There’s a scene halfway through John Schlessinger’s 1965 mod-relationship-drama Darling where the film’s heroine, Diana Scott, attends an art opening for artist Ralph Riggs. The gallery show is a backdrop, a stylish and appropriate one for mid-60s 'swingeing London.' In the scene, the film’s heroine is confronted by her lover who suspects her of betrayal. It’s a tense and kinetic scene, but it had me thinking just as much about what was on the walls as what was happening between Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde.
Despite the big-screen exposure, it’s fair to say Riggs is pretty much an unknown today. But his work fits squarely in the pop vernacular. Stylistically it’s most reminiscent of his American contemporary Rosalyn Drexler, but also Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Pauline Boty, and others who adopted a flat, graphic painting style in the '60s. The subject matter picks up on Warhol’s Death and Disaster series (1963), Lichtenstein’s Pistol (1964), and Jasper Johns’s many target paintings, as well as the socially conscious work his non-pop predecessor Ben Shahn. The one stylistic outlier is the exhibition’s main image of a crumpled body surrounded by an explosion of expressive Japanese ink wash that might suggest Joan Miró was taking a stab at a murder scene, though this may have been Riggs symbolically living in the shadow of art history. I also thought of Warhol’s drippy, ab-ex inflected early pop paintings like Coca Cola (1960) and Before and After  (1961).
Yet, before we think of Riggs as just a pale imitator or also-ran, at least one painting seems to anticipate Raymond Pettibon's inky comic-inspired style that broke with Lichtenstein’s cold, mechanical style.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, Ralph Riggs never existed. Ralph Riggs is just as much an invention of Schlessinger as is heroine Diana Scott. His art is just mise en scène in a visually stylish and rather pop-inspired film.
Roughly an hour before Riggs makes his appearance, Dianna Scott is first revealed to us as her face is pieced together in a billboard during the opening credits. Her lips, eyes, and cheeks are pasted up over another billboard image, one imploring the public to end world hunger. Besides helping to deliver the film's intermittent critique of socioeconomic inequality, the static, perfunctory act shows us Scott as product, presented in a way that will make us think of James Rosenquist and the deconstructed billboard work of Mimmo Rotella and Jacques de la Villeglé. When we see Scott get her big break during an on-the-spot television sequence she is viewed by her eventual love interest in a grid of television monitors, which has the marks of Warhol and Richard Hamilton. In short: This is a movie informed by art.
And yet, someone had to actually make Riggs’s art-for-films-sake. IMDB research suggests that that "someone" was likely scenic artist Ted Barnes or draughtsman Tony Curtis (not the actor). I would imagine they were instructed to make something that looked trendy and modern (Lichtenstein without paying Lichtenstein prices), but that also thematically evoked the tension underlying the scene while making a nod to the film’s social commentary. It also had to produce well for black and white filming—so sadly we have no idea what the coloring was actually like. The work itself would be disposable yet, ironically, recorded for all time.
Despite the mercenary nature of their work, I want to imagine Curtis or Barnes finding joy in creating it, possibly wondering if it might actually sell on its own merits, wondering if it could be "art with a capital A." Which is also what I was wondering: could this be ART or is it just scenic art?
Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Johns all created work for window displays when they were work-a-day artists (though Johns and Rauschenberg were quiet about it) and James Rosenquist painted billboards. Warhol made his Cow Wallpaper. Or perhaps more appropriately, many of his films, such as Empire State Building, were meant to be nothing more than glowing and barely moving wallpaper. What makes "art with a capital A" is complicated and inherently subjective, supported by a system maintained by critics, buyers, and art professors. Artists need theories and critical support. The shorthand for pop is that it appropriates mass imagery to place it in a new context as commentary on society. However, in Darling, art was created for mass-media imagery that was based on art already based on mass-media imagery for a film that was commenting on society. So the postmodernist interpretation might be that Riggs (and Schlessinger and Barnes/Curtis) were commenting on how easy it is to create modern art. They are, after all, having a bit of a laugh.
So, what do we make of the legacy of Ralph Riggs? He won’t be as famous as other fictional painters like, say, Gulley Jimson, of the film and novel The Horse’s Mouth. He gets just six minutes of background fame. But maybe it’s time for Ralph Riggs to have a full critical reappraisal. Maybe the paintings for that fictional exhibition could really be worth something. If they still exist. It's unlikely, but I really hope they do.