David C. Driskell: Scholar, Curator, Artist
February 6, 2013
As we began celebrating Black History Month, I had the opportunity to research some fascinating works of art in the Museum’s collection by leading African American artists. One notable artist is David C. Driskell (born 1931), who devoted his career to the study and presentation of African American art. Driskell was raised in North Carolina and enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1950. His studies continued at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and he obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree from Catholic University.
Driskell found his initial impact on the field was in the classroom, and his first teaching position was held at Talladega College in Alabama. He returned to Howard University in 1962 and spent four years there during the height of early civil rights activities, lecturing on art and art history. In 1966, he replaced the retiring Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) at Fisk University in Nashville where he expanded the art department and began the Afro-American series. This nine-year-long program of exhibitions by visiting artists included Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), Alma Thomas (1891–1978), and Palmer C. Hayden (1893–1973). At the nation’s bicentennial, Driskell curated Two Centuries of Black American Art, the groundbreaking survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that highlighted the exclusion of African American artists from the art historical canon. In 1977, he took an appointment at the University of Maryland, and on his retirement in 1998, The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of African Diaspora was founded there to celebrate his commitment to the field.
|Influenced by his rural upbringing and the religious teachings of his Baptist minister father, Driskell’s paintings and works on paper combine powerful figurative imagery with a vibrant palette. Philosopher and Howard University professor Alain LeRoy Locke (1885–1954) encouraged him to look to Africa for source imagery and inspiration, and the artist visited the continent for the first time in 1969. Like many of his contemporaries, Driskell was also influenced by Cubism, the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), and color of Henri Matisse (1869–1954). These formal qualities, combined with Driskell’s experimentations in print-making and collage, create an oeuvre imbued with a celebration of nature, spirituality, and humanity.
I choose to highlight Driskell because of the tremendous impact he has had on the course of contemporary American art as a scholar, curator, and artist. He explained in a 2009 interview that his goal was to grow the field of study so that “the infusion of the African American visual element will strengthen American culture.” Driskell’s Night Vision is based on his 2005 work on paper, entitled Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), dedicated to the influential African American painter. You can find the print on view in the Museum’s contemporary art gallery (Gallery 17) through May 5.
Night Vision, 2007
This Curator Corner was posted on February 6, 2013.