Lawrence Argent, a sculptor whose monumental, brightly colored works — including a 40-foot bear of lapis lazuli blue, perched on its hind legs and peering inside the Denver convention center — brought a sense of lighthearted wonder to public spaces on two continents, died Oct. 4 at a hospital in Denver. He was 60.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said David Hemsi, studio manager at Argent Studio.
Mr. Argent, a onetime medical student in Australia who went on to lead the sculpture program at the University of Denver, spent more than three decades creating playful photographs, sculptures and art installations, often featuring found objects and what Mr. Argent called “an edge of humor.”
Hanging two blood-red street sweeper brushes together, he formed a testicular work he titled "Cojones" (1999). Pairs of antique women's gloves, framed side by side in polyester resin, created a "Library of Applause" (1994), and the birth of his sons inspired a series of abstract, 250-pound bronze and marble sculptures in the shape of pacifiers.
Mr. Argent became best known as a whimsical artist of the public realm beginning with “I See What You Mean,” erected just outside the Colorado Convention Center in 2005. Commonly known as “the big blue bear,” the work has become an emblem of hip, 21st-century Denver, though its construction initially led some friends to ask whether Mr. Argent was now working for Disney.
Instead, he said, the idea arose from a photo of a black bear looking inside someone’s window — a relatively common occurrence in Denver, where the animals sometimes rummage for food during droughts — and a desire to play off outsiders’ expectations of art in Colorado, where depictions of mountains and bears have become staples of Western kitsch.
It was also a tongue-in-cheek comment on the nature of the convention center itself, a building used less by local residents than by out-of-towners who may not venture far into the city. “This represents people who live here who are trying to figure out what is going on inside,” Robin Ault, a member of the panel that selected Mr. Argent’s piece for the site, told the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in 2005.
Built with polymer concrete on a shell of fiberglass molds, the 10,000-pound sculpture was designed with the help of computer software, placing Mr. Argent at the fore of a movement known as digital sculpture.
"He really understood how combining traditional and advanced technologies could help create art that was truly moving," said Dan Jacobs, director of the Vicki Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver, in a statement upon Mr. Argent's death.
Mr. Argent was on the board of the Digital Stone Project, a nonprofit that supports artists trying to use emerging technologies such as robotic stone cutting. In recent years, he used computer-aided design software to create sculptures with once-impractical whorls, warps, swirls and bends.
Elsewhere in Denver was "Pillow Talk" (2001), a stack of marble pillows carved with enough size and skill that they could fit on what might be called a Colorado king-size bed. There was also, on the campus of the university where he taught, "Whispers" (2002), a set of limestone columns and benches carved in the shape of lips. Sitting on a bench triggers an audio recording of a lecture on poetry, science or the theory of rhetoric.
Mr. Argent seemed to have a particular fascination with the undulating shape of human lips, drawing on them again for a granite sculpture, "Pieces Together" (2014), at a hospital near Los Angeles. The lips were assembled in the shape of puzzle pieces and inspired by the mouths of local residents whom Mr. Argent photographed and interviewed for the project.
Much to his chagrin, Mr. Argent said he remained known as "the guy who does big animals." He designed "Leap" (2011) for Sacramento International Airport's Terminal B, creating an enormous red glass rabbit suspended from the ceiling mid-hop and headed toward an oversize granite suitcase near the baggage claim.
He also returned to bears for "I Am Here" (2014), creating a 13-ton giant panda that appears to be pulling itself onto the roof of a shopping mall in Chengdu, China. He said he turned down commissions for other massive animal projects, including a 100-foot outdoor bear, that seemed to call for more gimmick than art.
His most recent project, a sculpture-filled plaza near San Francisco's City Hall, features an undulating, 92-foot stainless steel sculpture inspired by the Venus de Milo. Just shorter than the Statue of Liberty, the piece was completed in May.
"I wanted to bring forth something that is like a genie in a bottle," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016. The design, he said, was guided by the size of the 24-story buildings around the plaza. When the developer asked whether Mr. Argent could make his sculpture smaller, he recalled, "I said no."
Lawrence Nigel Argent was born in Essex, England, on Jan. 24, 1957, and raised in Melbourne, Australia. His father was an architect who designed modernist structures in Australia and Southeast Asia.
Mr. Argent initially studied to become a doctor, and he worked three years as a technician in an operating room before finding himself frustrated with what he described as “the hierarchical nature of a hospital.”
He received a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1983 and traveled to the United States to receive a master’s degree, which wasn’t offered in Australia at the time. He graduated in 1986 from the Rinehart School of Sculpture, part of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Mr. Argent joined the University of Denver in 1993 and was named an emeritus professor earlier this year, as he stepped away from teaching to focus on commissions and studio work.
His marriage to Anne Cashman ended in divorce. Survivors include their two sons; a brother; and a partner, Yazmina Abdul.
Mr. Argent said that his public art projects, in contrast to some of his studio work, were designed toward accessibility while retaining a sense of mystery: Why was the bear blue? Why was the rabbit hopping toward a suitcase?
"Art can seem inaccessible," he told Colorado Homes & Lifestyles magazine after completing his signature blue bear. "I thought it would be important to give people a sense of confidence, that they can participate in and understand art. I want to undermine this notion that art ought to be a certain thing."
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