David Driskell: Resonance: Paintings, 1965–2002
On ViewDC Moore
April 11 – June 8, 2019
While his art history scholarship has earned David Driskell international acclaim, his paintings and works on paper have yet to receive that level of recognition. Resonance: Paintings, 1965-2002 makes a good case that they should. The exhibition focuses on paintings from two distinct periods in his artistic development. The first, from the 1960s to 1980, follows the impact of the Black Arts Movement. He visited the African continent frequently between 1969 and 1972, and as a result invested his images with explicitly Afrocentric cultural and political significance. In the second, Driskell took a turn toward synthesizing Modernist abstraction with autobiography. As an emeritus professor of University of Maryland, College Park, David Driskell has published numerous books, articles, and essays on African-American art, giving him a rare command of the subject, which is on display throughout the show. The 30 plus canvases and works on paper also show his admiration for Rembrandt’s portraits, Romare Bearden’s collages, and the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, Post-Impressionism, and the New York School. Hovering above it all are the examples of his own father, a conduit of the Gullah way with art and object making, and his mother, a quilter who combined Cherokee and African-American Appalachian traditions in her craft.
An oil painting from his Afrocentric period, Yoruba Forms, #5, (1969), combines the powerful textures and rhythms of Yoruban woodcarvings with intense Post-Impressionist color and New York School brushwork. White arcs and circles cascade down the center from the head of an abstracted figure. Accents of cobalt blue shimmer throughout, culminating in the blue-green halo that sets off the figure’s head. On either side of the figure are fields of jade green that give the eyes a place to rest from the frenetic pace of the central column. The work balances on a knife’s edge of warm and cool colors, dark and light tones, dense and open passages, synthesizing traditional African art with Modernist technique and color.
An example of Driskell’s second phase, Linear Waves, (1989), embraces a higher degree of abstraction by completely flattening out the picture plane into pink and white stripes flecked with vivid primary colors and orange. The painting’s canvas hangs free without support, a possible reference to his mother’s quilts. Bits of yarn and string crop up across the surface. A figure sketched in red and black makes a ghostly appearance. The stripes recall the costumes of Bahian folkloric dancers of Brazil, which Driskell explicitly acknowledges in Festival Bahia (1985), and Bahian Lace (1988). These two feature vertical stripes, primaries, and vivid pinks. In all three—especially in Linear Waves—we see a unique combination of brilliant color, abstract pattern, and a scrappy materiality that Henri Matisse would never have been able to pull off.
Driskell’s strongest piece in the show is his most explicitly autobiographical. A brooding tour-de-force on another unstretched canvas, again recalling a quilt, In Search of My Mother’s Art, II (1992), churns with coiled energy. Pinks and whites no longer predominate here. Instead we see a complex skein of black, reds, blues, and oranges interspersed with whites and greens. The rhythmic placement of the brushstrokes is oddly off kilter, setting up a pattern in one area, and then abruptly stopping to start a new one. The shapes of the strokes seem like the writing of a lost language—an idea Driskell also plays with in a related work, Ancient Alphabets (1990). In Search of My Mother’s Art, II is an elegy. In an interview, Driskell once said “But I remember we weren’t fond of my mother’s quilts as we wanted store-bought things.” This artwork calls the memory of his mother and her quilting back from the edge of obscurity, and honors the tradition handed down to her from her ancestors.