David Driskell’s Wheel of Action
PORTLAND, Maine – At one point during the pandemic, the New York Times began featuring a series of obituaries dedicated to people lost to COVID-19. On April 7, 2020, “Those We Lost” entries included painter and art historian David Driskell, who died April 1 at the age of 88 in a hospital in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Only one paragraph in the obituary mentions the art of Driskell, citing a Holland Cotter New York Times review of an exhibition at Midtown Payson Gallery in 1993. A look at the work in David Driskell: Icons of nature and historyu at the Portland Museum of Art, the extent of this oversight is staggering.
The exhibition, which was in progress when Driskell succumbed to the virus, covers the span of the artist’s creative life, from a 1953 oil self-portrait to “Pines at Night, II”, an acrylic and multimedia from 2011. The sixty or so paintings and works on paper are roughly chronological, with thematic sections (“Preserving heritage”, “African images”, “Emblematic forms”) in the chronological diagram.
“Boy with Birds,” a 1953 oil painting, reflects Driskell’s early explorations of humanistic subjects in a social realist style. The city scene represents a child feeding pigeons in front of a phalanx of buildings. The intricate painting has the quality of a stained glass window, the elements underlined in black in a way reminiscent of one of the artist’s earliest influences, the French painter Georges Rouault.
That same year, while a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Driskell adopted pine as his central motif. The way their branches filtered the sun and moonlight, he told me in a 2015 interview, won him over. They have become “symbols of eternity” and a source of comfort in troubled times.
The Portland Museum exhibit features a number of pine pieces, allowing visitors to witness the subject’s development over time. In “Two Pines, # 2” (1964), trees are deconstructed and recreated as abstractions without entirely abandoning arboreal elements such as clusters of needles. Elsewhere, the tree in “Pine and Moon” (1971) stretches its bushy green branches into the warm blue night sky in a lyrical fashion.
In his catalog essay “Painting as Liturgy,” Michael Rooks, curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where the exhibition originated, notes how these pine paintings “derive their power from [Driskell’s] manipulation of the lively and constructive painting but also of the affinity they suggest between the pines and the saving image of the crucifix. He links some of these pictures of pine trees with Driskell’s 1956 painting “Behold Thy Son”, a crucifixion painted in response to the murder of Emmet Till. The handling of the painting here has Soutine-esque brutality.
“Ghetto Wall # 2” (1970) finds Driskell exploring socio-political territory. The oil, acrylic and collage are resplendent with graffiti and tags. The overlay of images – the outline of a black head, stripes and stars, letters – results in a stunning abstraction of light spots and pops of color between a red brick wall at the bottom and a narrow strip of black at the top.
Several pieces relate to Driskell’s fascination with masks. The collage and gouache “Hommage à Romare” (1976) is centered on a face à la Picasso, deformed and shifted, of a masked figure with broad shoulders carrying an armful of sunflowers. Some critics have noted Driskell’s debt to Romare Bearden’s collages, but as painter William T. Williams notes in an interview in the catalog, “David’s collage takes a different focus in terms of the application of the material. There is a richness in the tactile and the stubble in this corpus. “
This thatch lends an abstract enthusiasm to Driskell’s later work as he embraced the freedom of the medium. In the collage and gouache on paper “The farmer and his wife” (2005), he creates the two characters wearing a hat from pieces of tattered paper. They resemble scarecrows in a field – and perhaps represent a memory of the artist’s youth in the rural south.
The exhibition catalog is an in-depth study that raises awareness of Driskell and his work, approaching his art from almost every angle through essays and interviews. Julie McGee, author of David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar (2006), obtains the first place with an overview which defends the preponderant place of the artist in the history of American art, both as an artist and as a curator / historian of the African-American art.
Other essays cover different periods of Driskell’s life. The Phillips Collection’s associate director, Renée Maurer, examines the “budding modern art scene” in Washington, DC, in the 1950s. A Howard University student at the time, Driskell met in the Phillips Collection the work of Cézanne, Rouault and several African-American painters, including his teacher James Wells. Visits to the museum inspired him to consider collecting art. (The exhibit travels to the Phillips, where it runs from October 16, 2021 to January 9, 2022.)
Sarah Workneh and Katie Sonnenborn, co-directors of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, join forces to examine the influence of Driskell’s residence in 1953 on her life and art. The school and his experiences there supported him throughout his life: “Driskell’s drive to capture the social conditions that manifest themselves in inscribed cruelty and palpable violence,” they write, “has been counterbalanced by the memory of his stay in Skowhegan ”.
The exchange of former Portland Art Museum curator Jessica May with painter Lois Dodd, as transcribed in the catalog, is a more awkward inclusion. Dodd clearly didn’t know Driskell very well; his terse answers reflect this. Regardless, you do get soul mates and invaluable reminiscences of the Skowhegan school, like Dodd recounting how social realist painter Jack Levine, one of Driskell’s teachers, “used to lower the shadows because he didn’t want to see everything that green.
More revealing is McGee’s interview with the aforementioned Williams, one of Driskell’s colleagues at Fisk University, where he taught from 1966 to 1976. In addition to his insight into his friend’s artistic practice, he puts evidenced Driskell’s awareness of ordinary and humble things: “I remember a visit to a community in Maine Shaker where David took me and my family so he could share the common beauty of their furniture with us .
The catalog also emphasizes Driskell’s contributions to reshaping American art history through his work as a curator. In “Two Centuries: The Canon Redefined”, Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, discusses the impact of her groundbreaking exhibition. Two centuries of black American art, mounted in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial. The traveling exhibition, she writes, allowed her “to see the curatorial office through an activist lens, to see that the role of a curator could go beyond the realization of exhibitions”.
The catalog also reproduces Driskell’s own writings and interviews. Lowery Stokes Sims, Curator Emeritus at the Museum of Arts and Design, presents a selection of his essays, including his introduction to Black dimensions in contemporary American art (1971).
In a 2019 review of Driskell’s solo show at DC Moore at Hyperallergic, art critic John Yau foresightedly noted: “With the breadth of references that smoothly and easily enter his work, Driskell proves himself to be a one-of-a-kind artist – an erudite painter full of love and love. verve. It certainly deserves the attention of a museum. We must recognize the fact that it is long overdue. This exhibition greatly contributes to making up for lost time.
Speaking to Skowhegan in 1991, Driskell said: “As much as we love to talk about the idealism of our democracy and the goals of society towards good, we know we still live in a very difficult world. … I’m not saying everyone has to be a social commentary artist. … We all have a way of fitting into this wheel of action.
The exhibit features a wall enlargement of a photograph of Driskell in his studio in Falmouth, Maine, surrounded by his work. In a blue shirt and light green pants, he is seated in front of an easel, his head turned slightly towards us, his brush in the air as if his painting had been interrupted. As David Driskell: Icons of nature and history makes it evident time and time again, his art and his life have been an extraordinary wheel of action.
David Driskell: Icons of nature and history continues at the Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine) through September 12.
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