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David C. Driskell. Photo: DC Moore Gallery, New York.

David C. Driskell (1931–2020)

Scholar, curator, and artist David C. Driskell—an early expert on and proponent of African American art and art history whose work reshaped the American canon—has died at eighty-eight years old. The cause of death was double pneumonia due to complications arising from COVID-19, according to New York’s DC Moore Gallery, which represented him. “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950,” an exhibition he organized at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, is widely regarded as a landmark contribution to the study of black artists and their central role in American art history. In a 2019 Artforum review of a survey at DC Moore, Zack Hatfield wrote that Driskell’s own art practice, which belonged to no single school, movement, or medium, was defined by “his fluency in both the spiritual and the material worlds, and his abiding endeavor to draw them into mysterious harmony.”

Driskell, the son of a Methodist minister and a housewife, was born in 1931 in Eatonton, Georgia. When he was five, his parents moved to the foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where he attended segregated elementary and high schools. Driskell then matriculated to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine, followed by Howard University, where he studied watercolor with Lois Mailou Jones, oil painting with Morris Louis, and so-called Negro art with James A. Porter; he received his bachelor’s degree in 1955. He later enrolled at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, which granted him a master of fine arts degree in 1962. In 1956, a year after he began teaching art at Talladega College, the institution held Driskell’s first-ever solo exhibition, which featured Behold Thy Son, 1956, a Pietà-like expressionist tribute to the recently murdered Emmett Till.

Driskell returned to Howard’s art department to teach painting in September 1962, around the time he began collecting art, both for himself and for the university; he eventually amassed an incredibly significant trove of twentieth-century works. All the while, Driskell curated exhibitions of work by artists including Alma Thomas, Prentiss Taylor, and his mentor Romare Bearden. While on the faculty of Fisk University, Driskell was approached by LACMA to guest-curate an exhibition for the United States Bicentennial. The show, “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950,” is considered the first comprehensive survey of African American art and toured the country. “I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years; and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone,” he told the New York Times. Its influential catalogue essays attempted to synopsize African American art while rooting his exhibition within a contemporary moment—the tail end of the Black Arts Movement—whose activist sensibilities contrasted with his own aesthetic philosophy, premised on a “universal language of form.”

Driskell eventually settled at the University of Maryland, College Park, which, in 2001, founded the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora in honor of his legacy. Over the course of his career, he wrote seven books on African American art and numerous catalogue essays; received ten honorary degrees; and won countless awards, including a Presidential Medal of Honor in Humanities and the Skowhegan Lifetime Legacy Award. In 2005, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta established the David C. Driskell Prize, which celebrates those whose “artistic practice or scholarly work makes an original and important contribution to the visual arts and study of African American art.” Past winners include Amy Sherald, Huey Copeland, Mark Bradford, and, most recently, Jamal D. Cyrus. Driskell’s work can be found in the collections of the Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, DC; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

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