(1924-2001) John Biggers, a painter, printmaker and sculptor known for his meticulous depictions of African and African-American life, died on Thursday at his home in Houston. He was 76.
Mr. Biggers's art, often in the form of public murals, was grounded in the humanistic spirit and social realist narrative style of the 1930's and 40's. Over the years it grew increasingly emblematic, with figures and architectural forms arranged in intricate patterns that suggested quilts, African textiles and modernist geometric abstraction.
Mr. Biggers was born in Gastonia, N.C., in 1924, the youngest of seven children, in a house built by his father, a schoolteacher, farmer and Baptist minister. In 1941 he enrolled at Hampton Institute, later Hampton University, in Virginia, He intended to study plumbing, and included a boiler room drawing with his application. But in his first year, he enrolled in a class taught by the influential emigre art educator Viktor Lowenfeld, who became his mentor.
Lowenfeld included Mr. Biggers's mural "Dying Soldier" in "Young Negro Art," an exhibition of work by Hampton students at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Mr. Biggers also studied at Hampton with Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, who became his close friends.
After two years in the Navy, he entered Pennsylvania State University, where he earned a master's degree in art education in 1948 and a Ph.D. in 1954. He also created a series of murals for the University.
In 1949 Mr. Biggers joined the faculty of Texas State University for Negroes in Houston, now Texas Southern University, where he established and was chairman of the art department.
He was awarded first prize in 1950 for his painting "The Cradle" at the annual exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Segregationist policies, however, allowed black visitors into the museum only on Thursdays, so he could not attend the show's opening. Later he completed many public murals in Houston and elsewhere, including two in 1991 for Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Most of his murals are still in place.
In 1957 Mr. Biggers and his wife, Hazel, spent six months traveling in Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Togo on a UNESCO grant to study Western African cultural traditions. Afterward, African design motifs and scenes of African life became important parts of his work. He returned to Africa in 1969, 1984 and 1987.
He had one-man exhibitions at the Houston museum (1962), the African- American Cultural Center in Dallas (1978), the California Museum of Afro-American History and Culture in Los Angeles (1983) and Hampton University Museum (1990). In 1995 the Houston and Hampton museums organized a retrospective, "The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room," that traveled to Boston, Hartford and Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Biggers retired from Texas Southern University in 1983. He was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Hampton University in 1990." This biography was adapted from www.AskArt.com