Nigel Freeman on the Legacy of David C. Driskell, 1931-2020

   

We are greatly saddened to hear the news of David Driskell’s passing yesterday with the email announcement from the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland. An incredibly influential figure in the history of African-American art, Driskell was a leading curator, collector, historian, painter, printmaker and writer.

He had been called a national treasure with a career spanning almost seven decades. I would like to remember his life and work through the artworks we have handled here at Swann, as they introduced me to his many achievements.

 

Life as an Artist

 
David C. Driskell, Untitled (City Nocturnal), gouache, watercolor, pen & ink, 1953.
David C. Driskell, Untitled (City Nocturnal), gouache, watercolor, pen & ink, 1953. Sold February 6, 2007, for $6,000.
 
David C. Driskell, Fisherman, pen & ink over pencil, 1954.
David C. Driskell, Fisherman, pen & ink over pencil, 1954. Sold February 6, 2007, for $4,560.
 

David Clyde Driskell was born in Eatonton, Georgia, into a sharecropper family who moved to North Carolina in the Appalachian mountains when he was five. He lived there until 1951, when he enrolled as an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington, DC. The artworks above are from early in the his career as a young artist. In the summer of 1953, with the assistance of his professors James Herring and Löis Mailou Jones, Driskell was accepted at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture where he studied with Jack Levine, Henry Varnum Poor, Sidney Simon and Leonard Bocour. In the same year, he was greatly inspired by the exhibition of African art assembled by his mentors James A. Porter and Herring at Howard University, and the exhibition of Contemporary African Art at the Harmon Foundation. Driskell won the Charles W. Allen Award in Art, and graduated with a B.A. in visual art in 1955. Following in the steps of Porter, Driskell became a hugely influential artist, educator, curator and collector at Howard University, and a leading authority in African-American art and art history.

 

Pine Trees, Formal & Symbolic

 
David C. Driskell, Two Pines (Two Trees), oil on canvas, 1961
David C. Driskell, Two Pines (Two Trees), oil on canvas, 1961. Sold April 2, 2015, in Ascension: A Century of African-American Art for $47,500.
 

Driskell began painting pine trees as early as 1953 while at Skowhegan—he would use them as both a formal and symbolic device in his modernist paintings. Later, in the summer of 1961, Driskell returned and acquired a residence in Falmouth, Maine, where he maintained a summer studio throughout his career.

 
David C. Driskell, Black Crucifixion, oil on canvas, 1964.
David C. Driskell, Black Crucifixion, oil on canvas, 1964.
 

By the fall he had finished his MFA at Catholic University and was appointed director of the trailblazing African-American owned Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, DC. Driskell continued to teach as a professor in the Department of Art at Howard University and serve as director of the gallery until 1966. His work Black Crucifixion shows the influence of his 1964 summer tour of Europe, in particular his time in the Netherlands where he studied Rembrandt and the Old Masters at the Rijksmuseum on visits to Amsterdam. 

Through his long career as an artist, in addition to painting, Driskell was also working as an innovative collagist and printmaker, with color-block printing with linoleum cut in the 1950s and 60s. 

 

Legacy as a Curator

While organizing countless museum exhibitions and writing catalogue essays throughout his lengthy career, David Driskell’s legacy as a curator will always be defined by his monumental achievement organizing Two Centuries of Black American Art, for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. The first comprehensive museum survey of the achievements of African-American art redefined how African-American art was represented in institutions and set museum attendance records. It traveled nationally through 1977 to the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. 

Swann had the privilege to handle the following works. All of which were included in Two Centuries of Black American Art:

 
Richmond Barthé, The Awakening of Africa (Africa Awakening), cast bronze with dark brown patina, 1959.
Richmond Barthé, The Awakening of Africa (Africa Awakening), cast bronze with dark brown patina, 1959. Sold October 5, 2017, for $87,500.
 
Walter Williams, Southern Landscape, oil and collage on board, 1963-64. Sold June 4, 2014, for $81,250.
 
Hughie Lee-Smith, Slum Song, oil on canvas, 1944.
Hughie Lee-Smith, Slum Song, oil on canvas, 1944. Sold October 4, 2007, in the Golden State Mutual Life African-American Art Collection for $216,000.
 
Edward M. Bannister, Landscape with Cow and Female Figure, watercolor, circa 1881.
Edward M. Bannister, Landscape with Cow and Female Figure, watercolor, circa 1881. Sold October 4, 2018, for $11,250.