts and other areas: the history of architecture,—because little or nothing has been done to make that part and parcel of the whole of seeing the visual arts by people of African ancestry.'”
“I was not looking for a unified theme,” Driskell told The New York Times in 1977. “And this, of course, usually upsets the critics because they want to see a continuous kind of thing. 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.”
After ten years at Fisk University, Driskell moved to the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1976, where he remained professor until his retirement in 1998. He chaired the department there from 1978 to 1983 and, in 1995, was named Distinguished University Professor of Art. In 2001, he was honored with the naming of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora, which presents exhibitions on African American art and holds the Driskell archive.
Driskell was a celebrated scholar. He was the recipient of ten honorary doctoral degrees and contributed significantly to scholarship in the history of art on the role of Black artists in America. He authored seven books on the subject of African American art, co-authored four others, and published more than forty catalogs from exhibitions he curated. His articles and essays on African American art have appeared in major publications throughout the world.
“Religion and ritual and the mythic are concerns I have always nurtured in my art.” – David Driskell
As an artist, Driskell has been represented by DC Moore gallery since 1995. His works are held by institutions including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts in Philadelphia, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the National Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress, both in Washington, DC. Driskell created exuberant paintings and richly detailed collages steeped in black art history. Driskell understood the importance of seeking the beautiful and divine despite chaos and strife. As he once put it, “art is a priestly calling…that shows us life can be so beautiful.”
Driskell was known for using different mediums and styles in his studio practice. And his art addressed a variety of subjects and themes, from the injustice of apartheid South Africa and racial segregation in the United States, to American jazz, to the traditional genres of landscape, interior, and still life painting. In this way, Driskell created his own distinct style, one that never followed the conventions of any any one artistic movement. Curlee Holton, Driskell Center director, said, “David’s body of work still argues that the experience of African American artists of the past is relevant today.”
Driskell’s career as an artist and scholar, noted for its focus on the influence of the African diaspora, spanned nearly seven decades. He said, “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.”
In 2005, the High established the David C. Driskell Prize in honor of Driskell’s achievements. Now boasting an alumnus of sixteen prominent artists and scholars, the Driskell Prize was the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of African American art and art history.
“Very few scholars in the annals of human history can be said to have established an entire field of study,” said Dean Keith Morrison of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, but Professor Driskell “did just that.” Speaking in 2019 of his influential 1976 show, Driskell said “This is something that had to be done because the American canon is not complete without it.”
David C. Driskell died in 2020 from complications of coronavirus. He was 88. He is survived by his wife, Thelma Grace Driskell, whom he married in 1952; two daughters, Daviryne McNeill and Daphne Coles; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. The High Museum in Atlanta, GA is currently exhibiting a retrospective of his work, “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History,” through May 9, 2021. A new HBO Documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light celebrates David Driskell’s landmark 1976 exhibit, and the myriad artists who have been influenced by it.
Resources and Links