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David Driskell's art spotlighted Black life. It's 'about time' America saw his work


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Judy Woodruff: Artist David Driskell died last year of COVID at the age of 88.

A longtime collector who raised the profile of African American art and artists, his own paintings are now getting their due.

Jeffrey Brown has this report for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Scenes of city life and nature, of Christian religious imagery and African masks, they were subjects David Driskell would return to again and again in his more than six decades as an artist, work, says art historian and curator Adrienne Childs, that deserves to be better known.

Adrienne Childs, Art Historian and Curator, The Phillips Collection: Why are we looking at David Driskell now? It's because it's about time. I think that his work was overlooked because his energy was not funneled into getting his work on the wall. It was funneled into getting others noticed.

Jeffrey Brown: Artist, historian, curator, educator, collector, Driskell influenced several generations of artists and students, and helped change the landscape of American art generally with exhibitions such as his 1976 landmark Two Centuries of Black American art, showcasing then-under-recognized individuals and art forms.

Art historian Julie McGee is author of a biography of Driskell.

Julie McGee, Art Historian: I think there are probably five David Driskells or maybe more than that. I mean...

Jeffrey Brown: Five?

Julie McGee: Yes. Yes.

I think he absolutely felt a sense of mission to be an educator. And the way that factored into his life was as an art educator and art historian who took up the mantle to ensure that African American art was known and that African American artists were supported.

Jeffrey Brown: Now Driskell is being celebrated for his own art in David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History, co-organized by the High Museum of art in Atlanta and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

Julie McGee is its curator. Adrienne Childs is coordinating curator for the installation at its current stop, Washington, D.C.'s Phillips Collection.

One of the earliest works here, the 1956 painting Behold Thy Son, a response from Driskell to the gruesome murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi a year earlier. Till's mother had insisted the casket be open, so the world could see the viciousness of the racist attack.

Adrienne Childs: Driskell comes us with this really interesting take on it in Behold Thy Son where the beaten boy's mother is holding him up and presenting him in church to the congregation.

Jeffrey Brown It's painting almost in real time, but it's also looking to the history of art, right, I mean, the crucifixion, Christ on the cross.

Adrienne Childs: He's definitely looking through the history of Western art in this case, but bringing it home.

Jeffrey Brown: Another subject for Driskell, scenes of urban Black life. He painted Ghetto Wall #2 in 1970, a brick wall, graffiti, a figure in Black, the American flag exploded in pieces amid a riot of color.

Julie McGee: So, it is very much an artist who is using the canvas to express the experience of living in America in 1970.

The associations that David Driskell would have as a Black man in America, what is it? Do I love America? Is the flag I, you, me? Is it a shattered promise?

Jeffrey Brown: Color, form, surface, composition. Driskell was looking at artists like Cezanne and Rembrandt, and constantly experimenting as a painter.

His Homage to Romare honors the artist Romare Bearden and his work with collage. Driskell then developed his own collage technique, seen in paintings like Upward Bound in 1980 and Flowing Like a River in 1996. Driskell taught all his life at Talladega College, Howard and Fisk universities and, beginning in 1977, the University of Maryland, which in 2001 established the David C. Driskell Center, dedicated to furthering scholarship in African American and African diaspora art and culture.

He also had a long time home and studio in Falmouth, Maine, where he continued to work on another great love, scenes from nature, especially, in a variety of forms, the pine tree.

Julie McGee would often visit him there.

Julie McGee: There's something about the studio space that was a creative sanctuary for him. I would say that, in many ways, it is the audacity that he had as an artist and creator that enabled him to be the curator and scholar that he was.

Jeffrey Brown: Driskell, who collected and painted African masks, often spoke of art as a priestly calling.

Here he is in a 2020 interview for The Phillips Collection.

David Driskell, Artist: Everybody has a calling. Everybody has a field that they are supposed to be dedicated to, and that, if one can define that field beyond self, and be inclusive of others, then that's one of the most important things that can be done, if you can pass it on, if you can say, here is my gift to you.

Jeffrey Brown: He often walked through the galleries of The Phillips. When he was a student at Howard University, Washington, D.C., was still a segregated city and the museum was one of the few cultural spaces open to him.

There is a sense of coming full circle back to The Phillips, where he was a student.

Adrienne Childs: Yes.


Adrienne Childs: It is bittersweet to be here in the room with his works that were in his studio and going from the 1950s up into the 2000s, and he's not here.

Jeffrey Brown: David Driskell helped with the early coordination of this exhibition. It was meant to coincide with his 90th birthday. He worked to the end of his life, dying of COVID at age 88 on April 1, 2020.

The exhibition David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History continues in Washington through January 9, 2022, and then moves to the Cincinnati Art Museum.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at The Phillips Collection.

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