Sheldon Kirby Biography

Sheldon Kirby




Painter, sculptor, and printmaker Sheldon Kirby was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on August 25, 1924. His family relocated to Los Angeles, California when he was a child and he played high school baseball. After serving in the Air Force from 1944 to 146, he enrolled at Pomona College where, pitching for the school's baseball team, before taking art classes at Scripp's college under Henry McFee and Millard Sheets. Soon, he focused on art and, after earned his BA, he enrolled in Claremont Graduate School, where he earned his MFA in 1954.

In 1952 Kirby was granted a fellowship to lecture and teach in Peru by the U.S. State Department's Peruvian Association; while there, he held his first solo exhibition in a gallery in Lima. On his return he took a job teaching in the San Diego City Schools, and soon was also teaching at the Art Center La Jolla (now the La Jolla Museum). It was there that he solidified his presence in the Southern California art world with a one-person show in 1957, establishing a reputation for a bold, expressionistic style. 

After a trip to Spain and Turkey from 1959 to 1960 he focused on a series of dark, often black-on-black reliefs that he referred to as constructionages (a portmanteau of "construction" and "assemblage"). These became the focus of shows in La Jolla including the Art Center and the Sander Gallery.

In 1956 Kirby joined the Art Center's newly established art school and remained on the faculty until it closed in 1964. After a stint teaching at California Western University, he opened his own school which ran from 1965 to 1968. In the meantime, he continued to work and exhibit throughout California, in both solo and group shows, and his work garnered praise from local critics Dr. Armin Kietzmann and Marilyn Hagberg. In 1965, he was part of a major 1965 two-person show with Fred Holle at the Jefferson Gallery in La Jolla, and in 1968 Donald Brewer, director of the by-then renamed La Jolla Museum (now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego), arranged a major 10-year retrospective of Kirby’s work, to critical acclaim.

Despite this, and despite an exhibition career that took him throughout the U.S., Europe, and the U.K. through the late 1980s, Sheldon Kirby would die in relative obscurity in 1990. He remained thus until 2003, when his estate mounted a posthumous retrospective of his work at the San Diego Public Library. It would be a momentous revival for the artist whose style had once been considered at the forefront of San Diego's Abstract Expressionist art scene. 

Selected Exhibitions:
1952: U.S. Peruvian Association, Lima, Peru
1953: Lima Gallery
1957: La Jolla Art Center, La Jolla, CA
1959: Turkish-American Association, Ankara, Turkey
1960: Nexus Gallery, La Jolla; Biosca Gallery, Madrid, Spain; "Eleven Artists", Spain
1961: Comara Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1962: Alumni Invitational, Scripps College, Claremont, CA; Ryder Gallery, Los Angeles; Tuscon Annual, Tuscon, AZ 
1963: Long Beach College Invitational, Long Beach, CA; Sander Gallery, La Jolla; La Jolla Annual Invitational
1964: La Jolla Art Center Annual; Long Beach Painting Invitational
1965: Jefferson Gallery, La Jolla; Art in Embassies, Dublin, Ireland
1967: Portraits of Artists, La Jolla Museum of Art
1968: Ten Year Retrospective, La Jolla Museum of Art; California Fine Arts Gallery
1988: San Diego Art Institute; Pomona College Centennial Invitational

Selected Awards:
1952-'53: U.S. Sate Department Fellowship to Peru
1957: Coronado Art Guild (purchase); San Diego Art Guild
1958: San Diego Art Guild; La Jolla Art Center Annual (purchase); "Painting of the Year" exhibition
1962: Tuscon Annual
1967: Jewish Community Center

For more about the life and work of Sheldon Kirby, visit his estate's website