ExhibitionsDavid Driskell: Icons of Nature and History
Past Exhibition

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History

February 6 – May 9, 2021

David Driskell (1931–2020) was one of the most revered American artists of his generation, long recognized for his vibrant and versatile painting and printmaking practices that combined keen observations of the American landscape with the imagery and aesthetic innovations of the African diaspora.

Although Driskell’s work was regularly presented in galleries and museums during his lifetime, in both solo and group exhibitions, this is the first exhibition to unite his paintings and works on paper, bringing approximately sixty artworks together to present highlights of his career. It is also the first major survey of his work since his death in April 2020 at the age of eighty-eight.

The exhibition surveys seven decades of the artist’s painterly practice from the 1950s to the 2000s, featuring works from museums and private collections and the artist’s estate. Select works establish the evolution of his use of collage as a medium, while others exemplify his signature incorporation of African images and forms

This exhibition is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, with support from The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Behold Thy Son, 1956

Behold Thy Son, 1956
Oil on canvas
Smithsonian, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington, DC

Behold Thy Son pays homage to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy whose brutal murder in Mississippi in 1955 brought national attention to racial violence and racial injustice in America and especially the South. Driskell’s symbolic rendering brings Till’s death in communion with Jesus’s sacrifice as the man of sorrows. Painted in dark hues, the central figures, and the nearby sarcophagus and candelabra, instill the painting with the somber but sacred quality of a pietà or a Crucifixion. The painting’s title refers to a biblical account of the Crucifixion (John 19:26): “Woman, behold thy son!” Drawings Driskell completed the same year, Behold Thy Son, I and Study for Behold Thy Son, expand our understanding of the artist’s approach to this iconic Christian subject.

Driskell Behold Thy Son 1956 O4.jpg

Memories of a Distant Past, 1975

Memories of a Distant Past, 1975
Egg tempera, gouache, and collage on paper
Private collection, Washington, DC

Memories of a Distant Past exemplifies the collage painting method Driskell favored in the late 1960s and 1970s, achieving a harmonious orchestration of content and form, paint, and collage. Pictorial collage fragments, deployed for pattern and shape, came from commercial print materials (Look magazine was a favorite), fabric, painted paper, and uneditioned prints (his own). This painting repurposes material published in the January 7, 1969, edition of Look—a special issue: The Blacks and the Whites. Driskell used pictorial imagery from the essay titled “Black America’s African Heritage.”

48 Memories Of A Distant Past Crp O4.jpg

Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), 2007

Night Vision (for Jacob Lawrence), 2007
Collage and gouache on paper
Delaware Art Museum

Artist Jacob Lawrence was an important mentor and colleague of Driskell’s, and their paths intersected several times, including at Fisk and Skowhegan. In this homage, a figure bathed in a central core of light that seems self-generated emerges from the blue of the night. The bifurcated mask-like face includes collage elements from Driskell’s 1986 lithograph, Spirits Watching. Driskell used mask-like faces to express the power and continuing presence of the ancestors.

73 Night Vision For Jacob Lawrence Crp O4.jpg

Self-Portrait, 1953

Self-Portrait, 1953
Oil on board
Collection of the Estate of David C. Driskell, Maryland

Driskell made many self-portraits over the course of his career. He used a method that favored perceptual insight over drawing from life. These psychological self-portraits, as he called them, reflect his assessment of his facial characteristics, temperament, and age in the moment. This painting from 1953 is an early formal self-portrait, completed while he was a student at Howard University. The confidence and sense of inner awareness that it projects anticipate the bearing of his later self-portraits.

1 Self Portrait Crp O4.jpg

Shaker Chair and Quilt, 1988

Shaker Chair and Quilt, 1988
Encaustic and collage on paper
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, museum purchase, George Otis Hamlin Fund

A wax-based medium, encaustic is challenging to use. It provided Driskell an excellent binder for such textured collage materials as torn strips of painted paper while also creating the effect of transparency. When burnished, the melted wax provides a surface that is brilliant and luminous, creating depth wherein the collage elements seem to dance or oscillate. Shaker Chair and Quilt recalls his mother’s quilting and refers to his deep admiration for Shaker artisans and their furnishings. Driskell frequently visited Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, not far his Falmouth home.

64 Shaker Chair And Quilt Crp O4.jpg

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1972

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1972
Acrylic on canvas
Tougaloo College Art Collections, Tougaloo, Mississippi, purchase with support from the National Endowment for the Arts

Driskell titled this painting after one of the best known and beloved American folksongs, a spiritual first recorded in 1909 by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet. A hopeful hymn, the lyrics of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” allude to freedom and deliverance in the company of angels. According to the artist, he used tracings of his hands for those shown in silhouette.

Driskell Swing Low Sweet Chariot 1972 O4.jpg

Two Pines #2, 1964

Two Pines #2, 1964
Oil on canvas
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of David C. and Thelma G. Driskell, 2000.203

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Untitled, 1958

Untitled, 1958
Ink and charcoal on paper
David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park

Driskell Untitled Abstract 1958 O4.jpg

Self Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), 1974

Self Portrait as Beni (“I Dream Again of Benin”), 1974
Egg tempera, gouache, and collage on paper
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Fund, 2015.74

Self-Portrait as Beni brings the artist and the ancient Benin kingdom together as one. Driskell visited Benin City (formerly Edo, capital of the Kingdom of Benin) in 1970. Here he combines a modern self-portrait (on the right) with an ancient, ornamental Benin hip mask (on the left). Annotations on the back of the painting include the date of its completion and a poem, “I Dreamed Again of Benin.” With both art forms, poetry and collage painting, Driskell pays homage to the ancient people of an empire whose countenances evoke dignity and pride.

Resized D5675u457567502015.74driskellcrp O2.jpg

Woman with Flowers, 1972

Woman with Flowers, 1972
Oil and collage on canvas
Art Bridges, Bentonville, AR

Driskell Rev 46 Woman With Flowers 1972 O4.jpg

Homage to Romare, 1976

Homage to Romare, 1976
Collage and gouache on Masonite
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment

“I think there is something very special about the Southern Black experience . . . . One of my heroes of the Southern experience is a Black artist, Romare Bearden.” —David Driskell, 1980

Driskell Rev 52 Homage To Romare 1976 O4.jpg


David Driskell was born in Eatonton, Georgia, in 1931. He graduated from Howard University in 1955, received an MFA from Catholic University in 1962, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture In 1953.

A lifelong educator, Driskell honed his teaching repertoire at HBCUs between 1955 through 1977, teaching at Talladega College, Howard University, and Fisk University. From 1977 through 1997, Driskell taught at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is now the home of the David C. Driskell Center, an exhibition space and research institute that houses Driskell’s archive. In addition to a growing collection of African American art, it serves as a study center for the history of African American art and art of the African diaspora.
The High Museum of Art’s relationship with Driskell began in 1977 when the Museum presented Driskell’s landmark exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, the first traveling museum exhibition dedicated to works made exclusively by African American artists in the United States between 1750 and 1950. In 2000, the Museum presented the concurrent exhibitions To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection, which examined African American art in the broad historical context of modern and contemporary art. Established by the High Museum in 2005, the David C. Driskell Prize is the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of African American art and art history.


Culture Type | “Coming Soon: ‘Icons of Nature and History,’ a Major Survey of David Driskell Opens at High Museum in Atlanta in February 2021”
Artnet News | “9 Must-See US Museum Shows Opening in Early 2021, From KAWS’s Brooklyn Blowout to a Homecoming for Laura Owens”
Widewalls | “Seven Decades of David Driskell’s Art Soon in a Traveling Exhibition”
ARTFIXdaily | “A Look Back at 2020 – ARTFIXdaily Returns in January”
Sugarcane Magazine | “This Week in Black Art and Culture”
ARTnews | “New ‘Black Art’ Documentary Is a Moving Tribute to Art Historian David C. Driskell’s Legacy”
Emory Wheel | “Bey and Driskell: Two Art Icons at the High”
Forbes | “Review: HBO Original Documentary ‘Black Art: In The Absence Of Light’”
Architectural Digest | “Six Transporting Exhibitions of Works by Black Artists to See This Month”
ArtsATL | “High retrospective shows David C. Driskell as artist extraordinaire, scholar and man”
Art & Antiques | “Scholar, Curator, Creator”
Atlanta Journal Constitution | “Two shows spotlight art of David Driskell, eminent Black art scholar”
The New York Times | “Black History Month Is a Good Excuse for Delving Into Our Art”
Town and Country | “David Driskell Was a Curator, Artist, Scholar, and Fervent Champion of Black Art
Rolling Out | “Atlanta’s High Museum recognizes the legacy of David Driskell in new exhibit”
Forbes | “2021: The Year of David Driskell”
Burnaway | “‘David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History’ at High Museum of Art”
ARTnews | “How David C. Driskell’s Painting, Collecting, and Curating Helped Preserve Black Art History”
Art in America | “See David C. Driskell’s Radiant Paintings Exploring Black Heritage”

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.
The exhibition will be on view at the High Museum of Art (February 6–May 9, 2021), Portland Museum of Art (June 19–September 12, 2021), and the Phillips Collection (October 16, 2021–January 9, 2022).

National Tour Sponsorship Provided By

Major Funding Provided By

Henry Luce Foundation
Brenda and Larry Thompson

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor

Exhibition Series Sponsor

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

Sarah and Jim Kennedy

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters

The Antinori Foundation
Corporate Environments
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Elizabeth and Chris Willett

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters

Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren

Generous support is also provided by

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.
Billye and Hank AaronAlton AdamsLucy and Raymond AllenAndreane and Michael K. AndersonSpring and Tom AsherLisa and Joe BankoffAndrea Barnwell BrownleeVeronica and Franklin BigginsDennis L. Boyden and Linda M. WashingtonSusan and Gregg BranhamScarlet Pressley-Brown and Wendell BrownKirsten Pai BuickNancy and Randall K. BurkettMary Schmidt CampbellWillie ColeHuey CopelandDonna and Timothy CrimRichard Deane, Jr.Jennifer and Curley M. Dossman, Jr.Brooke and Rod Edmond
Helen and Howard ElkinsPeggy ForemanBonnie and Larry FrazierMargaret and Scotty GreeneAyonna HammondStephanie Johnson HardyLyle Ashton HarrisVenessa HarrisonSara and Jeff HehirElsie and Jim HendersonSivan and Jeffrey HinesCharlene Crusoe-Ingram and Earnest IngramJane and Clay JacksonRashid JohnsonKellie Jones and Guthrie RamseyNaima J. KeithJudy and Scott LampertJoe B. MasseyRhonda and Chris MatheisonSally and Allen McDaniel
Sheyda MehraraJanine and George MonroeBridget Moore—DC Moore GallerySally and Jim MorgensValerie Cassel OliverVicki and John PalmerMonica and John Pearson, Sr.Peterson/Compton FamilyWanda Yancey RodwellShayla and Chip RumelyLovette and Michael RussellSylvia A. RussellD. Jack Sawyer, Jr., and William E. TorresM. Alexis Scott and Brian McKissickAmy SheraldRobyn and Frank SimsXaviera Simmons/David Castillo GalleryFranklin SirmansArthur G. SmithMargaret and F. Terry Stent
Renee StoutLisa Cannon Taylor and Chuck TaylorCarla and Cleophus Thomas, Jr.Krista A. ThompsonHellena H. Tidwell in memory of Isaiah TidwellHenrie M. TreadwellCindy and Bill VoylesApril WatkinsSue and John WielandCarolyn and Ambassador Andrew Young