David Driskell: A World Beyond the Hills of North Carolina

Phillips Curator Elsa Smithgall with David Driskell and Bridget Moore, President of DC Moore Gallery, at the opening of Creative Spirit: The Art of David C. Driskell, David C. Driskell Center, September 15, 2011. Photo courtesy Bridget Moore

To honor artist David Driskell‘s 80th birthday and celebrate Creative Spirit: The Art of David C. Driskell on view through December 16 at The David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, Curator Elsa Smithgall writes about the artist’s relationship with The Phillips Collection in a two part series. Stay tuned for part two later this week.

In 1949 David Driskell set out to explore a world beyond the hills of North Carolina. The bright and determined young man boarded a train to Washington, D.C. with a mission: to further his education at Howard University. The following year he began his studies there as a history major. He would only later come to realize that art was his calling. A fateful encounter with Professor James A. Porter at Howard forever changed the course of his life. As Driskell remembers it, when the “erudite looking man” known as Porter dropped in on James L. Wells’s art class, he looked down on Driskell’s work and told him in no uncertain terms that he “belonged” in the art history department. Porter became a great mentor to Driskell as did Wells and James V. Herring and later Loïs Mailou Jones.

While in school Driskell’s interest in art took him beyond the classrooms of Howard University and into two intimate galleries that had a shared history: the Barnett Aden Gallery and The Phillips Collection. Museum founder Duncan Phillips was a regular visitor to the Barnett Aden Gallery, which had made a name for itself as a forum for interracial and international art. Founded in 1943 by Alonzo Aden and Herring, a close friend of Phillips, it was located in the first floor of the home Herring shared with Aden just north of the U.S. Capitol at 127 Randolph Place, NW. According to Driskell, who worked there as an assistant, the gallery modeled itself in part on the example of the Phillips gallery: “Barnett Aden Gallery was greatly influenced by Phillips, and Mr. Herring and Mr. Aden wanted to bring some of the same atmosphere to the African American community.”

At the urging of his colleagues and teachers, Driskell began visiting The Phillips Collection in the early 1950s. At that time Washington, D.C. was a segregated city, and few public institutions opened their doors to African Americans. Driskell fondly recalls the warm, inviting atmosphere that distinguished the Phillips: “There were places where one could sit, feel at home, and enjoy the comfort of the facility.” Of course he was also struck by the fine art collection and reveled in the chance to see works by Cézanne, Rouault, Tack, Ryder, and Pippin up close and personal. When he discovered paintings by James Wells hanging on the walls, he “felt so connected because here was my teacher. I couldn’t go to any other gallery in Washington, any other place and see my teacher’s work . . . it was pride that I knew this person, and his work [was] in the Phillips. It just kind of extended that welcome to me.” Driskell predicted that one day he too would develop a relationship with this place.

-Elsa Smithgall, Curator

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