David C. Driskell, whose innovative art and scholarship centered African-American art history and changed the discipline forever, has died, according to a center he founded at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was 88.
Driskell worked tirelessly as an artist, collector, historian, and curator, helping form a new area of study for a kind of art that mainstream institutions had chosen to ignore. His passion for the subject matter—and his fearless defense of it to establishment figures who doubted him—cemented his place in art history early on, and he has been an influence for many artists, curators, scholars, and others working today.
Among Driskell’s most famous efforts was the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1955,” which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. Now considered one of the most important surveys ever of African-American art, the show did not aim to present an aesthetically coherent overview of its subject matter. Instead, it placed a greater emphasis on discussing the works through a historical lens. The show provided proof positive that black artists had made a significant contribution to American art history—and that it could no longer be ignored by art institutions led by white officials.
“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,” he told the New York Times when the show traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 1977, after having also stopped at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas.