David C. Driskell (1931 – 2020) was a legendary African American artist and art historian. As an artist, scholar, and curator, he made substantial contributions to these fields that have changed the way we think about American art. His paintings and collages unite a strong modernist impulse with his personal vision and memory.
As explained by art critic John Yau, “Driskell never tried to fit in or accommodate his work to prevailing, white, avant-garde styles…Rather, he absorbed aspects of various styles and, in the cauldron of his art practice, welded them to his personal and cultural history.” Driskell transformed iconic African art forms into honorific personal visions – flattened, decorated, and resurfaced in his signature style, color, and calligraphy – and melded these forms with Modernist aesthetics and the tradition of Western art.
Driskell received his BA in Fine Art from Howard University (1955) and MFA from Catholic University (1962), both in Washington, D.C. He attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Madison, Maine, in 1953, with which he has retained a lifelong relationship, serving as visiting faculty, lecturer, and board member.
Driskell’s pioneering scholarship underpins the current field of African American art history. Among his most influential curatorial contributions is the exhibition and catalogue for the groundbreaking Two Centuries of Black American Art, which opened in 1976 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and traveled to museums across the country. In 1977, after having taught at Talladega College, Howard University, and Fisk University, Driskell joined the Department of Art at the University of Maryland where he remained until his retirement in 1998. The University of Maryland opened The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora in 2001 to celebrate his legacy as an artist and art historian.
In 1993, Driskell was honored with an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In December 2000, Driskell received the National Humanities Medal. In 2005, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta established the David C. Driskell Prize, the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of African American art by a scholar or artist.
Driskell’s works have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the United States, most recently as the subject of the career survey David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History (2021 – 2022) at the High Museum of Art, GA, which traveled to the Portland Museum of Art, ME, the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Art Museum, OH. Other solo exhibitions include David Driskell: Renewal and Reform (2017) at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, ME, and Creative Spirit: The Art of David C. Driskell (2011) at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Group exhibitions include, Black American Portraits (2021 – 2022) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Afro-Atlantic Stories (2018), which originated at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art and traveled (2021 – 2024) to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, and the Dallas Museum of Art, TX; Tell Me Your Story (2020) at Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort, the Netherlands; and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (2018-2019) at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY.
His works can be found in collections throughout the country, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, MD; Birmingham Museum of Art, AL; Bowdoin College Museum, ME; Colby College Museum, ME; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, AR; High Museum of Art, GA; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA; Portland Museum of Art, ME; The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VA, among others.