Museum News

Statement on the Passing of Artist and Scholar, Dr. David C. Driskell 

April 15, 2020
Behold Thy Son 1956 oil on canvas Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © David C. Driskell

Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, posted the following statement on the passing of Dr. David C. Driskell. The preeminent artist and art historian who died April 1 at the age of 88.   

“The nation has lost a giant among its cultural warriors, one for whom the title ‘Artist-Scholar’ was a perfect fit—Dr. David Driskell. We at the museum mourn his passing even as we celebrate a lifetime committed to showing the world the singular power of art created by African Americans. Were it not for David Driskell, many people would not know or understand the images that came from the hearts and the experiences of Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Charles White and Alma Thomas, artists who were foundational to understanding the contributions of black artists to American art history.  

While mainstream museums were ignoring African American artists, David Driskell made the argument for the power of their work with unmatched passion. Through traveling exhibitions, major publications and public lectures, and by building collections and mentoring three generations of new artists and art historians, David Driskell changed the discipline forever.    

The art world and the public found much that was new and bold in 1976 when Dr. Driskell created the iconic exhibition ‘Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1955.’ It opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and had more than a few critics wondering why he chose not to present ‘an aesthetically coherent’ overview of black art and why he included younger artists whose careers were just beginning and whose voices were still developing.   

‘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,’ Dr. Driskell told the New York Times in 1977.    

After the California opening, the show traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the High Museum in Atlanta and the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas. Through that exhibition of more than 200 pieces, the nation had an opportunity to see how artists could tell the compelling story of American history through an African American lens on canvases and in sculpture and fiber works.  

David Driskell was born June 7, 1931, and grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina where he went to segregated schools requiring long bus rides. His father was a minister, his mother, a homemaker who told him stories about slavery passed along to her by her elders.  

He entered Howard University in 1951 planning to major in history but graduated in 1955 with a degree in art after studying with James A. Porter (1905–1970), the esteemed artist, art historian and writer who established African American art as a discipline demanding rigorous study. While a student at Howard, Dr. Driskell studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine, an intensive summer residency program, where he later served on the faculty and as a member of the Board of Trustees.  

He earned a master’s degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1962 and immediately joined the Howard faculty. In 1966, he took a faculty position at Fisk University. His last faculty posting was at the University of Maryland, College Park where he held the title of Distinguished University Professor of Art. In 2001, the university named The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora in honor of his extraordinary work in the field. The center also holds Dr. Driskell’s extensive archives.   

Beyond his teaching, Dr. Driskell was admired for his passion for acquiring the work of African American artists and for building a collection of more than 400 pieces; pieces from his collection have been seen in major galleries and museums across the country.  

When making his own art, Dr. Driskell was multifaced, working in watercolor, gouache, collage and more.    

We are honored to have his art here at NMAAHC in a collection that dates to the early 1800s and continues into the present day. On view now in the Visual Art Gallery is one of Driskell’s early works, “Behold Thy Son.” It was painted in 1956, months after the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. In this searing painting, Dr. Driskell presents us with the battered, lifeless body of Emmett Till. Young Emmett is shown as a Christ-like figure, hanging on a cross, and wrapped in the arms of someone embracing him from behind. The person holding him is not named, but, perhaps, all of humanity is that person.  

David Driskell’s impact on students, artists, historians and guardians of the culture is almost impossible to measure. We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Thelma Grace Driskell, his entire family and to those who love him as we do. He has an honored place in our collection and our hearts. Forever.”

 

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture   
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 6 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.

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Media Contact(s): 

Jermaine House (202) 633-4761; housej@si.edu 
Jason Spear (202) 633-4052; spearj@si.edu 

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