Rigsby in the Rearview

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

There's a magnificent retrospective at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art devoted to the work of the late John David Rigsby, who was a major powerhouse in Colorado's art scene. Dots, Blobs and Angels surveys more than forty years' worth of the remarkable artist's paintings and sculptures.

The year 1993 was strange, and by that I mean terrible. Many of the city's galleries closed because of bad economic times, and then the artists started dying. In a matter of a few months, Denver lost three significant artists: Rigsby, experimental photographer Wes Kennedy and figural abstract painter Edward Marecak. Interestingly, all had been the subjects of solos within the previous two years, so they were fresh in everyone's minds.

I bring up Kennedy and Marecak in relation to Rigsby because the fate of their works debunks the widely held myth that once an artist dies, interest in his or her art increases. In truth, most artists, even those with distinguished careers and credible oeuvres, are gradually forgotten after they pass away.

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

Kennedy is a good example: Other than a piece or two in a group show, when's the last time you've seen one of his works? Marecak has fared better because he was part of the mid-century modern scene, and there's increasing interest in the artists of that period. Finally, there's Rigsby, who, like Kennedy, has been slowly forgotten. Dots, Blobs and Angels aims to rectify that -- and to a great extent, it does.

Cydney Payton, the MCA's able director, put together the show, selecting the pieces and, as usual, supervising the installation. On both counts, she's done a bang-up job. Her selections represent what she sees as the pivotal pieces of Rigsby's art, and by intelligently arranging them in chronological order (though there are some exceptions), Payton walks the viewer through Rigsby's subtle shifts of aesthetic theory.

Some may see the choice of Rigsby as odd. After all, as I said, he's been dead for over a decade and has gradually faded in memory. But maybe that's what makes it a wise call, because even if everything in the show is old, it's essentially new to most.

"I always have a pool of Colorado artists that I'm interested in putting together exhibitions for," Payton says. "And David Rigsby has been in that pool." Payton met Rigsby when she was in her twenties, getting to know him through her association with artists who were in and out of the so-called Big Chief building on the 1500 block of Platte Street, which was then given over to artists' studios. Among the others associated with the place were, oddly enough, the aforementioned Kennedy, plus Dale Chisman, Michael Pedziwiatr, Martha Daniels and the late John Fudge. The young Payton walked right into a who's who of the period, so to speak, and made contacts that she still maintains.

"This is my first solo exhibition at MCA for a Colorado artist," Payton notes. "But it kind of fits in with my history of doing solo shows for Colorado artists, and my history of investigation and putting out exhibits about the kind of work that has been generated here." Payton put on dozens of exhibits on Colorado subjects before joining the MCA, presenting them at her own gallery, Cydney Payton Art Folio, and later at the Payton-Rule Gallery and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. "It's the perfect jewel in my curatorial crown -- if there is such a thing as a curatorial crown," Payton says with a laugh.

Perhaps it's all this experience that makes Dots, Blobs and Angels one of the best shows Payton's ever done. That, and the fact that Rigsby was a brilliant artist who left behind stacks of paintings, reams of drawings and a warehouse full of small sculptures. "During his career, Rigsby's work followed the same trajectory as some of the most significant players that we've come to associate with the last fifty years of art -- Diebenkorn, Rauschenberg, Guston," Payton says. "Rigsby was exploring the same ideas at the same time, and even prior, in some cases, to these artists who have been credited with pioneering them."

It's a bold claim, but the show backs her up from the very start. One of the first paintings in view, "Sunken Ship," a mixed media on board, was done in 1959 and includes both abstract painted passages and found imagery. Yes, in 1959! The painting, like the work of Rauschenberg and Johns at that time, has one foot in abstract expressionism and the other in the beginnings of pop art. I guess Payton is right: Rigsby really was on the same trajectory as the most significant players of his generation.

"Sunken Ship" hangs on the wall facing the entrance alongside a painting by Japanese artist Tatsu Heima, who was Rigsby's mentor. The pairing demonstrates how Rigsby took off from Heima's approach, though it also demonstrates how what he learned from Heima would continue to affect his ever-evolving style throughout his life.

"Ship" was painted when Rigsby lived in New York, having followed Heima there. Heima was his teacher at the University of Alabama, which Rigsby entered with the help of the GI Bill after serving a stint in the Army band during the Korean War.

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.)

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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