For many, David C. Driskell’s name is likely to recall his curatorial endeavors, which shaped and re-shaped the way we understand Black art history. But Driskell was a prolific artist, too, and for the full of his career, he painted vibrant works that bridged the gap between figuration and abstraction, and often paid homage to important Black artists and African art. Many exemplary works by Driskell are currently on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which, with the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, has mounted the first-ever retrospective devoted to him. (That exhibition will also travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.)
Driskell, who died one year ago today from Covid-related causes, had always set out to become an artist. He studied art and history at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where artist and art historian James A. Porter was among his professors, and he also took classes with Morris Louis and Jacob Lawrence at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Madison, Maine.
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In his early works, Driskell gravitated more toward figuration. Behold Thy Son (1956), a powerful evocation of Emmett Till as a Christ-like figure, stands as one of his most significant paintings from the early period of his career. But in the 1960s and ’70s, he plunged his paintings further into abstraction, crafting works that often drew on the look of African masks, in an attempt to connect Black Americans’ pasts to their presents. These works often made use of collaged materials and slyly subvert tropes borne out of European modernism. And from the ’80s onward, Driskell’s work had a tendency to be almost wholly abstract.
The following slideshow attests to all of these various modes of painting, and features works currently on view at the High Museum’s retrospective.