The Importance of David Driskell’s Life and Work

ARTnews highlights David Driskell‘s art and life work of advocating for Black art and artists.

Driskell’s exhibition checklist was studded with artists who are now considered bona fide stars. Robert S. Duncanson’s picturesque landscapes from the mid-19th century appeared not far from Henry Ossawa Tanner’s lush vistas from several decades later. Archibald Motley’s dynamic images of Black nightlife in Chicago from the early 20th century hung beside Alma Thomas’s more recent color-based experiments in abstraction. Elizabeth Catlett’s tender sculptures were placed near stylized depictions of episodes from Black history by Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Claude Clark.

Asked by the New York Times why he curated the exhibition, Driskell said, “I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that Blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years; and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone.” Looked at today, “Two Centuries of Black American Art” stands as obvious proof of that. But when the show traveled to the High Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, its significance was often lost on white critics, who claimed that Driskell had failed to convey a cohesive “Black aesthetic.”

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