David C. Driskell, Homage to Romare, 1976, collage and gouache on Masonite, 23 ⅞ by 29 ⅞ in.PHOTO: TRAVIS FULLERTON. © VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS. © ESTATE OF DAVID C. DRISKELL.
When David C. Driskell died of COVID-19 in April 2020 at the age of eighty-eight, commentators tended to emphasize his career as a curator and scholar of African American art, especially his landmark 1976 survey, “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While this was certainly a foundational contribution to African American art history—a story told with loving detail in this year’s HBO documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light—the relative lack of critical attention to Driskell’s work as an artist is puzzling. His interviews in the film, like other accounts of his life and work, make clear that operating in multiple modes was integral to Driskell’s understanding of and participation in Black culture. By the time he mounted “Two Centuries,” he had spent almost twenty years studying some of the sixty-three artists in the exhibition—Elizabeth Catlett, Selma Burke, and Hale Woodruff among them—and developing his own artistic perspective, which drew on collage techniques, forms from the natural world, and the flat, geometric qualities of both African and Byzantine iconography.