David Driskell (1931–2020)

David Driskell, Self Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), 1974, egg tempera, gouache, and collage on paper, 17 x 13". Courtesy: High Museum of Art, Atlanta/DC Moore, New York.

WE ARE OFTEN ADVISED against meeting our heroes, lest admiration becomes disappointment. But sometimes, on pure adrenaline, we take the risk to introduce ourselves. When I met David C. Driskell, his status changed from hero to superhero. He also became a mentor and friend, as he had for so many others. He was elegant, measured, and funny. He was generous with his time and knowledge, and he supported younger artists and scholars. David maintained his characteristic down-to-earth demeanor while compiling a nearly unbelievable record of achievements. He was an artist, scholar, and curator. He was a master gardener. He loved his family.

I’ve heard David’s passing likened to the falling of a great sequoia. He was irreplaceable. His art, scholarship, and conversations have expanded American art history and inspired countless people. He was an archive of personal stories about legendary artists and writers. He was also the epitome of cool. I loved when he would talk about Langston Hughes coming over to read to his daughters, or Romare Bearden giving him feedback on his first solo exhibition in New York. He formally taught and informally mentored thousands of people, many of whom influenced thousands of others including Stokely Carmichael, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Terry Atkins, Deborah Willis, and Jessye Norman. Willis testifies to Driskell’s legacy. “I have written before that David Driskell was a chronicler of black life in text and image,” she told me. “But he was so much more. His work revealed that he was inspired by beauty, justice, and spirituality. In short, David influenced many of us who embraced the broader histories of art. He was my mentor and friend who shaped the history of art and the making of art while referencing his cultural heritage to the South and African American traditions.”

David welcomed me when I asked for a conversation with him as part of my research on exhibitions of art by Black artists. Our initial conversation about his groundbreaking 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950,” which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, lasted over three hours. When he would tell me a particularly illuminating and hilarious story, we’d laugh, and he would pause to say, “That’s a true story, but don’t put it in the book.” And then he’d tell it again. David would begin his stories about seeing an art exhibition by telling me the street address of the gallery. It was like a parlor trick, but it was both accurate and uncanny. He enjoyed life. He had vivid memories. He trusted me with the honor of sharing his recollections of how he navigated the art world’s deeply engrained color line.

Last year, as part of the African American Art History Initiative at the Getty Research Institute, together with Amanda Tewes from the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, I was privileged to conduct David’s oral history. Over two days, surrounded by his singular art collection, he spoke like the great orator he was, and told us the story of his life, beginning with a childhood in Eatonton, Georgia and later working with his family on a thirteen-acre farm near Polkville, North Carolina. Near the end of our visit, he said, “I’m looking back from whence I came. I picked the cotton. I was a sharecropper. I was a this, I was that. But importantly, I was a part of the human equation that said there’s no limit to what you can be or what you can do. That’s what I hope my life will be to others in that regard, that they will say, ‘Well, if he could do it, look at all of what I have. I can do even more.’” Although David started with very little, what he accomplished is immeasurable. I am grateful to have known him.

Bridget R. Cooks is Associate Professor in the department of African American Studies and the department of Art History at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (University of Massachusetts, 2011) and the inaugural winner of the James A. Porter and David C. Driskell Book Award in African American Art History.