The Phillips Collection Marks Centennial Year With Major Exhibitions of D.C. Artists David Driskell, Alma Thomas

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  • November 28, 2021

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David Driskell, Woman with Flowers, 1972, Oil and collage on canvas, 37 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; Art Bridges Foundation, Bentonville, Arkansas

This fall, cultural and educational institutions across Washington, DC, have joined together to celebrate the life of pioneering artist and educator Alma Thomas (1891–1978) with a variety of programs and events, alongside the retrospective exhibition Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful at The Phillips Collection, on view now to January 23, 2022. Beyond her artwork, Alma Thomas’s accomplishments and contributions to our cultural heritage were vast and varied—she was the first graduate of Howard University’s Department of Art, the first African American woman to have a work of art acquired by the White House Collection, a founding member and vice president of one of the first Black-owned private galleries in the nation, and a teacher for 35 years who taught us the importance of seeking beauty in the everyday.  Visit for more information and details on all events.

“Our 100th anniversary year celebrates the many ways that Washington, DC, artists have enriched The Phillips Collection. Thomas’s body of work continues to influence current conversations throughout the art world. Highlighting her achievements in this exhibition showcases the expansive impact of our local creative community,” explains Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski.

During its centennial year, The Phillips Collection is also showcasing the artwork of the prolific artist David Driskell (1931–2020). Featuring over 50 works, David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History offers the first comprehensive examination of the paintings, collages, prints, and drawings of the celebrated American artist, art historian, and educator. Organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, this exhibition is on view now at The Phillips Collection, until January 9, 2022.

Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, 57 7/8 x 50 in., The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Franz Bader, 1976

Driskell has long been recognized for his vibrant and versatile artistic practice rooted in his reverence of the beauty and spirituality of the American landscape and his profound connection to the African diaspora. His legacy in the history of American art is unparalleled: through his curatorial work, writing, and teaching, he demonstrated that the art of Black people is essential to the story of American art.

Driskell was a longtime friend and supporter of The Phillips Collection, serving as a trustee of the museum from 2016 to 2019. “It is a privilege for the Phillips to have shared history with David, who accomplished so much in his life and opened the door to so many as a scholar and educator. His dedication to sharing African American art over many decades transformed the art world,” says Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski.

Driskell studied art in Washington, receiving his BFA from Howard University in 1955 and his MFA from the Catholic University of America in 1962. He also studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and developed a lifetime connection to that organization. Through works spanning seven decades, the exhibition establishes the evolution of his use of collage as a painterly medium, his innovative figurative abstraction, and his signature incorporation of African forms. Driskell’s command of color and line and attentiveness to what he called “the symbolic presence of form” is showcased through his beloved subjects, including the natural world, abstraction, and the Black Christian church. His work, represented in numerous public and private collections, has been featured in exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Africa.

“In this exhibition, we want to honor Driskell’s many dimensions as an artist who for more than seven decades practiced with an elegant hand and soulful spirit. Through an intimate approach to his subjects, and a rich vocabulary of color and pattern, Driskell conjures the magic in the everyday and the humanity in the spiritual. As a longtime mentee, colleague, and friend I am particularly honored to help bring Driskell’s expansive body of work to The Phillips Collection’s audiences,” explains Adjunct Curator Adrienne L. Childs, coordinating curator for the presentation at The Phillips Collection.

Among the Phillips' centennial year acquisitions is Daniel Canogar, Amalgama Phillips, 2021, Generative artwork, dimensions variable, The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions

Although his first love was painting itself, Driskell largely devoted his professional life to service for others: he taught generations of artists and art historians; mentored emerging artists and young faculty members, primarily at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); researched and wrote extensively about the artistic achievements of Black people throughout American history; and was a founding father of the field of African American art history who was influential in the hiring of African American artists as professors. This exhibition presents a vibrant array of works spanning Driskell’s career that reveal how artist and educator synthesized his dedication to the field of African American art with his own artistic journey.  

Driskell said that the first time he visited The Phillips Collection in the 1950s, he felt “a sense of welcome there […] and was just taken by the ambiance of the place.”

“David often visited the museum with his mentor and friend Alma Thomas, and The Phillips Collection is proud to exhibit the work of these two important cultural leaders this fall. We want every artist to feel welcomed and inspired by the Phillips the way they did,” notes Horning Chair for Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion Makeba Clay.

The Phillips Collection presents this exhibition to celebrate the legacy of David Driskell and dedicates the presentation of this exhibition to his loving memory.

Tags: american art

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