New York

David Driskell, Memories of a Distant Past, 1975, egg tempura, gouache, and collage on paper, 21 1⁄2 × 16".

David Driskell, Memories of a Distant Past, 1975, egg tempura, gouache, and collage on paper, 21 1⁄2 × 16".

David Driskell

As a child, David Driskell gathered berries and flowers to help make dyes for the quilts his mother made. These reminders, as they seemed then, of meager living embarrassed him. Paper was scarce, so he drew with charcoal on the family hearth and filled the margins of his minister father’s theology books with cars and houses. Born in 1931 and raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Driskell soon outpaced what opportunities existed for a black student in segregated Appalachia. In 1949, he arrived at the doorstep of Howard University in Washington, DC, without an application and, as he put it, “demanded to get an education.” They gave him one. There, he threw himself into painting, nurturing mentorships with professors such as James A. Porter and Morris Louis, whose influences—Porter’s as the mind behind the foundational text Modern Negro Art (1943), and Louis’s as an exponent of abstraction’s clarion joys—proved formative to Driskell’s sensitive approach. He went on to become a scholar, curator, and paladin of expressions from across the African diaspora, constructing a towering legacy that perhaps overshadows his own artistic production.

For nearly seven decades, Driskell has struggled to rig universals from the wobbly means of self. And his struggle is a wondrous one, as “Resonance, Paintings 1965–2002,” a survey of the artist’s work at DC Moore Gallery this past spring, made clear. His is an art of vigorous syncretism, from its derivations—among them European modernism, Benin ivory masks, Islamic calligraphy, jazz, and scripture—to its mediums: collage, painting, woodcut, and decoupage. Some of the earliest works on view were Still Life with Sunset, 1966, a Picassoid pastiche of a tabletop shaped by a cosmic warmth; and Shango, 1972, a tempera on paper inspired by trips to Nigeria. In the latter, the artist revels in pictorial entanglement, splicing Yoruban deistic ritual with Byzantine mosaic and Cubist collage. Yet while his earlier output shares Picasso’s incorporation of traditional West African sculpture as well as Braque’s urge to further the perspectival tinkering of Cézanne, Driskell sidesteps art-world vanguardism in favor of a devout fervor for balancing more deeply felt synergies.

Though roused and challenged by the Black Arts Movement blooming across America, Driskell ultimately disapproved of the use of aesthetics as a political tool. His faith in a “universal language of form”—espoused in the catalogue for his canon-revising 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—steered him away from imagery overtly keyed to social change. One partial exception here was Ghetto Wall #2, 1970. In it, the silhouette of a black figure is seen against a brick facade muraled with patriotic stars and stripes, an X (for Malcolm), and primary-colored AbEx-y marks. But the symbolism is ambivalent—dejected and hopeful—and any semblance of a message feels overpowered by Driskell’s exuberance in regard to painting itself. Uncertainty likewise charges Linear Waves, 1989, a symmetrical oil in which a human outline appears to float amid the faded bars of an American flag. Topped with confettied brushstrokes and appliquéd textiles, its rhythmic layers reference the festive lappets of Candomblé egungun masquerade—a channeler of ancestors that served as the artist’s muse for much of the ’80s abstraction on display—but a starker read persists in the red and white stripes’ fence-like quality. Driskell committed the painting to a large, unstretched canvas, an ode to his mother’s craft. The shroud-like image offers a prism through which to consider the artist’s patchwork oeuvre, which is so much about Americanness—its dreams and oppressions, its nature, its teeming assemblage. These themes could unfold more persuasively in a museum retrospective (one is long overdue), but they surfaced throughout “Resonance,” from the jazz collage portraits to the scumbled, sun-filled landscapes made in 1980. The latter were an emblematic highlight: small egg temperas, both earthy and celestial, that sweep the color blocks of Mark Rothko, the pointillism of Alma Thomas, graffiti, and more into eidetic reverie. As a whole, this exhibition suggested that the true constant for Driskell—who remains undercollected by major institutions, perhaps for his refusal to hew to a single category or school—is his fluency in both the spiritual and the material worlds, and his abiding endeavor to draw them into mysterious harmony.