Driskell, David C. 1931–
David C. Driskell 1931–
Artist, educator, curator, author
David C. Driskell has been one of the primary people responsible for bringing African American art into the mainstream of American society. He has done so through his own artwork and writing, by teaching at various universities, and by organizing and curating exhibits by artists of color. As a professor of art at the University of Maryland since 1977, Driskell has focused attention on black artists as they fight for survival and search for identity in the United States.
An author and art historian as well as a painter and teacher, Driskell has written extensively on black American art and has given lectures on its history in countries around the world, including several sub-Saharan African nations. Reflecting his interest in African-derived art, Driskell also helped curate a show of North American and Brazilian artists of African heritage at the African American Museum in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.
In Hidden Heritage: The Roots of Black American Painting, a 1990 television film that first aired in Great Britain, Driskell stated, “I feel that I have a calling, a priestly mission, so to speak. To tell the true story of my people, of the struggle of their artistry, from the time that my forebears left the continent of Africa, not of their own will but because they were forced migrants. I feel that this mission is so strong that I have to go into other parts of the world to tell that yes, African Americans have a glorious past… and our people have come through much to be where they are and what they are today, and this means that with that kind of tradition, African Americans have a glorious future. It’s all up to them.”
In a review of Hidden Heritage, a Library Journal contributor noted, “[Driskell] eloquently describes the almost insurmountable difficulties of those who sought to express their thoughts and dreams through artistic expression…. We become aware of the subtleties of character and purpose common to most black Americans in their struggle to transcend racial prejudice and stereotyping. The visuals in this film are dramatic and affecting, juxtaposing brutal historical photographs with brilliant works of art.”
Driskell’s idea for the film was taken from a major exhibition titled Hidden Heritage: African American Art, 1800-1950, which he organized in 1976 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and circulated to museums nationwide during the 1980s. The concept came to him after he had given a lecture in Seattle on African American art. “A man walked up to me and announced that he had a Ph.D. in American art history. Then he admitted he’d never heard of the artists I talked about,” Driskell told Joy Hakanson Colby of the Detroit News. “(He) asked me how he could learn about a whole other history of American art, the black one that he never knew existed…. My answer was to organize the exhibit.” Driskell added, “We found the direction during the 1960s, but it took until the 1990s for African American art to be recognized as part and parcel of the mainstream.”
Born David Clyde Driskell, June 7, 1931, in Eatonton, GA; son of George W. Driskell and Mary L. (Cloud) Driskell; married Thelma G. Deloatch, January 9, 1952. Education: Completed art program at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, 1953; Howard University, B.A., 1955; Catholic University of America, M.F.A., 1962; attended Netherlands Institute for the History of Art. The Hague, 1964; studied with Jack Levine, Henry Poor, James A. Porter, Morris Louis, Nell Sonnemann, and Ken Noland.
Fisk University, Nashville, TN, professor and chairman of Department of Art, 1966-76; University of Maryland, professor of art, 1977-. chairman of Department of Art, 1978-83. Visiting professor, Ife University, Nigeria, 1970, Bowdoin College, 1973, and Bates College, 1973; curalor of Aaron Douglas collection, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA, 1975-79; lecturer in England, Holland, Luxembourg, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Tunisia, Ethiopia, South Africa, and at museums and galleries in major U.S. cities.
Works exhibited at Baltimore Museum; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL; Carl Van Vechten Gallery of Art; Fisk University; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Howard University Gallery of Art; National Museum of the Smithsonian tnstilute; the White House; and New York’s Whilney Museum of American Art. Military service: U.S. Army, 1957-65; became first lieutenant.
Selected awards: John Hope Award in Art, 1959; Harmon Foundation fellowship, 1964; Graphic Art Award, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1965; Purchase Awards, Birmingham Museum of Art; recipient of several research grants and honorary doctorates.
Addresses: Home —4206 Decatur St., Hyattsville, MD 20781. Office –Professor of Art, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.
The works of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas, whose art depicted black American identity with decorum and respect well before the civil rights movement, had a profound impact on Driskell and his generation of black artists. Driskell, who interviewed the elder painter before his death and wrote about him in several books, also served for several years as the curator of the Douglas collection at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Not only has Driskell collected the works of African American artists like Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden, his own paintings have been sold to major collectors, entertainer Bill Cosby among them. Since the mid-1950s, Driskell himself has had numerous exhibitions of his paintings, drawings, collages, and mixed medium constructions at galleries, museums, and universities in the United States and overseas. In some ways, Driskell has been influenced by European artists such as nineteenth-century French painter Paul Cézanne, as well as by the African American master of collage, Romare Bearden.
Driskell’s work also reflects his awareness of his black Christian heritage. “Superficially, Driskell’s art seems conventional, relating to his comfortable acceptance of traditional European pictorial structure,” wrote art professor Keith Morrison in a survey of Driskell’s work for the University of Maryland in the early 1980s. “Driskell, the man, sees no dilemma here, and his art reflects none. He does not deny his European cultural heritage, rather he adds his Africanness.”
“David Driskell paints those qualities which man sees in life and nature,” wrote Earl J. Hooks for a Flsk University catalogue. Commenting on an exhibit of the artist’s paintings and prints at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine, Hooks noted: “There is the many layered opalescence of his encaustics; the strong brilliantly tense unrelenting surface of his acrylics; the mysteriously haunting ambiguity of paper and paint in his collages; and the air of a symphony orchestrated in coloristic nuances in his oils …. [Here too] are the ever recurring themes of the rural landscape of the South and the North; the idiomatic symbolism of the black Baptist church and the Old Testament; the contemporary images of the black ghetto and the interpersonalization of African motifs.”
Driskell himself told Richard Klank, a fellow artist, during a conversation at the University of Maryland, “I make art to free myself, to give a new dimension to life, and hopefully to other people’s lives…. I went back to nature and relied very heavily on my natural environment as the source of inspiration in my work…. Part of the message that I desire to communicate in my art is that I am a Black American. I have experienced the haunting shadow of an African past without knowing its full richness…. I wear the badge of a proud and ancient culture in my black skin. But my art is heavily imbued with Western forms.”
David Clyde Driskell was born to George and Mary Driskell in Eatonton, Georgia, on June 7, 1931. He grew up in North Carolina, where he attended public schools. As the son of a Baptist minister and the grandson of a slave, Driskell quickly gained a sense of his ties to his family, his community, and his roots. “I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to paint,” he told Klank during their talk. “I wanted to share images that were of my own personal making.” Above all, Driskell claims that growing up amid the spiritual and folk tradition of western North Carolina had a profound impact on his life and work.
After marrying Thelma G. Deloatch, Driskell went north to study in Maine at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. In 1955 he earned his bachelor’s degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. “My interest in African art was kindled by the scholarship of the late James A. Porter … years ago when I was an undergraduate at Howard University,” Driskell explained. “Since that time I have been a student of African culture.” In 1962, while serving in the U.S. Army, he earned an M.F.A. from the Catholic University of America, also in Washington, D.C. Later, he studied at the Netherlands Institute for the History of Art in The Hague.
In his early works, from 1959 to 1961, Driskell drew inspiration from natural surroundings and painted different subjects, such as pine trees, chairs, the seasons, and the sun and the moon. “Environment has much to do with how we see the world and interpret it,” Driskell once wrote. “In the more traditional African societies, the artist goes to real life and draws from living experiences which dictate the soul of his work. In Western art we still draw from live models, but now we are looking for something that reaches beyond the physical appearance of the model or object.”
In the revolutionary 1960s, Driskell searched for a different way to make art—something beyond painting. In 1965 he began making carvings from trees and stones, eventually showing them as works of art. During the 1970s he created paintings and prints of images based on African art, as well as still lifes and landscape studies. Among the works from this period are Still Life with Compote; Ethiopian Bride; Land, Sea and Sky; Ghetto Girl; Benin Woman; and Ghetto Wall.
Since the late 1980s, Driskell has worked in collage and encaustics—a process in which colors are fused in hot wax—again drawing on nature to create works like Foreign Post, which Carl Little of Art in America described as “a collaged row of irregular vertical shapes (the pines again?), looking something like totem poles covered with pictographic markings.” Jazz also exerted an influence on some of his works, including Five Bars for WM, a tribute to Wynton Marsalis, the virtuoso jazz trumpet player.
For about a decade beginning in the mid-1960s, Driskell lived in Nashville, Tennessee, teaching art and chairing the Art Department at Flsk University. (He succeeded Aaron Douglas in this post.) Afterward he became an art professor and department chairman at the University of Maryland. Over the years his artistic and scholarly work has become known in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In the United States, he has lectured on African American art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, and various university museums.
In addition, Driskell has been a guest curator at the Smithsonian Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He has received various awards, scholarships, fellowships, and grants, including a fellowship from the Harmon Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation grants for travel and research, and a grant for lecturing from the U.S. State Department. His artwork has been shown at the most prestigious galleries and museums in the nation and has sold well to private collectors.
Driskell told Contemporary Black Biography in 1994 that he has no new exhibits planned, but he is researching and writing a book that surveys the Cosby family’s African American art collection; he also continues to teach at the University of Maryland and lecture at various universities in the United States. In addition, he is said to be planning a possible sequel to his film, Hidden Heritage. Looking back on his artwork, Driskell observed: “There was a time when I felt the need to all but moralize…. I think part of that was from my background in the fundamentalist Black Christian Church, and part came from my own hope that art, too, could be convincing enough to not only be message-oriented but also have so potent a message that it would influence and consequently enhance the quality of life in a certain way.”
For Driskell, whose temperament has been described as one of “emotional restraint and scholarly perception,” being an African American artist puts him in a singular position in American art history. About the African American artist, he once wrote: “His sensibility about his African past remains before him and much of his artistry is influenced by the distinct patterns of culture that living in this society has fostered. But from his vantage point, he is both inside artist and outside observer of the culture…. As an insider, he is genuinely American…. As an outsider, his work is seldom included in the exhibitions that highlight mainstream trends in American art.” Driskell has fought to change this, like so many African Americans who have fought for change before him.
Blue Pines, 1959.
Pine Trees, 1961.
Still Life with Sunset, 1966.
Gate Leg Table, 1966.
Jonah in the Whale, 1967.
Bakota Girl, 1971.
Woman with Flowers, 1972.
Still Life with Compote, 1973.
Ethiopian Bride, 1973.
Land, Sea and Sky, 1973.
Ghetto Girl, 1973.
Ghetto Wall, 1975.
Foreign Post, 1988.
Hands Up, 1992.
Other works include Benin Woman, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Processional II, Pineson Fire, and Five Bars for WM.
Amistad II: Afro-American Art, Department of Art, Fisk University, 1975.
Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
(With Earl J. Hooks) The Afro-American Collection, Fisk University, Department of Art, Fisk University, 1976.
Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950, Art Museum Association of America, 1985.
(With David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis Ryan) Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America, Abrams, 1987.
Contemporary Visual Expressions, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
Also creator of Hidden Heritage: The Roots of Black American Painting, Landmark Films, 1990.
Bontemps, Arna Alexander, editor, Forever Free, Stephenson, 1980, pp. i, ii, vii, viii.
Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory, Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1973, pp. 80-83.
David Driskell: A Survey, compiled and edited by Edith A. Tonelli, Art Gallery, University of Maryland, College Park, and Christian A. Johnson Memorial Gallery, Middlebury College, 1980-81, pp. 7-19, 22-24, 26, 28-31, 56.
Driskell, David C., Amistad II: Afro-American Art, Department of Art, Fisk University, 1975, pp. 39-76.
Driskell, David C., Contemporary Visual Expressions, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987, pp. 16-18.
Driskell, David C., and Earl J. Hooks, The Afro American Collection: Fisk University, Department of Art, Fisk University, 1976, pp. 27-43, 49.
The Recent Work of David Driskell: Paintings and Prints, August 17 to September 20, 1973, Boyd Gallery, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1973.
Art in America, June 1989, pp. 182-83.
Detroit News, June 25, 1992, pp. 1C, 7C.
Library Journal, June 15, 1991, p. 116.
New York, March 16, 1987, pp. 74-75.
New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1987, p. 21.
Driskell, David C., Hidden Heritage: The Roots of Black American Painting (video), Landmark Films, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, and by David C. Driskell in an interview for Contemporary Black Biography.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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