Portrait of a New York Artist: Darrell U. Black
by Hans D. Pflug
Actually, he became my friend even before I had met him face to face. It was during a vernissage at the Frankfurt Airport, where a flight captain had arranged an exhibition of impressive photos of clouds and sunlight, viewed from his cockpit. In the background, I heard a Homeric laughter. It was not somebody who laughed at a joke or so – no, it was the hearty, sonorous laughter of a man who obviously enjoyed life. I turned around, and it was Darrell Black, the New York painter, who was just having a chat with my wife and some other guests. I shook hands with him and said: We must become friends. And his answer was: Yes, we will be friends. It seemed to be something very natural to be his friend.
He said with a mystic smile: Yes, I am a painter – but it's modern art, very modern. I replied: I am a writer, I have not yet published anything. I am just enjoying writing, it's so much fun. We made a deal. Darrell said: I would be interested to read some of your stuff. Let me have it, and in return I give you a painting. When we met again, Darrel gave me two little paintings, size 8.5" x 12.5", he had called them "Synchronized Jumping" and "The Pillars". I sent him a copy of my novel "The Miraculous Adventures of the Little Bear and the Little Monkey".
Pinned to the lapel of his jacket were the colours of the Stars and Stripes. The Nine-Eleven had its impact on Darrell's art. He created four different flags which bear the words "America a nation of hope, heroism and humanity", "America wanting resolution in exchange of war", "America's strength lies in its diversity" and "America a symbol of unity and resolution in times of crisis". He is a patriot but he shows no desire to discuss politics.
On Nine-Eleven, I was at a conference in Washington. At nine o'clock, they told us that the WTC Towers in New York had been attacked, and a little later the Pentagon. Just at the time when my wife was strolling about downtown Washington. The shock stayed with us after we had returned home. I said to Darrell: Once I liked to look at the sky when a plane was crossing. It was a foretaste of my next trip. Now, I don't look anymore at planes. It's as though this shattering event has made me older all at once. Darrell said: I just feel the same. Somehow, I found solace in his simple words.
When I asked Darrel for his business card, he gave me a brochure with his address and the print of one of his images, called "The King and His Four Sons", followed by a short text that read: "My work portrays various differences in human nature, from life's everyday dramas to humankind's quest to understanding Self. The pen and ink drawings transport viewers from the doldrums of their daily reality to a visual interpretation of another reality…" It is somewhat amazing to read these pensive lines and then to hear Darrell saying: Yes, I enjoy my life. Despite h i s everyday dramas and the doldrums of h i s daily reality? You would expect such a serene composure from a white-bearded Greek philosopher at the summit of his wisdom, but Darrell has not even reached his 40st birthday.
Darrell Urban Black was born in Brooklyn in 1964, later the family moved to Rockaway, New York. There he spent most of his youth. At highschool, he got excellent marks in science. In June 1969, America fulfilled J. F. Kennedy's dream to conquer the space. American astronauts, planting the Stars and Stripes into the dusty surface of the moon. Darrell, then five, began to build his own spaceships from utensils he found in the bathroom: pieces of clothes, shoe laces, hair pins, soap boxes, shavers, and from the kitchen: forks and spoons… Phantasmic spaceships that would eventually carry him to his unique wonderland of strange forms and colours.
His elder siblings watched his imaginary activities with suspicion. They thought it was an odd behaviour of a child to spend its pastime in such an unreal world. Sure, there were signs of mental illness, they thought, which demanded appropriate action. Fortunately, his parents were more supportive to his art and decided against institutionalizing poor Darrell. In those days, he had one close friend, this was Kenny, living just round the corner. He was always available, when Darrell was in need of company. The other children in the street were curious to meet Kenny, and Darrell tried his best to arrange this. It never worked out, because Kenny did not exist in the real world.
In 1980, the family moved to Long Island, where Darrell's mom still lives. At this time, Darrell made still another transition. Till now, he had created replicas of spaceships, aerodromes and futuristic cities. Now, he turned to placing his artistic visions on paper. Within a two year's period, he produced some 500 drawings. He received much encouragement and support from his mother, who worked in a mental hospital. She bought him paper, ink and pens. His father, who was an expert in avionics with PANAM, had left the family in 1979.
Then, something happened to Darrell that was to leave him behind in grief and bewilderment, to say the least. In 1982, he joined the National Guard in New York. Upon his return home from duty he was keen to resume drawing. He wished to study his earlier drawings to spark inspiration. It turned out to be a desperate search to no avail – the 500 drawings were gone. His mother, mistaking Darrell's genius for a passing phase, had thrown his work to the garbage.
Darrell: I was devastated and decided never to draw again. I was unable to even look at blank sheets of papers or ink or pens. It was a kind of anguish torturing me that could be only soothed by forgetting that I once was a fledgeling artist.
If his early oevre had not been destroyed – would Darrell's career as an artist have taken different turns? It's idle to muse at this question. However, in retrospect of the catastrophe, in the mellowing shades of time, we may be reminded of the purging impact of a forest fire. The surviving seedlings still grow to another mighty forest.
For the next six years he turned away from art completely, and for another three years he grappled with his genius to come to life again. It was like a miracle: In 1988, the year he joined the regular army, he discovered by chance ten photos he had once taken from his earlier work – the only pieces that were left, just enough to kindle the fire…
He has the natural gift to be a friend, he is a sociable and convivial guest at parties, being always surrounded by curious people. He is a good listener, he is very courteous, and he has a big heart. This is the Darrel, we shake hands with, the man with the big laugh, with the broad, overwhelming smile. If you meet Darrel, the artist, you will discover some other traits of his personality: He appears more detached from his surroundings, wrapped in thought and quite serious.
Once, we had invited Darrell and Christina, his wife, for dinner, and Darrell glanced at the few paintings which adorn the walls of our flat. The artists were friends and relatives, and Darrell did not give much comments, except to one: An oil on canvas, showing the yellow flowers of an arnica plant in the state of withering, some heads already drooping. Darrell said: This painting does not give me something, it takes something away from me. The artist was a former girl friend of mine, and I told him, even in later years she still suffered from memories of a loveless childhood.
The same evening, I got a glimpse of Darrell's creative work. I asked him some questions related to his art, and he said: Give me some paper and a pencil. Then he filled nine pages with patterns of a continuous flow of crisscrossing lines. The pencil, as though driven by magic, never came to a rest. Out of these bewildering mazes, figures and faces evolved. Darrell put his name on three of the drawings. Why don't you sign the other ones? Because, I don't know what they mean, he said.
This is an excellent description of what most viewers will see, and perhaps you couldn't come nearer to the mystery of Darrell's art. And yet, you might be eons away. The more you try to understand Darrell, following the straightforward guidelines of your intellect, the more deeply you get lost in an intricate, fabulous maze, a mystic, puzzling wonderland – a strange, cryptic fairy tale. Why should we try to unveil this mystery? Why not just enjoying our great amazement – in times that believe to have an answer for almost everything?
When I first read Darrell's e-mail address, I wondered at the word "definism". It was Christina, his wife, who hinted to me: Think of cubism, surrealism, dadaism ... Usually, artists have an ancestry, Giotto, for example, was the most prominent forefather of the Italian Renaissance. No, said Darrell, I had none. Spaceships, if you like. He is the first representative of "definism". I tried to recall someone else, who in an similar way appeared out of the blue with some novel art. Friedensreich Hundertwasser came to mind.
Darrell Black lives with his family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He is a flourishing artist. In April 2001, he was nominated to the German government "for this year's prize for promising young artists". The idea came from John Provan of the Zeppelin Museum in Frankfurt. For the exhibition entitled "The Zeppelin in Art, Design, and Advertisement", held between May 11 and July 30, 2000, Darrell had created "The Invasion". In the nomination letter, he was cited for his exceptional abilities in various art works. Another piece of art, referenced in the letter, was titled "The Cosmic Linen", executed with a unique glue and acrylic on linen technique. The image was described as "universally appealing and representing a topic which concerns all of us – the universe".
Darrell Black's art is represented in a number of art galleries, museums and other institutions in America and Germany: Guggeheim Museum of Modern Art, James Baird Gallery; Frankfurt International Airport; Zeppelin Museum Frankfurt, American Center for Artists, The Amistad Foundation (at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford CT), Stand-up for Kids (Boston), Annual Art Auction for Homeless Kids (two works on paper auctioned off in December 2002).