Vibrant hues play a starring role in Portland Museum’s David Driskell exhibit

Posted Dec. 21, 2009, at 5:08 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — It took Susan Danly some time to warm up to the idea of color on the gallery walls of the Portland Museum of Art’s current exhibition of the works of David C. Driskell.

As the museum’s curator of graphics, photography and contemporary art, Danly usually prefers neutral colors as the backdrop for exhibitions. But for Driskell’s deeply colorful works, Danly stepped out of what she admitted were her more conservative sensibilities.

The museum is hoping its visitors will do the same thing with “Evolution: Five Decades of Printmaking by David C. Driskell,” now hanging on bright blue, green and yellow walls. The exhibition focuses on the intersection of Driskell’s varied interests, from religion to African art to nature.

The exhibit, which closes Jan. 17, was organized by the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park.

It’s also one of few exhibits of work by a black artist the Portland Museum of Art has hosted in recent memory, Danly said.

Driskell spent much time traveling around the world to look at African art, and the Portland exhibit includes pieces of African art from Driskell’s personal collection. The inclusion of those pieces allows the viewer to understand the interest and attraction Driskell has to the African work, and to have a better idea of how he incorporates them into his prints.

Danly saw the exhibit at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art earlier this year. Although that exhibition did not include any of Driskell’s personal pieces, it was located one gallery over from the High’s African collection.

The Portland Museum of Art doesn’t have an extensive collection of African work, but Danly knew she wanted to include some of Driskell’s collection in the Portland show to provide some perspective. He lent the museum a few pieces.

“I just thought this could be so critical for audiences in Maine where we don’t get to see much African art, to get to see especially the pieces that influenced these prints,” she said.

“Evolution” includes more than 75 prints and works on paper starting from the 1950s, when Driskell began working. He works primarily in Maryland, but has had a summer home in Falmouth for decades, and at least one of the pieces in “Evolution” uses Maine as a subject. He also is active in the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Driskell has served since 1977 as culture adviser to Camille O. and William H. Cosby — better known as comedian Bill Cosby — and the Cosby Collection of Fine Arts. President Bill Clinton awarded Driskell the National Humanities Medal in 2000.

Although there are some black-and-white and other more muted works in the Portland Museum of Art’s show, Driskell’s colors stand out in the bulk of his work.

The 1986 offset lithograph “Spirits Watching,” one of the key images of the exhibition, is a vibrant portrait of a cluster of ornately garbed and colored figures, some with mask-like faces, staring out from the frame. His “Ancestral Images: The Forest,” has a similar theme of a cluster of figures, but in this case the figures are more ghostly, appearing to melt into a glowing yellow background.

While some of the works seem flooded with color, Driskell also can use minimal color to full effect. In “Watermelon,” a 1956 woodcut, Driskell printed in black but hand-colored the outline of the watermelon rind in green and the top of the flesh in red, which pop against the darker color.

To the viewer the mask-like faces that appear in Driskell’s art might recall Picasso, who did the same in one of his most famous works, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” of 1907, but Danly doesn’t see the figures as a reference to the Spanish artist at all.

“Picasso looks at it as a way of freeing himself from the burdens of Renaissance and looked at these as so-called primitive art,” she said. “David comes at it completely differently. David goes back to Africa to look for his roots and so forth. And he has a much deeper understanding of where that African art sits in African culture, both in Africa but also amongst people of African descent who live around the world. His understanding is actually a deeper appreciation of it.”

Driskell’s work actually is closer to that of Cezanne and Matisse, and Danly said Driskell has hanging in his Maryland home a black-and-white Matisse print. Driskell’s “Red Table,” a 1956 linocut, has the forms of a Cezanne still life and the color of Matisse’s 1911 painting, “The Red Room,” while Driskell’s 2000 woodcut, “Reclining Nude,” references Matisse’s “Blue Nude” of 1906.

“Clearly Matisse is someone who [Driskell’s] known about since he was an art student, someone he cared about, and cared enough to buy a print,” Danly said. “Clearly that Matisse-like sense of color is very important, and has been there from the beginning in [Driskell’s] art.”

The importance of color was something Danly tried to convey in the process of setting up the exhibit. It was Greg Welch, the museum’s preparator, who encouraged Danly to move away from neutral tones.

“So it was a bit of a leap of faith on my part, but [Welch] said go for the color,” she said.

It was a leap that worked. When Driskell visited the exhibition, Danly said, he told her it was the best installation of his prints he’d seen, because of the bright wall colors.

For Driskell’s own pieces of African art, Danly initially had display stands painted to match the colors on the walls of their gallery, but when she moved around the stands at the last minute, suddenly the stands and the walls didn’t match.

Once again, Welch stepped in to reassure the curator.

“Greg said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Danly said with a laugh. “Clearly because [the color] came out of the work, David understood why we had gone in this direction. It made it such a wonderful, lively show and I’m glad we went in that direction.”

For more information about the Portland Museum of Art, go to www.portlandmuseum.org.

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