In 1976, the exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1750 to 1950, curated by David Driskell, debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Opening the year of the Bicentennial, the anniversary of the country’s founding, the landmark exhibition was one of the first to document, in comprehensive detail, the enormous contributions of Black artists to American visual culture.
It cataloged the work of over 200 artists, which ranged from pre-Civil War cabinets to self-taught painting to the sculptures of the Harlem Renaissance. “He did these things in the show that were outrageous for some viewers in an art museum,” said scholar Bridget R. Cooks, who interviewed Driskell in 2019 for an oral history as part of Getty’s African American Art History Initiative. “Having objects that were created by enslaved people, craft works, furniture, dolls, architecture, three-dimensional design. For him, the material culture made from the beginning of Africans in America was part of the two centuries of Black American art.” In response, Driskell received violent threats. Arriving at the tail end of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the exhibition was an explosive statement about the ongoing importance of Black art at a moment when the United States found itself re-examining its own history.
Driskell, who died due to complications from COVID in April 2020, was a powerful force. The oral history documents how, over course of seven decades, the artist, art historian, collector, and curator redefined the story of American art. “The exhibition was an opportunity to really change American art history and challenge people’s notions of who can be an artist and what is art.” said Cooks. “Can Black people create beauty? If art history has deep racist roots that claim that we, Black people, can not be artists, how can we start to change the perspective?”
At the time of the LACMA exhibition, art history textbooks did not include Black artists. Inspired by his mentor James A. Porter’s seminal book, American Negro Art, Driskell’s goal was to “help fill the gap because there was such a vast gap out there.” Two Centuries asserted the right to history, the long legacy of Black imagination and ingenuity, where one had been silenced. “‘People wondered, ‘Why would you want to do an exhibition of black American art in 1976?’” Driskell recalled in the interview, “I said, ‘This exhibition is for you to learn beyond what you know.’ I had to let them know that I, too, sing America, and they needed to hear my song.”
The son of a Baptist preacher and homemaker, Driskell arrived at Howard University in 1949, his report card in hand. He had been the salutatorian of his high school, a segregated one-room schoolhouse in a small farming town in North Carolina. Set to enroll at another university, Driskell immediately bought a ticket to Washington DC once he learned about Howard. “[A fellow student] said that was the best Negro college in the world, and so I said, ‘Well, I got to go to the best,’” he said. The university had already been in session for three weeks, but Driskell began sitting in on classes anyway. Eventually, he was formally admitted and found the art history department.
There, he hung shows at the Barnett Aden Gallery in D.C., the first Black-owned private art gallery in the country, where he met luminaries such as Langston Hughes and Romare Bearden, who would become a mentor. Howard professor James A. Porter appointed Driskell as heir to his intellectual legacy. “He said, “You can’t just be a painter. You have to do art history. We have to have people to carry on the tradition,’” Driskell recalled. He saw himself as carrying on a lineage, passed down from Porter, that he then transmitted to his own students at Howard, who included artist Mary Lovelace O’Neal, opera singer Jessye Norman, and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael.
As Cooks notes, “There is a great sense of responsibility that comes with knowing who you are, and realizing that many people sacrificed for you to be present. Ancestors had to survive and persevere, for us to be here. When that has meaning for you, it becomes part of your life. Your life purpose includes the call to mentor and connect with people who are in younger generations. David C. Driskell modeled that wisdom for all of us.”
Howard, he said, reinforced the idea of excellence, especially in a racist society designed for Black people not to succeed. “I think I learned the lesson of competency, that you had to almost be first-rate in everything to succeed, that you were still living in a segregated world.” Driskell was the rare artist who was also a scholar, which he credited to his long career studying and teaching at historically Black colleges and universities. “I come out of the HBCU tradition, the historically black college tradition, where one didn’t have the luxury of being able to specialize. You really had to be able to teach almost everything,” Driskell said.
His forms and inspirations were diverse. Influences ranged from his mother’s quilts to African masks to Bearden’s modernist collages. He experimented with social realism before eventually turning to abstraction. (It was following a conversation with Stokely Carmichael about the Vietnam War that inspired Driskell to paint “Of Thee I Weep,” which he called one of his last protest paintings.) Driskell was also an avid art collector, amassing a collection that included a Matisse linocut that he found at a flea market in Virginia.
A master gardener, Driskell was inspired by his mother’s traditional knowledge of medicinal plants. In the foliage of plants and trees, against the racial violence of the sixties, he found his own source of existential meaning: “I was so tired of people and how unkind and how nasty they were. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to paint trees, pine trees because they are so loving and giving and they don’t hate you.’ I started doing these pines. I started thinking about the pines at night, the pines this time of day, the pines in the moonlight,” he said. “Every way you could think of the pines I think I thought of. What happens when the tree is swaying and flowing? What is the tree thinking about? What am I thinking about? There’s a symbiotic relationship: I’m giving and that tree is giving to me.”
In reflecting on his legacy, in his eighties, Driskell looked back on his remarkable journey. As a child, he said, he wasn’t allowed access to library books because of his race. “Now I have been able to go get that book, I have read it, I’ve benefited from it. I’ve traveled the world, and I’m looking back from whence I came. I picked cotton. I was a sharecropper,” Driskell said in the oral history. “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 better.’”
Centering African American Art History Initiative’s ongoing oral history project, the series On Making History explores how Black artists remember, record, and re-write history. Explore more oral histories here.