James Rizzi applied his playful, cartoon-like art style to unusual projects worldwide, from Volkswagen Beetles and Japanese train ads to cow sculptures in New York and the front page of a German newspaper.
His creations included images for German postage stamps and a tourist guide to New York published this year. He was the official artist for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and soccer World Cup games in France.
“With his art, what you see is what you get,” said Alexander Lieventhal, an executive at Art 28 GmbH & Co. in Stuttgart, Germany, which manages and sells Rizzi’s work. “Any child can look at it and understand what he’s trying to convey: a celebration of life.”
Rizzi, a native of Brooklyn, died Monday at his New York studio at age 61. He had a heart condition, Lieventhal said.
Rizzi studied art at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where his groundbreaking techniques began with three-dimensional constructions that evolved from a youthful failure.
For his classes in painting, printmaking and sculpturing, he had to hand in work for grades in all three subjects. But Rizzi had time to complete only one: a twice-printed etching, with parts of one cut out and mounted on top of the other using wire.
Lieventhal described it as a “combination of print and sculpture that produces the 3D effect.”
Rizzi stuck with the novelty, nurturing it when he returned to New York, where he made a name as a street artist with a mural.
In 1976, he participated in the exhibition “Thirty Years of American Printmarking” at the Brooklyn Museum. Four years later, he designed the cover for the first album of a new wave band called the Tom Tom Club.
Rizzi ventured into surprising aesthetic areas.
In New York, he created a limited-edition of the MetroCard subway fare-paying system for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. His designs also appeared in “CowParade,” an exhibit of fiberglass sculptures displayed in New York public spaces.
Rizzi enjoyed some of his biggest successes in Germany and Asia.
There, he designed the ring coat for boxer Henry Maske, china for the Rosenthal company, the front page of a newspaper in Hamburg and some vehicular art — a toy-size fire engine and three versions of the 1999 Volkswagen “New Beetle.”
In 1996, Lufthansa airlines commissioned him to decorate a jet with stars, birds and travelers.
A school in Duisburg is named for Rizzi; in 2001 came the opening of his office building in Braunschweig, dubbed the “Happy Rizzi House.” Last year, an oval stained-glass ceiling the “Rizzi Dome” was unveiled at one of Europe’s biggest shopping malls, in Oberhausen.
He created ads for the Japanese Railway, and when he boarded planes in Germany, “the flight attendants asked for his autograph.”
Rizzi was divorced and had no children. Survivors include his mother, a brother and a sister.