The Vision of David C. Driskell

SPRING 2020

There’s a haunting aspect of image making that moves in and out of reality for me. I see it, I know it’s there, and something inside says, “Do it. Don’t you see it?” Then there’s that compelling urge to do it as I feel it. So I think my work is a cross between the two.

David C. Driskel

American Embassy in Pretoria, L to R: Dr. Deborah Willis, Liza Goodman from Goodman Gallery, Dr. David Driskell, and Dr. Kellie Jones, art historian. Photo by Pamela Newkirk
American Embassy in Pretoria, L to R: Dr. Deborah Willis, Liza Goodman from Goodman Gallery, Dr. David Driskell, and Dr. Kellie Jones, art historian. Photo by Pamela Newkirk

DAVID C. DRISKELL (1931-2020) was best known for reframing the field of African American art history.

A founding member of the IDSVA Visiting Faculty, David Driskell was a visionary artist and art historian. He described his work as a cross between doing art and envisioning it; and, yes—he did both.

When I received the fateful call that David was gone, at first I didn’t comprehend it… I couldn’t fathom it. He was not only an inspiration, but a friend of five decades. After the call from friend Larry Frazier, I immediately flipped through my iPhone to look at the last text David and I shared on Thursday, March 19, at 3:14 pm: “How are you feeling?” His response: “I am fine thank you, staying in.” I said, “Good, me too!”

A truly spiritual man who enjoyed life in the arts, David was a great storyteller with a knack for history and place. He was kind, funny, thoughtful and a dapper dresser. His intellect expanded beyond the page and into the kitchen — a great cook, he delighted in preparing  meals for his family and guests. He loved his home, his front yard and backyard,  whether that home was in Maryland or Maine. His studio was a sanctuary and an archaeological dig. His New York City apartment was a gathering place as well for thinking, writing, and meeting artists, curators, and scholars. He was a teacher, mentor, and researcher who believed in making room to create a community of scholars.

The last email I got from him — on March 7 — was typically supportive of an African American in the arts, in this case a speech by Spelman College president Mary Schmidt Campbell, whose books include Memory and Metaphor: the Art  of Romare Bearden.  "Mary was amazing," he wrote. "People are still talking about how good her lecture was. Full house. Love her book, love, David.”

 Last night I looked at the Shared Albums on my phone and looked through photographs of us together in Johannesburg, College Park, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Paris, Rome, and Florence. They were endless and powerful. I recalled meeting him a few times in Europe while on his way to teach in Spannocchia Castle, Tuscany, for IDSVA. He was enthusiastic about meeting the next class. I loved that he proudly wore his National Humanities medal when he attended events that was bestowed on him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

An honorable man who received numerous accolades and honorary doctorates, David was everybody's mentor, and he definitely was mine — because he taught the world how to see and understand and speak about black art.

Dr. Deborah Willis is chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and the director of NYU's Center for Black Visual Culture. Dr. Willis is a 2017 IDSVA honorary degree recipient and a member of the IDSVA Board of Trustees.