January 04, 2007


David C. Driskell: Artist and Scholar. By Julie L. McGee. Pomegranate. $45.

     At some point in the future – the near future, one hopes – artists will be judged entirely on their work and the impressions it makes on viewers, not on their backgrounds and interests, and certainly not on their skin color.  But we are not quite at that point yet, so this excellent study of David Driskell’s considerable artistic accomplishments is built around the fact that Driskell is an important proponent of African American art, is himself African American, and is an academic advocate of African American studies.

     With an artist as good as Driskell, this is something of a shame, because his works can and do stand on their own, making a strong impression even if you know nothing of their provenance.  Yes, some of his scenes clearly focus on African and African American experiences, but just as many are decidedly race-neutral.  The wonderfully multicolored “Antique Rocker” of 1978, for example, is an acrylic-on-canvas painting that makes a very strong visual impression, while “The Beautiful Dust” (1980, egg tempera and collage on paper) is one of several works in which a sun rises above abstract landscapes that are vaguely and effectively evocative.

     Art historian Julie McGee, who spent more than a decade teaching art history and Africana studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, clearly admires Driskell to the point of hagiography.  McGee has assembled a thorough and fascinating book that focuses as much on Driskell the man as on Driskell the artist, with numerous photos of Driskell complementing the self-portraits, and with lengthy discussions of Driskell’s prestige in areas from the academic to the political (he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Clinton in 2000).  And the book is very handsome to look at, including excellent reproductions of nearly 200 color and black-and-white images.

     Yet for all his accomplishments, Driskell is not a household name, so the target audience of this book – which contains a great deal of writing about Driskell in its 216 pages – would seem to be mostly in academia or in areas where people focus on artists specifically because of their relationship to the African and African American experience.  And this is too bad.  It is probably naïve to hope that art can always transcend racial boundaries, but it certainly can do so in some cases, and Driskell’s happens to be one of them.  The ambiguous skin color of Christ in the oil painting, “Behold Thy Son” (1956), matters not at all: this is a striking image that reaches into and beyond religious feeling.  The unusual and lovely “Winter Tree” (1962, encaustic on canvas) is a semi-abstract piece that enthralls simply because it is.  The more overtly political and “black” works here, such as “Of Thee I Sing” (1968, acrylic and collage on Masonite) are actually less effective than, for example, the lovely “House in Hyattsville” (a 1978 watercolor), which reaches out to people of every skin tone and every political persuasion.  David Driskell is a remarkable artist – a remarkable African American artist, yes, but in this case (and in perhaps a great many cases), the qualifier limits the man unfairly.

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