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 John David Rigsby  (1934 - 1993)

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Lived/Active: Colorado/South Carolina      Known for: abstract, non objective paintings, mixed media

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography was submitted by John David Rigsby, Jr., son of the artist.  The author is Lisa Rigsby Peterson, daughter of the artist,  and owner of the copyright of the biography.

John David Rigsby was born on October 10, 1934, the seventh child of an Alabama Depression-era sharecropper’s son.  He and his family moved frequently, from one one-room structure to another, often with no running water, no plumbing, no heat but the stove.  His father was killed in a car accident when Rigsby was just 9 years old.  Life for the remaining eight family members proved tumultuous and difficult -- food wasn’t plentiful, nor money.  The family moved from place to place, following work -- Rigsby attended 30 different schools before graduating from high school. Despite living in poverty, Rigsby demonstrated academic and artistic aptitude at a young age.  Two oil paintings on covers ripped off of old books that he painted when he was eight years old show the promise of an imaginative and gifted eye.

Rigsby was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1953.  As he later wrote, “When basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, was over, I was told to go out and find a job.  Jasper Johns was painting visual aids for the 28th Regimental Headquarters.  He suggested the Band Training Unit.”  Rigsby played the clarinet in that unit, and after 2 years of service, he enrolled at the University of Alabama on the G.I. Bill to study art.  After just two years, he left school and followed his mentor (and one of the greatest and longest-lasting influences on his art), Japanese artist and U of A art instructor Tatsu Heima, to New York City.  Heima introduced him to Isamu Noguchi and suggested that Rigsby work as Noguchi’s assistant.  Instead, Rigsby chose a job as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since “the notion of seeing all of that art appealed more to me than the boring task of studio assistant.”  The opportunity was a rich one for Rigsby.  He had a chance to study the masters, and cited Rembrandt with his simplicity and elegance as another of the most important influences on his work.  

In the years between 1957 and 1963, when Rigsby eventually earned his BFA in sculpture, the artist traveled back and forth between New York and Tuscaloosa, alternating study with forays into the fertile New York art scene.  Rigsby exhibited some of his early sculpture work in 1958 at a small New York gallery, which was also exhibiting the work of Willem and Elaine de Kooning and Theodore Stamos.  Shortly thereafter, searching for an educational venue closer to New York City, Rigsby visited New Haven, Connecticut, and spent an afternoon speaking with Josef Albers at Yale. Albers agreed to accept Rigsby into the Yale program on the condition that he take freshman drawing all over again.  A brilliant opportunity, but, in Rigsby’s words, “When it was time to register, I was hitchhiking back to Alabama, looking for food and shelter.”

Rigsby had his first one-man show at the University of Alabama in 1959.  A visiting critic from New York, J.F. Goosen, reviewed the show and wrote “here is a talent which produces art because that is the thing for a gifted person to do.  In his effortless ease of conception and execution, he has already achieved a goal that eludes many artists for a lifetime.”   Finally, in 1963, Rigsby received his degree in sculpture, dissolved a short-lived marriage, visited his family, packed up his car and headed permanently for New York.  That year, his work was included in a group show at the Delgado Museum in New Orleans – which led to a one-man exhibit at the Delgado in 1964.  During 1964, Rigsby took drawing classes at Columbia University, and worked at the General Post Office at night.  He met his future wife, Linda Palmieri, and married.  In 1965, his daughter Lisa was born, followed in 1966 by the birth of his son, John David Jr.

In 1966, Rigsby had a successful one-man show at the Pietrantonio Gallery in New York.  Shortly thereafter, he and the family moved to Tunis, Tunisia at the suggestion of a colleague, who urged him to “come paint by the light of Klee.”  Rigsby worked for the United States Information Agency as a teacher, and he spent the next year and a half painting over ninety paintings inspired by the smells, light, and Phoenician and Roman art surrounding him.  He also executed a number of character and landscape drawings, capturing the Tunisian way of life.  During his time in Tunisia, Rigsby’s work was shown there in two major exhibits.

Upon the family’s return to the U.S. in 1968, Rigsby once again exhibited at the Pietrantonio Gallery.  Later that year, Rigsby enrolled in Southern Connecticut State College’s Urban Studies program, earning a master’s degree in 1970.  During his time at SCSU, Rigsby worked as the city of Bridgeport’s Curator of Exhibits, driving a mobile art gallery from schools to neighborhood fairs and housing projects.  After completing his degree, Rigsby had an exhibit at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia.  This exhibit caught the attention of a member of the search committee looking to hire an artist for a newly-developed program in neighboring South Carolina.

In 1970, Rigsby was selected as the first Artist-in-Residence in the state of South Carolina for the National Endowment for the Arts Artists in Schools program.  His work with the newly-integrated students at Beaufort (SC) High School over the term of his residency precluded substantial work on his own art.  He did, however,  set up a studio in downtown Beaufort, and was able to create a modest number of paintings, which were included in exhibits at the Columbia Museum in South Carolina in 1971 and Yale University in 1973.  

At the end of his residency in 1974, Rigsby was named the National Visual Arts Coordinator of the Artists in Schools program for the NEA, a post he held for two years.  In this position, Rigsby traveled the country, reviewing grant applications, meeting with state leaders in government, education and the arts to promote program concepts and explore local opportunities.  The message he repeated over and over again echoed that of one of the other major influences on Rigsby as an artist – Ruth Asawa Lanier, whose words taught him that all of the work that the artist does is the artist’s work, not simply the paintings he creates.  In his capacity as National Coordinator, as well as many times in the future, Rigsby stressed that artists function in the same way as any other person in society, and deserved the same respect and place for their work as did all other professions.  After two years traveling the country, Rigsby was ready for a change, saying “for the first time in my adult life, there was not a body of paintings to show for the years put into my work.”

In 1976, a summer retreat to the mountain community of Central City, Colorado, led to a permanent relocation.  Eventually settling in the small town of Evergreen, Rigsby followed his own advice about artists becoming actively involved in their communities, and he established the Evergreen Visual Arts Center.  The Center provided working space for artists, classes for adults and children, and, most importantly, a place for Rigsby to create his own work.  Buoyed by the opportunity to concentrate once again on his art, and inspired by his new surroundings, Rigsby entered an extremely prolific period in his career.  In 1977, he organized a traveling exhibition of his paintings, which showed at the Kimball Arts Center in Utah, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Arvada Center in Colorado.

1978 brought more exhibits, notably in Aspen and Denver, as Rigsby’s work continued.  He took an extended trip to visit his mentor, Tatsu Heima, in Japan, where he climbed Mt. Fuji, followed by travels to Tehran, Delhi, and several European countries.  He chronicled his impressions from his travels in a small collection of paintings upon his return to the U.S. – the beginning of a practice which would continue through the rest of his life.  In 1979, Rigsby’s marriage failed, and at the same time he lost the lease to his Evergreen studio to redevelopment plans.  In response to the personal chaos around him, Rigsby began a series of what he called “hard-nosed process paintings,” the watercolor paintings of dots which marked his work from this period.  The paintings gained him an NEA Individual Artist grant in 1980, as well as a Yaddo fellowship in 1981.  The polka dot paintings were followed by a series of cupcake-like images, again examining space and color.

During the early 1980s, Rigsby lived in a suite of old dentists’ offices in a rundown part of Denver, with a studio in an area that reminded him of the Bowery in New York.   In 1984, Rigsby founded the Progreso Gallery in the building where he lived, using the space both to show his own work and also to mount shows of the work of many Colorado artists.  The gallery also served as a focal point for Denver’s local arts community, hosting weekly discussion groups and classes.  In 1984, Rigsby traveled to the Baja Peninsula and then in 1985 to Yugoslavia.  After each sojourn, Rigsby returned to create vibrant and explosive paintings based on his experiences, showing them at his Progreso gallery and another alternative gallery in Denver, the Edge Gallery.  The economic recession of the mid-eighties hit the art market and Rigsby hard, however, and although he continued to create new works of art, major exhibitions were difficult to come by.

In 1987, Rigsby decided to leave Denver and spent six months in Barcelona, Spain.  It was an electrifying trip for him.  Rigsby wrote of that time:  

“The streets alone are a visual feast, and the additions of museums from Saarinen, Picasso and Miro to 12th century icons produced artistic indigestion.  My paintings are always about the way things look and feel. Barcelona was a time machine extending those sensory and emotional concerns back to the Middle Ages. I felt the need to reduce my work to essential elements of color, scale, drawing and format. The [resulting] color studies speak eloquently for themselves, and in doing so, redefine all of the work I’ve done in the past 35 years of painting.”

Rigsby completed over a hundred paintings while in Barcelona – color studies, street portraits of the characters he encountered on a daily basis, and a number of dark landscape paintings.  He found time to run with the bulls in Pamplona, and began writing stories about his adventures that were later published.

Upon his return to Denver in 1988, Rigsby continued to explore the alter egos of the color studies – he concentrated on a series of dark paintings, all prominently featuring back.  He commented about these black paintings that he “ decided it was time to explore the perception of the eye and physical space as defined by low –light conditions…I find these paintings elegant, joyous and light-filled, with no feeling of heaviness at all.”  In mid-1988, Rigsby moved permanently to Houston, Texas, where he would spend the last five years of his life.  

Once in Houston, Rigsby made a discovery that would serve as the inspiration and material for some of the last works of his career.  In 1989, he discovered a salvage yard filled with scrap rubber, and he began working on black rubber sculptures, as well as paintings with rubber elements incorporated.  He made strong connections in the Houston alternative arts scene, and became a regular contributor and art critic for a local weekly newspaper, The Public News. From 1989 through 1992, he exhibited his sculptures and paintings at Houston’s  Brent Gallery,  Fountainhead Gallery, and  Blaffer Gallery.  He also produced an installation of his rubber sculptures on the roof of the Diverse Works Gallery in Houston. 1992 also marked Rigsby’s return to Denver when he exhibited his sculptures at the Payton-Rule Gallery in Denver, leading to an Absolut Rigsby commission by Carillon Importers.  

The 1990s were a tremendous struggle for Rigsby, with financial crises compounded by physical trauma (he accidentally sawed off the top joint of the index finger of his left hand while working in his studio).  Although his work was being shown, it wasn’t selling, and the tremendous financial pressure he felt weighed heavily upon him.  He spent an increasing proportion of his time going to flea markets and garage sales, rehabilitating and repairing the things he bought there, and then re-selling them simply to raise enough money to keep a roof over his head.  He had little time to paint or sculpt, the things in life that had always, no matter what the circumstances, brought him joy.

Rigsby’s final works were a series of intricate paintings and drawings on used books that he purchased at the flea market.  Most of these drawings, which he referred to as sculptural form drawings, were executed on page after page of science texts, music books, and a Korean bible and fill hundreds of pages.  Additionally, Rigsby created an exquisite book he titled 28 de los Angeles, in which his twenty-eight simple and elegant drawings of angels resonated with the influence of Rembrandt he had so admired in his early days.  In a sense, Rigsby’s final works, art created on used books which were the only materials he could afford, brought his work and life full circle from his childhood days.  Rigsby’s life, though begun and ended in adversity, was nonetheless illuminated and enriched by the irresistible impulse he had to create art and beauty.

John David Rigsby was killed in a one-car accident in Colorado in August, 1993.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is a review by Michael Paglia of the artist's July 2004 retrospective at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art.  It was submitted by John Rigsby, Jr., son of the artist.

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.

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 Angel"s. That goes for those who know about Rigsby -- and especially for those who don't.


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