In debates over the design and architecture of today’s museum, the majority of attention has been focused on the physical aspects of the museum space—the progression of the galleries, for example, or the building’s impact on the cityscape. Look at any museum map, though, and you’ll notice an additional level of infrastructure, less visible than the architecture but equally important: the infrastructure of names. Names appear everywhere in museums today—at the start of exhibitions, on the entranceways to new galleries, even hanging beside singular works. Familiar though these names are—“Wieland Pavilion,” “Paid for by the David C. Driskell acquisition fund,” and hell, even “High Museum”—they have a tendency to fade into functionality as they are used. Presumably, they stand for people who have contributed to the exhibition or collection on view. For the majority of us, though, these names are just that—names, more or less meaningless next to the art we’ve come to see.
So who are these people? Should we care about them? In the case of David C. Driskell, the name stands for far more than an individual’s designation. For the High Museum, the name Driskell signifies two important developments in its mission: the establishment, in 2005, of an annual prize for achievement in African American art and art history, and an acquisition fund dedicated to augmenting the museum’s collection of works by African American artists. “A Decade of David C. Driskell,” on view at the High through June 15, is the first comprehensive view of the acquisitions resulting from Driskell’s largesse—around 50 works to date, including 14 from the 10 prize winners. “A Decade” makes clear that the pieces—although chosen individually, by committee, and usually scattered in various galleries throughout the museum—are clearly on their way to becoming a collection in their own right. Their integration into the High’s existing collections, in fact, may say the most about what kind of collection the Driskell works will become: distinctly polyvocal, more outwardly oriented than insular, less concerned with cohesion than with innovation and curiosity. Like Driskell himself, each work speaks from a deeply rooted place—yet adds voice to conversations that carry far beyond its singular locale.
To understand the works acquired in his name, we have to understand David Driskell, the man, and his place in the firmament of African American intellectualism. Born in Eatonton, Georgia and raised in the foothills of the North Carolina Appalachians, Driskell made the near-mythic journey from south to north as a young man. Gravitating towards Washington, D.C., a midcentury hub for the African American cultural elite, Driskell entered Howard University, the historically black and historically prestigious college, in 1949.
He studied history—that is, until James Porter, the chair of the art department, tapped him on the shoulder during a drawing class, nearly two years into his college career. Porter, sometimes called the “father of African American art history,” singled Driskell out for his artistic talent, convincing him to change his major and informally inducting him into the family of academics and artists that had gathered at Howard. Driskell absorbed much of his mentor’s theories during his career at Howard, particularly Porter’s idea that the art of black Americans is first and foremost American—not than a separate and distinct tradition based in African visual traditions. Since that time, Driskell has worked to bring African American art into the wider academic, critical, and popular mainstream—and he has done so uniquely, with a rare combination of scholarship, art practice, curatorship, collecting, and creation of community.
Thus far, the prize given at the High has modeled the thrust of Driskell’s curatorial projects, which tended towards integration. Trained at the Barnett Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C., where works by African Americans hung side by side with works by white artists, Driskell absorbed a democratic approach to curating. As the curator of the Bill and Camille Cosby collection of art—yes, the Bill Cosby—Driskell applied the same critical but equitable eye, helping to build the collection into one of the finest private holdings of art—African American and otherwise—in the country. This egalitarianism reaches a kind of culmination with the Driskell acquisition fund, which has allowed Rashid Johnson’s Rumble to hang alongside a massive Anselm Kiefer in the High’s contemporary galleries—the differences between the two works becoming, finally, a matter of aesthetics rather than of institutional privilege.
Similarly, “A Decade” impresses most forcefully in its diversity. Not only do the works represent a range of media, styles, and processes, but each piece seems to allude to a different aspect of Driskell’s own aesthetic theory or artistic practice. The stunning sartorial sculpture that greets visitors entering the exhibition—Nick Cave’s Soundsuit—draws directly on the costume and masquerade traditions of certain African cultures, in much the same way that Yoruba and Kota cultures informed Driskell’s prints and paintings. More importantly, though, Cave’s wildly colorful sculpture uses elements of African visual traditions while maintaining a playful, unambiguous American-ness. For Driskell, these African elements, although not current in American culture, possess a kind of “symbolic presence” that is resurrected and reconfigured in the art of African Americans. There’s something of the spiritual in this belief—a spirituality that can be felt more clearly in the portfolio of Driskell’s prints hanging not far behind Cave’s sculpture. The prints, combining a rich, stained-glass color palette with a solidity of form reminiscent of Rouault, feel animated, earthy—so thick with life, it seems, they must have more of it than we do. This feeling of vitality surges up in various forms throughout the exhibition—from the sublime cacophony of Julie Mehretu’s Auguries to the dreamy memory-scape of Radcliffe Bailey’s En Route.
The soulful echoing in the Driskell gallery is matched only by a voice of protest – a voice that, although not found extensively in Driskell’s own art, is nevertheless a vital historical presence for African American art (as the neighboring exhibition of civil rights photography reminds us). Willie Cole’s How Do You Spell America? #7, one of a series of the artist’s “blackboard” works, continues the effort of the 1960s Black Arts Movement to create art with a socio-political commentary. Cole, known for his repurposing of everyday items hairdryers, stilettos, water bottles—often questions the symbolism of American culture, particularly American consumer culture. In How Do You Spell America? #7, sentences bullet matter-of-factly down the board in rows, each possessed of that declaratory “This-Is-The-Truth” authority familiar from first grade. And yet—the sentences contradict each other. Which statement really is the truth? The work challenges not only the unquestioned classroom command of the blackboard, but also the authority of the accepted narrative of American history. “Africans Made Europeans Rich In Colonial America,” one line reads, offering an alternative, corrected version of the creation myth of this country.
In much the same way, both Kerry James Marshall and Xaviera Simmons seek the restoration of a historical or narrative omission – although their means are primarily visual, as opposed to Cole’s text-based piece. In her “Utah”series, Simmons literally re-inserts the black person into the Manifest Destiny story of westward expansion, using her own figure as a stand-in for generations of African Americans. Complicated by a self-awareness of her own contemporaneous position (she often holds or uses a camera, or points meaningfully), Simmons’s photographs depict landscapes whose beauty might entrance us, were it not for the disruptive act of transformation that the human presence brings. Similarly, Marshall’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, both etchings in black ink, challenge the sacrosanctity of accepted archetype—in this case, literary rather than historical. Marshall’s pieces depict the well-known characters of Mary Shelly’s classic, but so faintly it is hard to detect them. The small-scale works force us into an intimate encounter with the male and female figures—which, upon closer inspection, resemble Adam and Eve more than any kind of monster. We feel the humanity of Frankenstein and his bride—despite their names, fraught as they are, and despite the literal blackness that demarcates their marginality.
Without a doubt, “A Decade” brings attention to what has been, quietly, one of the High’s most ambitious acquisition campaigns. It allows resonances among the works—which, among others, also include a beautiful series of prints by Martin Puryear—to emerge. In its placement, rather than its content, the exhibition may yield to an old habit of reductionism: relayed to the High’s basement, between a hall of civil rights photography and the museum’s collection of African sculpture, the exhibition seems to be sequestered in a space, both physical and aesthetic, that has been pre-prescribed. It is the works themselves that overcome this invisible barrier—embracing their history, both African and American, but also playing with it, making it their own. In this way, in fact, the artists seem true inheritors of David Driskell’s essential philosophy: to create from one’s own experience, unapologetic of its origins, but find a way to make that experience accessible to anyone who passes through the High, no matter their color.