New Acquisitions: David Driskell, Gate Leg Table

The setting of this lushly painted scene appears to be a shallow room with a single window opposite the viewer. While the window suggests the landscape beyond, a large chair looms up in front of it, arresting a potential visual journey outside. With its top rail literally extending beyond the edge of the painting, the chair refocuses our attention on the objects occupying the interior space. In the foreground, we find the table referred to in the title, and on it an abstract composition—a painting—far larger than the tabletop. The artist has used brighter colors and bolder brush strokes for this painting-within-a-painting than he did for the surrounding scene. In sum, the subject is a painting visible on a table in a small room; or to put it more broadly, it is a painted representation of a presentation of a work of art.

David Driskell (born 1931) has long brought a distinctive voice to painting. The power of his approach, which often includes painted areas along with found objects, is particularly apparent in Gate Leg Table, 1966. This early work integrates actual furniture parts with the painted portions of the objects he depicts. In this way, Driskell extends the composition's narrative. He completes the chair using a repurposed top rail with spindles, and the table with a turned table leg and over-painted, ovoid boards. This work, then, is both an abstraction on many levels and a real thing—both a painting of an object and a tangible object.

Driskell, like some of his contemporaries including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, pushed a new path for modern art. He used three-dimensional additions to blur or complicate the boundary between art and the real, and in this painting he has added a layer of theoretical complexity by virtue of his subject, itself a work of art. While deeply rewarding on a visual level, Gate Leg Table is also a profound conceptual work addressing the core challenges facing painters at the time: essentially, to make artworks that were themselves the subject; and to create objects that were the aesthetic end and not the means to other subject matter.

Perhaps not surprisingly considering the conceptual heft of his artwork, Driskell also has long been a major figure in art history. After earning his BFA from Howard University (1955) and an MFA from Catholic University (1962), he pursued an advanced degree in art history from the Rijksbureau voorKunsthistorisches Documentatie, The Hague, Netherlands (1964). The twin pursuits of art making and art history have defined his efforts since the beginning of his career. His groundbreaking early scholarship on the history of African American art changed the field, establishing his expertise as an art historian and challenging the Anglo-American bias of all preceding scholarship on American art.

Throughout his academic career, he has remained a dedicated and productive artist, creating collages, prints, paintings, and sculptures that have been the subject of countless one-person shows and even more group shows. His work is well represented in American museums of all sizes, from the National Gallery of Art to the Fisk University Art Galleries—and now, to our great delight, the Hood Museum of Art.

Written September 01, 2018