Much has been written about the polymath nature of David Driskell: artist, curator, teacher, collector, scholar, and advocate of black art and artists.
Her 1978 flagship 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 comprehensive catalogs of Driskell’s posthumous retrospective, “Icons of Nature and History”, currently at the Portland Museum of Art (until September 12). In Driskell’s own words, he defied the artistic establishment by saying, “No, you haven’t seen it all; you don’t know everything. And here is a part of it that you should see.
Driskell was a Renaissance man: exceptional gardener, occasional micologist, cook, esthete, storyteller. But here I want to focus on his art. An essential part of critically examining an artist’s work is to understand how he is informed by his ancestors: who did the artist admire and / or imitate? Towards which artistic movements and genres has the artist been attracted? In Driskell’s case, it might actually be easier to distinguish which influences are do not gift. The density of artistic, spiritual and cultural references in this exhibition is astounding. (Another Driskell exhibit, “Icon,” opens August 5 – and runs through August 28 – at the Greenhut Galleries.)
During this delightful spectacle – hosted by the PMA and the High Museum of 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, Adinkra symbolism from West Africa, Byzantine icons and mosaics, Southern black striped quilt and Afro-Brazilian lace, figuration, abstraction, analytical cubism, painting, printmaking, drawing, collage, wall art. We also come into contact with a plethora of spiritual paths and beliefs, including Christian, Pantheist, Yoruba, and Candomblé.
Driskell’s diverse body of work makes it clear that he examined 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 critic, this can sometimes be a red flag, raising concerns about derivation, or an artistic voice that is incomplete or lacks originality.
Such a concern is not deserved here. The most obvious constancy, no matter what type of art Driskell did, is always the promiscuity of his mind. He was a brilliant alchemist, mixing elements from all over, layering and layering them in ways that feel variously confrontational, meditative, sad, explosive, festive, and completely unique.
In the catalog, McGee interviews William T. Williams, Driskell’s artist friend and fellow artist, who observes: “David is unique because his understanding of art history and iconography has been incorporated into his art. You may find parallels there with historical works and ideas – they may be contemporary, from the 12th century or another era, and beyond American culture … There is a very skilled hand and mind to it. ‘artwork. What we see in his work are immediate intuitive decisions, not five day conclusions. They are spontaneous orchestrations of sonorities and linear structures. Further on, Williams adds: “With David, there is a singular kind of welcome and synthesis of many styles and attitudes about what painting can be.”
The first gallery welcomes us with two self-portraits, immediately establishing Driskell’s concern. His face from 1953 bears the thick black contours of Rouault and slender and elongated features à la Modigliani. The paint is thick and roughly textured, with saturation straight out of the tube, and its color handling is already masterful. Barely three years later, the contours are thinner, more refined, the thick impasto is limited to his red shirt and the style is closer to that of Porter.
Driskell also inserted his preteen self in “City Quartet” and “Boy with Birds”, both from 1953. The former reveals Levine’s influence in the composition and application of paint (more smudges than strokes) . The latter is an early illustration of Driskell’s fluidity in inoculating genres and artistic traditions. It looks like stained glass, another trade he tried his hand at much later, informing his religious upbringing (his father was a Baptist pastor). But it also has the urban energy of Stuart Davis’ streetscapes and the compressed space of Bearden’s collages.
On the opposite wall is “Behold Thy Son” from 1956, one of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition. It portrays Emmett Till, the tragic martyr of Southern racism who had been lynched the year before. The image is overtly Christlike, the skeletal body rendered – to use the word on the wall tag – in an almost “forensic” way that also recalls emaciated Byzantine icons. Till’s body is bruised and bruised; his face was deformed from the beatings. It’s heartbreaking and ruthless, the character shamelessly looks at the viewer as if to say, “Look what the sin of racism has done.”
It becomes a common gaze that we see again and again throughout the exhibition. Driskell’s characters never turn away, whether it’s Eve with her apple, the self-portraits of Driskell, or the African mask and the boy in “Ghetto Wall # 1” from 1971. Dignity, this gaze asserts, is a birthright, no matter how unfair the world is against African Americans.
Driskell first met Maine at Skowhegan School and fell so much in love that he and his wife Thelma bought a house in Falmouth where they spent the summers. The state tree has become a prolific topic for Driskell, and there are several examples here. They range from the most figurative (PMA’s own “Pine and Moon” from 1971) to abstract cubist (“Young Pines Growing” from 1959).
No matter how they are painted, however, what is most obvious is that they are not mere documentations of nature; they concern the sacred being of trees as manifestations of the spirit. In “Study for Behold Thy Son” – where the Christ figure of Driskell is crucified on a real living tree – the spiritual connection is made explicit. In doing so, the wall label reads, “Driskell situates nature as a site of salvation, redemption and emancipation.” But he also makes this connection in other ways. In “Blue of the Night”, a numinous cobalt and turquoise work, the small squares that cover the surface resemble tesserae of Byzantine mosaics.
Driskell also delved into African belief systems. The second and third galleries present numerous works of art that pay homage to his African cultural and religious heritage: “Our Ancestors, Festival” from 1973, “Shango” from 1972 and “Self-Portrait as Nkisi Nkondi Figure” (2010) . Masks will become a recurring motif for the rest of his life. Equally important to Driskell’s work is his childhood in North Carolina. Several of these pieces employ old torn works that he applied to the surface, reminiscent of his mother’s quilts.
Driskell also recorded his state of mind during the civil rights movement in his art. “Masking Myself” (1972) is a beautifully intricate drawing that accurately describes the need not to fully reveal oneself as a black man in America. It is impossible to imagine that the book incorporated into the multimedia “Black Ghetto” (1968-70) was not very intentionally opened to a chapter titled “Buying Agent” where one gleans a subtitle which includes the words “Not Essential”. Conversely, “Ghetto Wall # 2” (1970) is more optimistic. The stars and stripes of the American flag are deconstructed and shattered on the brightly colored canvas, implying the collapse of myths and the status quo. At the top are the words “You I Me Love”.
There is so much more. It’s a show you can come back to often to discover new layers of the soul of this great artist. This is what makes Driskell so original. Whatever genres or credentials his astounding mind and open heart effortlessly synthesize at all times, the personality of his work makes him feel intimately close and quite one of a kind.
McGee begins his introductory essay by quoting Driskell’s own essay for “Two Centuries”: “The art of the black man 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 deeply spiritual and humanistic way of expressing his experience in the world.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]