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Icons of Nature and History, by David Driskell


Icons of Nature and History

David Driskell
Phillips Collection/Traveling

I’ve tried, I swear, to get Mark Rothko. Every visit to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. demands a stop in a tiny but well-advertised room—sometimes dubbed a chapel—where hang four of the abstract expressionist’s monumental color field paintings. They’re landmarks of American modern art: large rectangles of bold contrasting colors supposed to provoke a direct, mystical reaction in viewers. At the artist’s request, there’s a small bench in the middle of this room, for meditation. The paintings offer a spirituality free of forms and figures, non-depictions of the god beyond God, objective and universal.

That’s the pitch, anyway. It’s not that I think Rothko’s color fields are bad (as I’ve overheard museumgoers say), or that a small child could have made them (I’ve heard that, too). It’s just not so easy to sit on the bench and have a spiritual experience in yellow and red. When I go, it’s the cross-hatched brushstrokes around the fields and the seemingly intentional irregularities, the mirage-like middle spaces—that is, everything except the great monochrome expanses—that consistently draw my eye. It’s surely not something a kindergartener could do, but I couldn’t tell you why it’s more profound than what a kindergartener does.

But I keep trying anyway. And I always leave the Rothko room the slightest bit self-conscious, embarrassed at not having felt anything. It’s the feeling I used to get after praise and worship nights at youth group—aware that I could always join the ranks of skeptics who say it’s all trash, and nervous that the problem may just be me. From there I go hunting for wherever the museum’s moved Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series or the Georgia O’Keeffes. Anything to remind myself I’m not incapable of liking good modern art.

The last time I stepped out of the Rothko room, my hunt ended early. The Phillips recently hosted an exhibition of paintings and sketches by David Driskell, who died in 2020 of COVID-19. The show heads to the Cincinnati Art Museum in the spring. No offense to Cincinnati, but the Phillips is the more perfect venue for Driskell’s work. The artist was a sometime Washington resident and his work converses with so much of the museum’s permanent collection of modern art. 

Driskell was a scholar of African-American visual art, and he did nearly everything it’s possible to do on canvas. His early work deploys bold lines and heavy colors for airiness and light in moonlit pine forests and cityscapes that resemble stained-glass windows, a medium Driskell would work with later in his life. Much of his work from the 1960s and 1970s explores black identity and double-consciousness through collage and portraiture. Almost all the portraits in the exhibition, including several self-portraits, divide the subject’s face down the middle, with one side styled as an African mask or simply raised higher than the other. The collage elements of these paintings mix interiority and exteriority, framing flowers and foliage within doors, hallways, and angular spaces. Finally, the exhibition showcases Driskell’s abstract later period, arranged around a series of paintings made with Japanese-style strip collage that imitate the patterns on the artist’s mother’s quilts.

For all the variety in subjects and style, a number of motifs tie the exhibition together. There was an angel, for instance, in almost every room. One was right by the entrance, in Let the Church Roll On, a landscape depicting a simple wood chapel peeking through swirling clouds and climbing vines. A deep red background layer gives the scene a hint of the apocalyptic, but it glows through the storybook church like an ember. Even more striking than the color is the composition; the landscape elements, even those that belong in the foreground, appear to curl around and behind the chapel, throwing the perspective into question. It’s as if, instead of belonging to the rest of the painting, the church is in both the foreground and the middle distance, like it’s being nestled into the landscape from some impossible direction orthogonal to the painting—perhaps by the angel standing sideways over it.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone—not only across the exhibition but within many of the individual works. For me, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot stood out particularly. The Phillips placed it in a room with the collage portraits of the early 1970s, distinguished by their torn newsprint and split human faces. Swing Low has none of those elements. It is a color field painting, a field of dark blue hovering over a field of light yellow—with a few additions. Driskell separates the color above from the color below with red and blue splatter and the wild strokes of action painting, and suspends in the middle of the piece a red disc, half above and half below the horizon line. Unlike the divided faces elsewhere in this room, there’s no internal division in this red sun; the horizon may just as easily be extending out from the disc as cutting through it. Below it, at the bottom of the yellow field, are solid black silhouettes of the artist’s hands. Above, standing (or dancing?) on the blue field are two small human figures. This is another collage, arranging all the hallmarks of abstract expressionism. And as with other collage paintings, the artist deploys these elements to tell us about them, and to transform them.

Churches and religious artists looking to distance themselves from modernism’s “bare spirituality” too often produce sterile hyper-realist paintings and recapitulate medieval-looking architecture, as if nothing entered our common aesthetic vocabulary after a certain year. These, like a Rothko room or an upbeat youth group praise song seemingly only say, “here, have an experience.” Driskell is bolder, and humbler. He shows us that Rothko’s paintings were figural all along. This is not just the meeting of colors; it’s the difference between the sky and the heavens. Where Rothko sees an endlessly blank and infinitely receding horizon, there’s an angel’s chariot, thundering in motion but entirely stationary, an effect it’s only possible to convey with these kinetic brushstrokes. By recasting would-be abstractions as pictures of the transcendent, Driskell testifies to concrete realities instead of putting the burden on the viewer to have an experience. The transcendent doesn’t lose its universality by taking on a particular form. 

Philip Jeffery is deputy opinion editor of Newsweek.

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