Much has been written about David Driskell’s polymath nature: artist, curator, instructor, collector, scholar and advocate for Black art and artists.
His seminal 1978 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” irrevocably changed the accepted canon of American art, as Thelma Golden writes in an essay in one of the excellent and thorough catalogs for Driskell’s posthumous retrospective, “Icons of Nature and History,” currently at the Portland Museum of Art (through Sept. 12). In Driskell’s own words, he challenged the art establishment by saying, “No, you haven’t seen everything; you don’t know everything. And here is a part of it that you should be seeing.”
Driskell was a renaissance man: exceptional gardener, casual micologist, cook, aesthete, storyteller. But here I want to concentrate on his art. An essential element of looking critically at an artist’s work is to understand how it’s informed by his or her forebears: Who did the artist admire and/or emulate? What artistic movements and genres was the artist drawn to? In Driskell’s case, it might actually be easier to single out what influences are not present. The sheer density of artistic, spiritual and cultural references in this exhibition is mind-boggling. (Another Driskell exhibit, “Icon,” opens Aug. 5 – and runs through Aug. 28 – at Greenhut Galleries.)
In the course of this ravishing show – organized by the PMA and the High Museum in Atlanta, and curated by Driskell scholar Julie L. McGee – we encounter allusions to an incredible array of arts and traditions. A partial list includes ancient African masks and ceremonial objects, West African Adinkra symbolism, Byzantine icons and mosaics, Southern Black strip quilting and Afro-Brazilian lacemaking, figuration, abstraction, analytical cubism, painting, printmaking, drawing, collage, mural art. We also come in contact with a plethora of spiritual paths and beliefs, including Christian, pantheistic, Yoruba and Candomblé.
Driskell’s diverse body of work makes it clear he was looking at the entire continuum of art history. He absorbed the work of, among others (and in no particular order), his teachers Jack Levine and James A. Porter, Georges Rouault, Modigliani, Picasso and Braque, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock. For an art reviewer, this can sometimes be a red flag, prompting concerns about derivativeness, or an artistic voice that is inchoate or lacks originality.
No such concern is merited here. The most evident constancy, no matter what type of art Driskell was making, is always the promiscuousness of his mind. He was a brilliant alchemist, mixing elements from everywhere, overlapping and layering them in ways that feel variously confrontational, meditative, mournful, explosive, celebratory and completely unique.
In the catalog, McGee interviews Driskell’s friend and fellow artist William T. Williams, who observes: “David is unique because his grasp of art history and iconography has become incorporated into his art. You can find parallels to historical work and ideas therein – they may be contemporary, from the twelfth century, or from another era, and beyond American culture … There’s a very skilled hand and mind at work. What we see in his work are immediate intuitive decisions, not five-day conclusions. They are spontaneous orchestrations of tone and linear structures.” Further on Williams adds, “With David, there’s a singular kind of welcoming and synthesis of many styles and attitudes about what painting can be.”
The first gallery greets us with two self-portraits, immediately establishing Driskell’s restlessness of mind. His 1953 visage bears the thick black outlines of Rouault and slender, elongated Modigliani-like features. The paint is thick and roughly textured, with a right-out-of-the-tube saturation, and his handling of color is already masterful. Just three years later, outlining is thinner, more refined, the thick impasto is confined to his red shirt, and the style is closer to Porter’s.
Driskell also inserted his preadolescent self into “City Quartet” and “Boy with Birds,” both from 1953. The former reveals Levine’s influence in composition and paint application (more daubs than strokes). The latter is an early illustration of Driskell’s fluidity at inosculating genres and art traditions. It resembles stained glass, another craft he dabbled in much later, illuminating his religious upbringing (his father was a Baptist pastor). But it also has the urban energy of Stuart Davis’s streetscapes and the compressed space of Bearden’s collages.
On the opposite wall is “Behold Thy Son” from 1956, one of the show’s most powerful paintings. It depicts Emmett Till, the tragic martyr to Southern racism who had been lynched the year before. The image is overtly Christ-like, the skeletal body rendered – in the wall label’s word – in an almost “forensic” fashion that also recalls emaciated Byzantine icons. Till’s body is battered and bruised; his face deformed from beatings. It is heartbreaking and unsparing, the figure looking unapologetically full-on at the viewer as if to say, “Look what the sin of racism has done.”
This becomes a common gaze we see again and again throughout the exhibition. Driskell’s figures never turn away, whether Eve with her apple, Driskell’s own self-portraits, or the African mask and the boy in “Ghetto Wall #1” from 1971. Dignity, this gaze asserts, is a birthright, no matter how much injustice the world perpetrates upon African Americans.
Driskell first encountered Maine through the Skowhegan School and fell so in love that he and his wife Thelma bought a home in Falmouth where they spent the summers. The state tree became a prolific subject for Driskell, and there are several examples here. They range from the more representational (the PMA’s own “Pine and Moon” from 1971) to the cubistically abstract (“Young Pines Growing” of 1959).
No matter how they are painted, however, what is most obvious is that these are not mere documentations of nature; they are about the sacred being of trees as manifestations of spirit. In “Study for Behold Thy Son” – where Driskell’s Christ-like figure is crucified on an actual living tree – the spiritual connection is made explicit. By doing this, reads the wall label, “Driskell locates nature as a site of salvation, redemption, and emancipation.” But he makes this connection in other ways too. In “Blue of the Night,” a numinous cobalt and turquoise work, the little squares that cover the surface resemble tesserae of Byzantine mosaics.
Driskell delved deeply into African systems of belief, too. The second and third galleries have many artworks that pay homage to his African cultural and religious heritage: “Our Ancestors, Festival” of 1973, “Shango” from 1972 and “Self-Portrait as Nkisi Nkondi Figure” (2010). Masks would become a recurring motif for the rest of his life. Equally important in Driskell’s work is his childhood in North Carolina. Several of these pieces employ ripped former works that he applied to the surface, which evoke his mother’s quilts.
Driskell also recorded his state of mind during the Civil Rights movement in his art. “Masking Myself” (1972) is a magnificently complex drawing that accurately describes the need to not fully reveal yourself as a Black man in America. It’s impossible to imagine that the book incorporated into the mixed-media “Black Ghetto” (1968-70) isn’t very intentionally open to a chapter called “Purchasing Agent” where we glean a subheading that includes the words “Not Essential.” Conversely, “Ghetto Wall #2” (1970) is more optimistic. The American flag’s stars and stripes are deconstructed and exploded across the brightly colored canvas, implying crumbling of myths and status quo. Across the top are the words “You I Me Love.”
There is so, so much more. It’s a show you can return to often to discover new layers of this great artist’s soul. That is what makes Driskell such an original. No matter what genres or references his staggering mind and open heart are effortlessly synthesizing at any moment, the personalness of his work makes him feel intimately near and utterly one-of-a-kind.
McGee begins her introductory essay by quoting Driskell’s own essay for “Two Centuries”: “The black man’s art in America, like his music, cannot be separated from his life. His art evolved from his lifestyle and his will to survive.” Through immeasurable talent, intelligence and grace, Driskell found a profoundly spiritual and humanistic way to express his experience in the world.
Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]