David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History
February 6–May 9, 2021
David Driskell (1931–2020) was one of the most revered American artists of his generation, long recognized for his vibrant and versatile painting and printmaking practices that combined keen observations of the American landscape with the imagery and aesthetic innovations of the African diaspora.
Although Driskell’s work was regularly presented in galleries and museums during his lifetime, in both solo and group exhibitions, this is the first exhibition to unite his paintings and works on paper, bringing approximately sixty artworks together to present highlights of his career. It is also the first major survey of his work since his death in April 2020 at the age of eighty-eight.
The exhibition surveys seven decades of the artist’s painterly practice from the 1950s to the 2000s, featuring works from museums and private collections and the artist’s estate. Select works establish the evolution of his use of collage as a medium, while others exemplify his signature incorporation of African images and forms.
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This exhibition is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, with support from The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
Behold Thy Son, 1956Behold Thy Son, 1956
Behold Thy Son, 1956
Oil on canvas
Smithsonian, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington, DC
Behold Thy Son pays homage to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy whose brutal murder in Mississippi in 1955 brought national attention to racial violence and racial injustice in America and especially the South. Driskell’s symbolic rendering brings Till’s death in communion with Jesus’s sacrifice as the man of sorrows. Painted in dark hues, the central figures, and the nearby sarcophagus and candelabra, instill the painting with the somber but sacred quality of a pietà or a Crucifixion. The painting’s title refers to a biblical account of the Crucifixion (John 19:26): “Woman, behold thy son!” Drawings Driskell completed the same year, Behold Thy Son, I and Study for Behold Thy Son, expand our understanding of the artist’s approach to this iconic Christian subject.
Memories of a Distant Past, 1975Memories of a Distant Past, 1975
Memories of a Distant Past, 1975
Egg tempera, gouache, and collage on paper
Private collection, Washington, DC
Memories of a Distant Past exemplifies the collage painting method Driskell favored in the late 1960s and 1970s, achieving a harmonious orchestration of content and form, paint, and collage. Pictorial collage fragments, deployed for pattern and shape, came from commercial print materials (Look magazine was a favorite), fabric, painted paper, and uneditioned prints (his own). This painting repurposes material published in the January 7, 1969, edition of Look—a special issue: The Blacks and the Whites. Driskell used pictorial imagery from the essay titled “Black America’s African Heritage.”
Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), 2007Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), 2007
Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), 2007
Collage and gouache on paper
Delaware Art Museum
Artist Jacob Lawrence was an important mentor and colleague of Driskell’s, and their paths intersected several times, including at Fisk and Skowhegan. In this homage, a figure bathed in a central core of light that seems self-generated emerges from the blue of the night. The bifurcated mask-like face includes collage elements from Driskell’s 1986 lithograph, Spirits Watching. Driskell used mask-like faces to express the power and continuing presence of the ancestors.
Self-Portrait, 1953Self-Portrait, 1953
Oil on board
Collection of the Estate of David C. Driskell, Maryland
Driskell made many self-portraits over the course of his career. He used a method that favored perceptual insight over drawing from life. These psychological self-portraits, as he called them, reflect his assessment of his facial characteristics, temperament, and age in the moment. This painting from 1953 is an early formal self-portrait, completed while he was a student at Howard University. The confidence and sense of inner awareness that it projects anticipate the bearing of his later self-portraits.
Shaker Chair and Quilt, 1988Shaker Chair and Quilt, 1988
Shaker Chair and Quilt, 1988
Encaustic and collage on paper
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, museum purchase, George Otis Hamlin Fund
A wax-based medium, encaustic is challenging to use. It provided Driskell an excellent binder for such textured collage materials as torn strips of painted paper while also creating the effect of transparency. When burnished, the melted wax provides a surface that is brilliant and luminous, creating depth wherein the collage elements seem to dance or oscillate. Shaker Chair and Quilt recalls his mother’s quilting and refers to his deep admiration for Shaker artisans and their furnishings. Driskell frequently visited Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, not far his Falmouth home.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1972Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1972
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1972
Acrylic on canvas
Tougaloo College Art Collections, Tougaloo, Mississippi, purchase with support from the National Endowment for the Arts
Driskell titled this painting after one of the best known and beloved American folksongs, a spiritual first recorded in 1909 by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet. A hopeful hymn, the lyrics of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” allude to freedom and deliverance in the company of angels. According to the artist, he used tracings of his hands for those shown in silhouette.
Two Pines #2, 1964Two Pines #2, 1964
Two Pines #2, 1964
Oil on canvas
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of David C. and Thelma G. Driskell, 2000.203
Untitled, 1958Untitled, 1958
Ink and charcoal on paper
David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park
Self Portrait as Beni ("I Dream Again of Benin"), 1974Self Portrait as Beni ("I Dream Again of Benin"), 1974
Self Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), 1974
Egg tempera, gouache, and collage on paper
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Fund, 2015.74
Self-Portrait as Beni brings the artist and the ancient Benin kingdom together as one. Driskell visited Benin City (formerly Edo, capital of the Kingdom of Benin) in 1970. Here he combines a modern self-portrait (on the right) with an ancient, ornamental Benin hip mask (on the left). Annotations on the back of the painting include the date of its completion and a poem, “I Dreamed Again of Benin.” With both art forms, poetry and collage painting, Driskell pays homage to the ancient people of an empire whose countenances evoke dignity and pride.
Woman with Flowers, 1972Woman with Flowers, 1972
Woman with Flowers, 1972
Oil and collage on canvas
Art Bridges, Bentonville, AR
Homage to Romare, 1975Homage to Romare, 1975
Homage to Romare, 1975
Collage and gouache on Masonite
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment
“I think there is something very special about the Southern Black experience . . . . One of my heroes of the Southern experience is a Black artist, Romare Bearden.” —David Driskell, 1980
David Driskell was born in Eatonton, Georgia, in 1931. He graduated from Howard University in 1955, received an MFA from Catholic University in 1962, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture In 1953.
A lifelong educator, Driskell honed his teaching repertoire at HBCUs between 1955 through 1977, teaching at Talladega College, Howard University, and Fisk University. From 1977 through 1997, Driskell taught at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is now the home of the David C. Driskell Center, an exhibition space and research institute that houses Driskell’s archive. In addition to a growing collection of African American art, it serves as a study center for the history of African American art and art of the African diaspora.
The High Museum of Art’s relationship with Driskell began in 1977 when the Museum presented Driskell’s landmark exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, the first traveling museum exhibition dedicated to works made exclusively by African American artists in the United States between 1750 and 1950. In 2000, the Museum presented the concurrent exhibitions To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection, which examined African American art in the broad historical context of modern and contemporary art. Established by the High Museum in 2005, the David C. Driskell Prize is the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of African American art and art history.
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David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.
National Tour Sponsorship Provided By
Major Funding Provided By
Brenda and Larry Thompson
Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor
Exhibition Series Sponsor
Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters
Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell
Ambassador Exhibition Supporters
The Antinori Foundation
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.