Rigsby in the Rearview

More than ten years after his death, David Rigsby still rules.

Rigsby was born in Alabama in 1934, the last of seven children in a sharecropper's family. Making matters worse financially, his father died in a car accident when Rigsby was a child. Art was surely a diversion from his grief, but even before his father was killed, he had an interest in being a painter. Rigsby's earliest known work is an expressionist landscape in oil done on a book cover when he was eight years old. It reveals a sophisticated composition, which allows it to pass for an adult's work. (This painting is displayed in a vitrine.)

To follow the exhibit in order, visitors should turn left and take in the wall facing the one "Sunken Ship" is on. The pieces, all works on paper, date from the late '50s and early '60s and were done while Rigsby was in New York. Until the early '60s, he went back and forth between Alabama and the Big Apple. Then he got a gig as an art teacher for the United States Information Agency in Tunisia, where he lived for a time.

Rigsby increasingly embraced color-field abstraction during the 1960s, incorporating vaguely geometric shapes, as illustrated by "Block Island," from 1963, which is installed in the small gallery just beyond the entry space. Also in this section are several surrealistic compositions, notably "Mirabile Victu," a mixed-media piece from 1969. This awkward, somewhat Picassoid still life predicts the look of much of the work of the '80s, when surrealism was revived. And I'm not just referring to Rigsby's oeuvre, but to the work of a lot of other artists, in particular the contemporaneous work of Guston. (There's Payton's trajectory analogy again.)

Sculptural group by David Rigsby, on display at the 
MCA.
Sculptural group by David Rigsby, on display at the MCA.

Details

Through September 19, Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, 1275 19th Street, 303-298-7554

The early '70s were Rigsby's most successful period, and in 1970 he became one of the first artists in the country to get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His paintings from this period are hung in the two spaces behind the first of the small galleries. They incorporate found material, including boards and appropriated images, and seem to strike a balance between his earlier pop-inspired works and his later color-field pieces. Not incidentally, they also take a theoretical step away from his earlier surrealism.

Rigsby survived on the largesse of the NEA until 1976, when he came to Colorado after having visited the year before. He first settled in Evergreen, and his statewide reputation was quickly established after a solo of his work was presented at the then-new Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities in 1977. He moved to Denver in 1980.

Colorado definitely agreed with Rigsby; he created some of his most important pieces in the late '70s and '80s. Payton has installed this work in the main gallery, and it includes many monumental paintings, both on canvas and on paper. Rigsby did paintings of stripes as well as polka dots, all of which are positively post-minimal. (Remember, Damien Hirst famously did the same thing, a generation later.) That's right: Rigsby was delving into post-modernism in the 1970s. Again, he was ahead of the pack with his breakthroughs.

The galleries under the mezzanine host various series from the 1980s, including Rigsby's outrageous cupcake paintings, in which cupcakes are simplified into a handful of forms done in garish colors. In a differing mood are his elegant, if somewhat depressing, "Dark Landscapes." The sadness conveyed by these paintings perfectly reflected Rigsby's sad life: He was alone, broke and out of prospects.

In the space at the bottom of the stairs and up on the mezzanine, the show takes a turn, indicating a clear change in Rigsby's style, which occurred in the last years of his life. This is mostly work done after he moved to Houston, in desperation, in 1988. Many of these pieces are totemic sculptures made of rubber, arranged on a continuous sculpture stand. When I got to the top of the stairs, I caught my breath as I took in the tremendously beautiful installation. It's absolutely spellbinding. Also on the mezzanine are Rigsby's drawings of angels, including an example of his "sculptural form drawings," in which he covered the pages of secondhand books with drawings.

The book drawings recall that early childhood painting done on a found book cover. In both instances, necessity was the mother of invention: At the end of his life, just as at the beginning, Rigsby had no money for art supplies, but had to make art anyway. Also harking back to his early life was his death in a car accident -- just like his father. Rigsby was killed in the summer of '93 while driving back to Denver to attend his daughter's wedding.

I heartily recommend the MCA's magical Dots, Blobs and Angels. That goes for those who know about Rigsby -- and especially for those who don't.

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