On Feb. 6 the High Museum of Art in Atlanta premiered the “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” exhibit to celebrate the artist’s work. A Georgia native, Driskell was a prominent American artist who is credited with establishing African-American Art as its own distinct field in addition to being one of the most admired artists of his generation.
The High’s exhibit is certainly not the first to feature Driskell’s work, but is the first to unite both his paintings and works on paper; it is also the first posthumous curation of his work following Driskell’s death in 2020.
“Beyond David’s prolific career as an international artist and scholar, he was a dear friend of the Museum, in fact a life trustee. Without question, his work, as well as his generosity of spirit and intellect, have been transformational for the field,” said Rand Suffolk, the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director. “We are honored to celebrate his incredible legacy through this exhibition.”
“David Driskell: Icons of Nature” is a collaboration between the High and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine. It brings together 60 of the artist’s works spanning from 1950 to the 2000s. The art is sourced from other museums, the High’s collection, personal collections and Driskell’s estate.
Driskell grew up steeped in art — his father, a minister, painted and drew religious works and his grandfather was a sculptor. In the middle of his undergraduate studies Driskell received a scholarship to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1953. He graduated from Howard University in 1955 and in 1962 received a Master of Fine Arts from the Catholic University of America.
Driskell then went on to teach, holding faculty positions at historically Black schools such as Talladega College, Howard University and Fisk University until 1976. In 1977, Driskell moved to the University of Maryland, College Park where he received the title Distinguished University Professor of Art, Emeritus.
While Driskell is perhaps most well known for his work as an educator, curator and scholar “David Driskell: Icons of Nature” hopes to highlight his importance as an artist as well.
“This exhibition is a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of David’s widespread influence,” said Mark Bessire, the Judy and Leonard Lauder director of the Portland Museum of Art, “The contemporary significance of subjects that David explored throughout his career are more salient than ever, and we are looking forward to highlighting this remarkable American artist.”
As an artist, Driskell was primarily a painter, though he has experimented with several mediums and even developed one of his own.
Driskell’s “collage-painting” mixes traditional painting with a mixture of other materials and mediums, bringing a distinct texture to his art.
“What remains steadfast in Driskell’s work is a commitment to his ‘icons,’ which elevate the mind and the spirit above that which exists in the physical world,” said guest curator Julie McGee, associate professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware.
“Among the many gifts Driskell bequeaths to us is the delight of seeing the world through his eyes, and it is a journey of immeasurable beauty and grace.”
The icons McGee and the exhibit’s title refer to are several recurring motifs that litter Driskell’s art.
Some of these icons come from nature as can be seen in Driskell’s still lifes, which feature pine trees and other aspects of the natural world. Others come from Driskell’s personal and cultural history, such as African masks, symbols of the Black experience in America and imagery drawn from his Southern Christian upbringing.
The pieces in the exhibition highlight the broad range of Driskell’s work; visitors can follow the artist through his own artistic evolution. The darker and more realistic early works include Driskell’s 1953 “Self-portrait” from the artist’s estate and 1956’s depiction of the crucifixion, “Behold Thy Son.”
The later works on display show a more colorful and abstract side of Driskell; “Shaker Chair and Quilt” from 1988 shows a similar bright and noisy style, something that becomes signature for Driskell. 2005’s collage “Night Vision: (for Jacob Lawrence)” is a beautiful explosion of blues.
Michael Rooks, the High’s Wieland Family curator of modern and contemporary art, said “Driskell’s command of vibrant color and line, and his attentiveness to what he called ‘the symbolic presence of form,’ endowed his subjects with a kind of frisson like that of an electrical charge, which made his work esthetically vigorous, bold and spirited.”
Rook says it perfectly; Driskell has been such an influential educator. It is now time to honor him as the incredible painter he was.
Make sure to visit the High Museum before March 9 to view “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History.”