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.

Also from 1983 are eight paintings from Rigsby's "Cupcake" series, one of several series in which the artist showed off his expert handling of an intentionally limited palette. The "Cupcake" paintings are essentially patterns; color relationships have been established between the cake, the icing and the background. These paintings are an outgrowth of Rigsby's well-known "Dot" paintings from the late 1970s and early 1980s, two of which are also on display.

Rigsby traveled often, and not just for pleasure. He liked to work in various places around the world, and in 1985 he went to Yugoslavia, where he created the "Tribanj Series"--colorful diptychs conceived as mirrored images of one another. Several of the diptychs are included at Pirate, and exhibit organizer Peterson says she has many more in storage. In 1987 Rigsby chose Barcelona to create his "Color Study Series," for which he replaced his earlier cupcakes and dots with a color-pattern device that resembled a partly drawn window shade.

The following year, discouraged by his increasing financial difficulties, Rigsby left Denver and moved to Houston. There he came upon a five-acre lot filled with old latex rubber. Though Rigsby had mostly worked as a painter, the discovery of rubber as an art material led to a renewed interest in sculpture, and in the years before his death he created some of the finest work of his career. These black-rubber sculptures were first shown in a 1992 exhibit at the now closed Payton-Rule Gallery, drawing rave reviews from critics and fellow artists, as well as a prestigious commission from Absolut vodka.

The Pirate show includes many of these sculptures, some in the front space, and more of them in Pirate Alley, where they are joined by the sculptural drawings that anticipated them. Rigsby's sculptures have a totemic and tribal quality that recalls African art, along with a monumentality that belies their small size. That characteris-tic is self-evident in 1992's "Sacrament," an expressed pedestal surmounted by a wide shaft that terminates in a tangle of organic forms.

The exhibit concludes in the small Pirate Treasure Chest, where Peterson displays several of the dark pattern paintings that Rigsby called landscapes. Some may see meaning in Rigsby's use of black during the last years of his life, and it does seem to have reflected a darkening mood. Peterson notes in her biographical sketch that by the time of his death in August 1993--he died in a car crash while on his way back from Houston to attend Peterson's wedding--Rigsby was "struggling, (with) no money and a burning desire to draw, to paint, to sculpt, no matter what the cost."

The newest piece in the show is a Korean bible that Rigsby had with him when he died. He had decorated the pages as a wedding gift for Peterson. She found a poignant aspect to the work: With it, she notes, her father had come full circle from the book covers he had painted as a child.

To close on a personal note, when I reviewed Rigsby's 1992 rubber-sculpture show, I called him Denver's "perennial enfant terrible." He sought me out to tell me that though he thought it was important for an art critic to use French words, he felt he was more of a "bete noire"--a person or thing strongly detested. One of my Westword predecessors apparently agreed, once awarding him a "worst of Denver" citation for his shrill support of public funding for art. I still remember his rejoinder, which was printed in a letter to the editor: "What a gentle place Denver must be when I am one of the worst."

Of course Rigsby was never one of the worst. As this show makes clear, he was always one of the best.

David Rigsby Retrospective, through December 29 at Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, 3659 Navajo Street, 458-6058.

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