Art/Work: MoMA’s Creative Minds: Elizabeth Riggle

Posted by Claire Corey, Production Manager, Department of Advertising and Graphic Design

Elizabeth Riggle has been a full-time preparator at the Museum for 16 years (not counting the four years she was a temporary employee). Selflessly, Elizabeth gives her all to make every part of the exhibitions she works on perfect. Her attention to detail comes through in her lush, flowing, painterly works that mine an array of forms including flowers, bones, or comic book characters. A freedom of movement, play, and rich palettes happily seduce the viewer. Immerse yourself!

MoMA: When are you able to work on your artwork?

I live like I’m in the military. I have to be rigorous about my schedule weekends are not weekends. True for a lot of us in this position.

What is the best and worst part of being an artist working at the Museum?
Best: A sense of community is a huge plus for the transplant. Preparators are mixed in age so dialogue is diverse. I came to New York when I was already 40. Never had access to the community in Williamsburg until I met my partner. Access to the collection and the people (curators) who built it like Carolyn Lanchner, Kirk Varnedoe, Rob Storr, Debbie Wye (the most humple of the group), people who were generous with their knowledge.
Worst: The increasing workload—the stress that everyone is under.

All artwork by Elizabeth Riggle. Peonies. 2005. Oil on paper, 72″x72″

What is your favorite works in the MoMa collection and why?
Two: James Ensors’s Tribulations of Saint Anthony and Henri Matisse’s The Moroccans. Ensor’s anxiety translates very well to the present—he was coming up in a world of war (Henry Darger too and his battle scenes). Matisse’s Morroccans represent a release because of the call to prayer.

How long have you worked at MoMA? I started temping in 1996; I was hired full-time in 2000.

How has the Museum changed in 20 years? The physical expansion—it affects everything, the coming expansion and the effect it will have is already anticipated. I was hired because I had been through an expansion at The Field Museum in Chicago so I know what to expect. My hope is a sense of community continues.

Cycling. 2008. Oil on paper, 34″x24″

You have five Paintings for Dorothy works on your website. Can you tell me who Dorothy is and what inspired these works?
Dorothy is my partner’s mother. She had early Alzheimer’s and I was there to witness that transformation. I was the only one who was there for her to download her information, her stories. She loved roses and we planted a flower garden with trellis in the back for her to look at. The trellis and the shapes in the painting are disappearing—the paintings were made with a lot of wiping, dissipation of imagery; dissipation of her memory; there is always a trace when you use oil (paint)—love that.

Can you tell me what inspired you for your latest series, Studies for a Vertebral Opera? I was reintroduced to working with the figure through yoga. Drawing the spine came from a class on anatomy, which was part of yoga intensive training.

Studies for a Vertebral Opera in Riggles’s studio


Are cartoons an inspiration for your work? I noticed in the Studies for a Vertebral Opera paintings they have a real comic character feel.

I couldn’t contain it in the notebooks—it kept getting bigger until it took over the studio. That comes from my education in Chicago. We were taught to build a picture not paint a painting. Pae Yoshida, Barbara Rossi were more “imagist teachers.” Pae Ishida taught Jim Nutt and the Harry Hoo, outsider work always presented equally; we were taught in the basement of the Art Institute.

The Groundless Paintings from the same series are pretty disturbing as well.
I love them because they are transparent.

Is that why you call them groundless?
Yes and they are how I figure things out- like what something looks like—the transparency when hung on the wall—all you see is the paint—no ground, no gesso.

A mutual friend, the documentary filmmaker and artist Carol Saft, recently told me you were participating in a cultural exchange in Egypt. Can you tell me about that?

A colleague of mine from the Art Institute of Chicago asked artists from her community in Brooklyn to engage with artists in Egypt through the safe use of images. (In Islam the human figure is not allowed to be represented.) We exchanged self-portraits through silhouettes (in their silhouettes they included poetry), and Skype projects where we exchanged information in our world and they in theirs. (More info on this can be seen here)

What are you working on now? I just applied and was accepted for a residency at Yaddoo to continue work on The Scores drawings. I lost nine weeks last summer caring for my mother and Yaddoo is giving me five weeks back to continue this work

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