Luis Jimenez, a successful but often controversial sculptor whose work was supposed to be installed at Denver International Airport this year, died Tuesday in what authorities are calling an industrial accident.
Part of a 32-foot sculpture was being moved with a hoist at Jimenez's New Mexico studio when it came loose and struck the artist, pinning him against a steel support, said the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department. He was taken to the Lincoln County Medical Center, where he was later pronounced dead.
"Luis Jimenez's loss to the United States, to New Mexico, to the Chicano community is great," friend David Hall told Albuquerque television station KRQE. "He was an icon, he was a very famous and well-respected artist. ... We will dearly miss him."
Jimenez, 65, was known for his large and colorful fiberglass sculptures that depicted fiesta dancers, a mourning Aztec warrior, steelworkers and illegal immigrants. His work has been displayed at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art. It's often started arguments and spurred emotions.
"It is not my job to censor myself," Jimenez once said. "An artist's job is to constantly test the boundaries."
Nancy Fleming, a friend of the artist, said Jimenez was working on a huge fiberglass rendering of a rearing horse when he died. That sculpture, named Mustang, was bound for DIA. Fleming said he was making the statue in three pieces: the head, middle and legs.
"Mr. Jimenez's untimely death is a tragic loss for the nation's art community," said Erin Trapp, director of the Denver office of cultural affairs. "He will be remembered for his artistic vision, compassion and generosity through a rich legacy of work."
The airport and the cultural affairs office will work with the local community to determine how the piece can be finished, the office said in a news release.
Earlier this year, the airport threatened to sue Jimenez again because he had not finished his piece on time. He had been working on the sculpture for more than 10 years and had been given several deadlines. His last deadline was May 31 but it passed with no sign of the horse. He was to be paid $300,000 for the piece.
The city sued Jimenez to get back an upfront payment of $165,000 and finished parts of the sculpture. Jimenez filed a counter suit after the airport considered putting the sculpture inside the terminal instead of on a street median outside as originally agreed. Both lawsuits were dismissed.
James Moore, former director of the Albuquerque Museum, praised Jimenez's abilities.
"If there were a Michelangelo living in our time in terms of talent and creativity, Luis was it," Moore said, adding that Jimenez was always concerned with humanity and social conditions.
Gov. Bill Richardson ordered flags to be flown at half-staff Thursday and Friday in honor of Jimenez.
Jimenez grew up in El Paso, Texas, and learned to paint and to fashion large works out of metal in his father's sign shop. He graduated in fine arts from the University of Texas in Austin and lived in New York City for a time.
In 1969, he created "Man on Fire," a sculpture of a man in flames that drew its inspiration both from Buddhist monks in South Vietnam who burned themselves and the Mexican story of Cuahtemoc, set afire by Spanish conquerors. The sculpture was displayed at the Smithsonian.
Jimenez recently completed a mud casting of firefighters and three fiberglass flames as part of a memorial for the city of Cleveland.
Jimenez won numerous awards and his work is on display at public sites across the nation and in New Mexico, including the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque's Martineztown.
Some of his pieces also are in museum collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe.
"I think because his works are so monumental -- they have a presence in communities that other artists who show in galleries maybe don't have -- that their presence will stay on with us," Fleming said. "His vision and his technique will stay with us. We will miss anything more that he might have produced."
Copyright Copyright 2006 by TheDenverChannel.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.