Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 30, 2021
David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History Exh. cat. Atlanta and New York: High Museum of Art and Rizzoli Electa, 2021. 224 pp. Cloth $50.00 (9780847869923)
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February 6–May 9, 2021; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME, June 19–September 12, 2021; Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, October 16, 2021–January 9, 2022
David Driskell, Young Pines Growing, 1959, oil on canvas. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, John Hope Franklin Purchase Award (artwork © Estate of David C. Driskell; photograph provided by High Museum of Art)

Co-organized by Maine’s Portland Museum of Art and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History surveys almost seven decades of Driskell’s art practice across painting, printmaking, and collage. Curator Julie L. McGee gathered lesser- and well-known works created between 1953 and 2011 with a keen interest in highlighting David Driskell (1934–2020) as an artist, a lifelong occupation eclipsed at times by his outsize influence as a scholar of American and African American art. The inimitable Driskell inhabited a colorful life as a groundbreaking art historian, curator, professor, and collector dedicated to chronicling artists of African descent in American art. His passing on April 1, 2020, due to the coronavirus was a tragedy met palpably by a public outpour of tributes commensurate to his stature. Although Driskell was present for the preparation of this traveling exhibition, the “first-ever major exhibition of David Driskell’s remarkable career” now serves not only as a celebration, as initially envisioned, but also as a posthumous retrospective.

From their comments, however, the directors of the High Museum of Art and the Portland Museum of Art—Rand Suffolk and Mark H. C. Bessire, respectively—and McGee each regard the show differently. Suffolk rejects the label “retrospective” entirely (8); Bessire describes it as a “tribute” (10); and McGee uses “celebration” (15) and “survey” (17), all in honor of Driskell’s legacy. Terms such as “legacy” engender retrospection, as does Driskell’s unfortunate passing, yet the uneven embrace of the exhibition as a retrospective performs in various ways, gesturing to work beyond this seven-decade survey and resisting some sense of finality. McGee focuses on the role of nature in Driskell’s work and what she describes as his “Americana,” or “ideal forms, among them trees, celestial orbs (sun and moon), heavenly bodies, figures in forests, and common furnishings” filtered through his Black southern and Christian experiences (17). McGee’s insights build upon her prior extensive research into his artistic development as published in David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar (2006).

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History is loosely chronological and structured thematically, beginning with the section “Early Work,” which then transitions to Driskell’s “Iconic Forms” and major moments such as “The Turbulent Decade: From Tennessee to Africa,” “Maine and Mother Nature,” and lastly “Preserving Heritage.” The exhibition design in Atlanta fostered intimate encounters with Driskell’s striking use of color alongside his explorations of materiality and the role of place in his practice. For instance, sight lines composed of boldly painted gallery walls subtly evoked historical periods and themes in Driskell’s work. Flat, dove-white walls in the first gallery attached a classical preamble to his genesis as a Howard University student.

For “Iconic Forms,” squash-colored walls elicited autumnal harvest and spirituality that relate to a work such as Gabriel (1965), an oil-on-canvas painting in which Driskell reconfigures the Christian figure of Gabriel with the sacred African American trumpeter of the same name. Blending Byzantine and African American iconicity, Gabriel demonstrates Driskell’s approach to establishing a syncretic lexicon of spiritual figures as “powerful symbolic archetypes” comparable to his exploration of forms in nature, specifically the pine tree (17). The squash-colored background reinforced the two motifs: the needles of eastern pines, a noted favorite of his for being “rooted symbolically to his boyhood home in Southern Appalachia (western North Carolina) and Maine” (wall text); and the radiance of gold leaf from medieval art, an important canonized period for Driskell’s engagement with space.

Positioned prominently in the show was Behold Thy Son (1956), one of Driskell’s few overtly political works, made in the aftermath of the brutal killing of Emmett Till, a teenager whose mutilation as a consequence of white racial violence—followed by an open-casket funeral revealing his disfigured face—publicly disclosed the cruelty of racism in the United States. The painting’s centrality connects past atrocities with the present-day disposability of Black life. At the same time, Driskell’s homage to Till incorporates the somber spirit of crucifixion. Just beyond Behold Thy Son, the gallery split into lush, forest-green walls with four paintings forming a small section called “Ancestral Images: Africa.” Here, the works on view included Chieftain’s Chair (1966) and Homage to Romare (1976), which feature African masks demonstrating Driskell’s modernist aestheticization of African forms after his European study tours in the mid-1960s and trips throughout West Africa at the turn of the decade.  

The same flat, dove-white paint from the first gallery reappeared behind work in which Driskell formally integrated iconographies of African art and southern Black experiences. In this section, works such as the graphite-on-paper Self Portrait, Dan (undated) and the mixed-media Self Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”) (1974) broached the Du Boisian concept of double consciousness, of being American and African American in a larger Black Atlantic world. As a gallery transition, they linked to, and visually contrasted with, “Ancestral Images: Africa” and “Iconic Forms.” Routes throughout the exhibition described Driskell’s varying influences with respect to the significance of place on his style and subject interests, including his social commentaries in the Ghetto Wall collage series (1968–71), in the “Turbulent Decade” section, works that were created in an atmosphere of widespread social protest and political expression; natural forms and color, in “Maine and Mother Nature,” gleaned from his long-term relationship with Maine after a 1953 summer residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture; and his enduring interest in familial and diasporic heritage in the final gallery, “Preserving Heritage.”

The exhibition’s succinct presentation of developments in Driskell’s career as artist and scholar is explored in greater depth in the catalog, which features contributions by McGee, Renée Maurer, Sarah Workneh and Katie Sonnenborn, Shaun Leonardo, Michael Rooks, Keith Morrison, William T. Williams, Thelma Golden, Lowery Stokes Sims, Richard J. Powell, and Monet Timmons as well as selected writings by Driskell. McGee re-presents some material from her monograph on the artist, and other contributors contextualize moments in his career. For example, Maurer discusses Driskell’s education in, and relationship to, art spaces in Washington, DC, a known haunt where he is highly revered; Workneh and Sonnenborn elaborate on the importance of Skowhegan to Driskell’s attitude toward social commentary and technical proficiency; and Leonardo reflects on Driskell’s influence as a Skowhegan visiting faculty member during his own residency, writing with and through Driskell on the efficacy and viability of self-portraiture. Excepting McGee’s overview, each contribution is brief, leading some to stand out more than others. Notable is Thelma Golden’s “Two Centuries: The Canon Redefined,” which unpacks the impact of Driskell’s landmark exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976), on her own curatorial positionality. She shares that this exhibition and her 1980s internship work “served as my primer—they offered me a new template for understanding what the canon could look like” (142). Golden thereby extends a historical-curatorial lineage to Driskell that often begins with Alain Locke, James Porter, and Samella Lewis, underscoring how deeply curating impacts shifts in art historical discourse.

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History offers a recent example of how museums carry through on their statements of solidarity and respond to calls to dismantle normative cultural and institutional practices. Despite critiques first raised in the sixties, exhibitions continue to reveal museums’ exclusivism. Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns’s 2018 evaluation of thirty prominent museums revealed sluggish change: shows of Black artists’ work comprised only 7.7 percent of all exhibitions between 2008 to 2018 despite a 66 percent increase between 2016 and 2017 over the number from 2015 (Artnet, September 20, 2018). In a current climate critical of a seemingly faddish embrace of Black artists, it is important to note that the curators of Driskell’s show collaboratively preplanned it as a traveling exhibition to extend its duration and reach audiences near geographies important for him.

Additionally, the few works in the exhibition from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) created space to consider deeper possibilities for future institutional exchange beyond lending. While a work like Young Pines Growing (1959, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum) was highlighted during a virtual tour by Michael Rooks as an example of McGee’s remark that the show makes possible the consideration of American art through Black institutions, how might the High, the “leading art museum” in the southeast, also meaningfully reflect diversity through more substantial institutional change, including robust hiring in all curatorial departments?

In a sense, this exhibition is Driskell’s swan song, which invites an inescapable emotionality upon entering the show and hearing Joy Cometh in the Morning (2020), a celebratory video of reflection, and now mourning, that resounded through every gallery. But more importantly, this show counts among other major tributes to Black artists (re)entering mainstream recognition and, as a result, undoubtedly participates in ongoing cultural work that will set the tone of future art historical discourse.

julia elizabeth neal
Assistant Professor, History of Art Department, University of Michigan