Remembering Rigsby

1993 was a terrible year for the local art world. First the galleries started closing--Joan Robey, Alpha, Hassel Haeseler and Payton-Rule. Then the artists started dying--Wes Kennedy, Edward Marecak and David Rigsby.

In the years since, both Kennedy and Marecak have been the subject of several fine surveys and memorial exhibits, with Marecak receiving no less than four of them. Rigsby's work hasn't been seen since the year before he died. But that's not the only reason the David Rigsby Retrospective, currently occupying all four exhibition spaces at Pirate, is a must-see for anyone with even the slightest interest in contemporary art. It also happens to be one of the finest shows to have been presented in Denver this year.

Organized by Rigsby's daughter, Lisa Rigsby Peterson, the Pirate exhibit demonstrates that Rigsby was an excellent painter and an even better sculptor. Above all, it reveals the life of a thoroughly committed artist. "After my father died, my brother [John David Rigsby, Jr.] and I went to Houston to empty out my father's studio," recalls Peterson. "We weren't prepared for how much work he had done."

The disjointed nature of the collection made it difficult for Peterson to catalogue; in many cases, pieces were undated. Fortunately, Rigsby had created scrapbooks; though by no means all-inclusive, they did help his daughter sort the work into chronological order.

In putting together the show, Peterson enlisted the help of a longtime friend of her father's, Michael Pedziwiatr, the well-known Denver sculptor. Pedziwiatr and another old friend of Rigsby's, local painter Dale Chisman, supervised the installation of the Pirate show with Pirates Bill Stockman and Steve Batura. And the Pirate crew deserves credit for overcoming the logistical challenges they must have confronted to clear the decks so that the entire gallery could be devoted to this spectacular show.

Peterson wanted to include her father's voice as well as his art in the exhibit and so has taken selections from the written statements Rigsby made over the years and posted them in text panels interspersed throughout. These quotations reveal not only Rigsby's great skill with the English language but his bitter edge. According to a biographical sketch put together by Peterson, this bitterness was the product of Rigsby's constant struggles, financial and otherwise. Nothing, it seems, came easy to Rigsby--except, perhaps, his art.

Rigsby was born in 1934 in rural Alabama, the son of a Depression-era sharecropper. There was "no money for food, let alone art supplies," according to Peterson's biographical sketch, but Rigsby was undaunted. At age seven he found an old book and painted pictures on its front and back covers. Rigsby's sister saved a couple of other examples of his juvenilia--two dark landscapes--and those efforts have been included in the Pirate show.

In the late 1950s Rigsby entered the University of Alabama. It was there that he presented his first solo show, in 1959. In a review of the show printed in the Tuscaloosa News, which Rigsby preserved in a clipping, critic J.F. Gooseen pointed out that the 25-year-old Rigsby demonstrated "an ease of conception and execution" that "eludes many artists for a lifetime." We can judge for ourselves, since one of the paintings from that first Rigsby show--"Sunken Ships," a mixed media on canvas--leads off the retrospective at Pirate. A dense and painterly abstraction, the painting incorporates its title as a design element in the form of a found newspaper headline.

"Sunken Ships" was right on time from an art historian's viewpoint; the late '50s was when abstract expressionism met pop art in paintings like this that combined drips, smears and smudges with found images. And the same can be said of Rigsby's prescient work of the 1960s and '70s, examples of which are on display in Pirate's intimate ILK space. By this time, Rigsby had left Alabama to travel, spending time in New York City, Connecticut and Tunisia. The paintings he created include several roughly geometric compositions, most notably "Block Island," a 1963 acrylic on canvas, and "Untitled," an acrylic on canvas from 1964. Both of these paintings feature vertical rectangles with indefinite margins, the product of layers of paint having been applied on top of one another.

The 1970s marked a period of great professional success for Rigsby. From 1970 to 1974, he was part of the first generation of artists-in-residence for the National Endowment for the Arts, setting up shop in Beaufort, South Carolina. From 1974 to 1976 he served as the national visual-arts coordinator for the NEA's Artists in Schools program. When he completed his work for the NEA, he took a trip to Colorado and wound up staying for the next twelve years.

Rigsby first moved to Evergreen and almost immediately founded the Evergreen Visual Arts Center, where he taught and presented exhibitions until 1979. The center also served as the warm-up act for his highly regarded Progreso Gallery, which Rigsby ran in Denver from 1984 to 1987. There Rigsby not only presented his own work, but also provided exhibition opportunities for regional artists he respected. As a result, Progreso hosted many of the most important Denver exhibits of the 1980s.

Pirate's main front space is mostly devoted to Rigsby's paintings of the '80s, many of which first appeared in those Progreso shows. "Song for Bousetta," a mammoth vertical diptych from 1983, commands the space and perfectly captures the sensibility of that time. On each panel, forms evocative of figures and machines have been rendered to give the illusion of three-dimensionality. These enigmatic shapes in orange, red, green and yellow are set on a field of lavender and teal. Big black spatters of paint unify the two panels, and a large unfinished area might suggest that Rigsby never completed this painting. If I had to guess, I'd say that he did.

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