George Sugarman created animated, meandering polychrome sculptures that are among the most inventive if least appreciated three-dimensional artworks of the early 1960's. Sugarman belonged to a talented generation that never quite earned a name or adopted a polemic, but that began to fill the gap left by the decline of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950's. His contemporaries included Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Ronald Bladen and Shirley Jaffee. In different ways and often with a boost from late Matisse, they evolved an intuitive, slightly biomorphic geometric style that sidestepped both the emotional gesturalism of Abstract Expressionism and the idealistic geometries of Mondrian and the Neo-Plasticists. Many of their innovations set the stage for Minimalism.
In the early 1960's Sugarman also figured in the sculptural explosion in Europe and the United States. Along with Anthony Caro, Donald Judd and Mark di Suvero, he was among the first to make large-scale sculpture that spurned the traditional pedestal to sit directly on the floor, in the viewer's space. He also embraced horizontal, ground-hugging compositions as the more exciting way to explore sculptural space. As he once put it: ''Objects and living things crawled and spread out on the ground. You had to bend down to see them properly. Your body had a different relationship to them.''
The profuse colored forms of Sugarman's sculptures, which were initially made of painted wood and then of painted aluminum, could seem chaotic at first. But as the viewer walked around his works, they unfolded in a kind of abstract narrative of color and shape. Their improvisational complexity was out of step with the increasingly minimalist 60's but was embraced in the 70's by the Pattern and Decoration artists.
His influence, or at least his precedent, can be traced through several generations, from the environmental installations of Judy Pfaff to the playful large-scale figurative sculptures of Keith Haring, up to sculptors and installation artists of the 90's who favor bright color, formal abundance, unpredictable composition and humor, among them Jessica Stockholder, Polly Apfelbaum, Peter Soriano and Daniel Wiener.
To some extent Sugarman's appearance and temperament, not to mention his very name, seemed to match his sculpture bounce for bounce. A short man with prematurely white hair and a generally cheerful demeanor, he resembled a cross between Santa Claus and one of his elves. But this benign exterior belied a strong competitiveness and nearly total dedication to his work that may have been intensified by the fact that he began making art at a relatively late age.
Sugarman was born in 1912 in the Bronx. His father was a dealer in Oriental rugs, his mother a dedicated amateur singer. He spent much of his childhood traveling with his father on sales trips through the Eastern and Southern United States and said that the colors and patterning of Persian and Turkish rugs made an indelible impression on him.
Sugarman graduated from City College in 1934. From 1941 to 1945 he served in the Navy, assigned to a hospital in the Pacific theater. His real art education began after the war, when he went to Paris on the G.I. Bill, studying with the Cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine in 1951-52. For the next three years he worked in Paris and traveled throughout Europe. He was especially affected by Baroque architecture.
Returning to New York in 1955 Sugarman took a loft on East 23d Street, where his neighbors included Held, Bladen and Yvonne Rainer. Beginning in 1956 he exhibited in group shows at the Hansa and Brata Galleries. After making carved wood sculptures that resembled those of Raoul Hague, he made his first polychrome sculpture in 1959. He had his first solo gallery show at the Widdifield Gallery in 1960. He was represented in the late 60's by the Fischbach Gallery, and between 1977 and 1986 he had five exhibitions at the Robert Miller Gallery.
After 1970 Sugarman turned increasingly to large outdoor sculpture commissions, starting with one for the Xerox Corporation in El Segundo, Calif. Over the next 20 years he executed more than 30 commissions in the United States and abroad. He became interested in making his work user-friendly, incorporating benches and canopies into the architecturally scaled works. In 1975 one such piece, commissioned by the General Services Administration for a Federal building in Baltimore, was opposed by several judges with offices in the building. They first opposed the piece on esthetic grounds but later said that it could be dangerous for children or could be used as a soapbox from which protesters might make speeches.
As it would a few years later with the opposition to Richard Serra's ''Tilted Arc'' in lower Manhattan, the General Services Administration held hearings about the work; unlike what happened in the ''Tilted Arc'' case, in which the sculpture was eventually removed, in this case the agency decided to go ahead with the installation.
Sugarman had retrospectives at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, in 1969 and at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha in 1982. A truncated version of the Omaha show was seen in Manhattan at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986. His most recent New York exhibition was in 1998 at Hunter College in New York, where he taught from 1960 to 1970. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Walker Art Center and the Kunstmuseum.