Tobias was also representative of a generation of American artists who studied under the GI Bill, often abroad, and then revitalised "downtown" Manhattan with their illegal lofts and studios. These urban pioneers were a hardy lot, as good at building furniture and repairing roofs as at stretching a canvas and it is indicative of Tobias's physical stamina that his death, due to medical malpractice during a routine operation, should seem premature even at 83.
His grandfather was a rabbi in Ukraine and his father immigrated to New York at the turn of the century, peddling lace for a living despite a great love of music. Julius Tobias was born in 1915 at the Harlem Hospital, the only white child in the ward. His father died when he was 17, just when Tobias had been inspired by a reproduction of Gainsborough's Blue Boy to become an artist.
Though he studied in the evenings at the American Art School, he was obliged to work, first as an elevator boy, for $7 a week, and then in the post office for five years. He became a Communist sympathiser and though he never joined the party, he remained a lifelong Marxist. At the age of 27, he signed up for the US Army Air Force. Stationed with the 8th Air Force in England, he flew B16 bombing raids over Germany, his place under the pilot in a curved, transparent space, watching the beautiful flak below. This strongly influenced his later sculptural themes of negative space and spatial relationship.
On his 26th mission, pursued by 10 German planes, he managed to shoot down all but one, before crash- landing in a Swiss potato field. He was sent to Adelboden, where officers of every nation were gathered, in great comfort, and where he became friends with the widow of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and was greatly inspired by her collection of paintings.
After six months Tobias escaped from Switzerland by night taxi to Lake Lausanne and by rowing boat to France, where he was met by a member of the French Resistance, then spirited via Lyons back to London. He was awarded the DFC with Four Clusters and Presidential Unit Citation and sent back to Fort Dix in Texas. This was at the height of segregation and Tobias fought on the micro-political level of everyday acts against the apartheid of the era.
Back in New York, he met his future wife and they moved to Paris on the GI Bill soon after marrying in 1948. Tobias studied with Fernand Leger, whose political convictions and socially-driven aesthetic were close to his own beliefs. He and his wife remained in Paris for four years before returning to New York.
Tobias was in an early group show in 1957 at the legendary Brata Gallery in New York, but in 1946 he had already shown with the Provincetown Art Association, a centre of Abstract Expressionism on a par with the Brata. His first one-man show was in 1959 at the Esther Stuttman gallery; he later showed at the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and Gallery Creuze in Paris.
Having moved from neo-plastic abstracts to white, wall-sized paintings Tobias began making large-scale sculptures and rooms within rooms. These clean, well-lit, austere spaces were at the forefront of "minimalism". A New York Times review of 1968 described them:
The size of small rooms, white-walled, they enclose precise, sparse arrangements of large beams. Disciplined abstract exercises on the one hand, they are also imaginative, even poetic, conceptions on the other.
Tobias used masonite, wood, cement and concrete to create environments, including for a notably strong series of shows from 1970 onwards at the Max Hutchinson Gallery. At his own loft nearby he simultaneously showed a full-scale room environment "TATHATA", within which the fashion model Peggy Moffitt was photographed for an ultra-modernist shoot. Tobias had one of the original lofts of "NoHo" (North of Houston Street, as opposed to "SoHo"), on Great Jones Street, an area that remained notoriously rough. He was continually robbed, as were neighbours such as Meredith Monk and Robert Rauschenberg; the time was captured in Don DeLillo's 1973 novel Great Jones Street.
Works such as The High and the Low, of variously sized slabs of poured concrete, weighing some 10,000lb, or Slab City, a sequence of slab units, or concrete walls entitled Half and Half, now look like precursors of everything from the work of the young Swiss artist Adrian Schless to the recent installations of Richard Serra or Peter Eisenman's proposed Holocaust memorial for Berlin. Their elegant aggression culminated in a series of "barrier" installations where Tobias blocked the entrances and circulation of his gallery shows, reflecting his view that "art, to be vital, should somehow go against the grain". Such abrasive anti-commercialism was typical of the time.
Tobias showed an Interior Space at the Whitney Annual of 1967, was in numerous collections such as the Brooklyn Museum and the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, but the sheer list of grants he received suggests not only his worth but also his constant commercial struggle.
His sculpture had been growing larger and larger, turning into outdoor public art installations such as Homage to the Cows of the Sioux Falls Stockyard (1981), when he slowly returned to painting. Beginning around 1983 he devoted himself increasingly to canvases of stacked bodies in piles clearly making reference both to the Holocaust and to other arenas of 20th-century butchery. These were his first overtly figurative series, curiously almost returning to Leger's own socially and politically engaged figuration which he had studied 30 years earlier.
His ominous paintings of piled bodies culminated in a series of all-black paintings, suggesting a return to a classical monochrome modernism. They were shown at the Pardo Sheehan Gallery of New York in May, his first show of paintings in the city for 40 years, indeed practically since his first solo show - also of Abstract-Expressionist all-black canvases. Asked the most memorable thing he had learnt from Leger, Tobias would repeat a single phrase which might well serve as his own epitaph: "Ca doit etre monumentale!"
Julius Tobias, artist: born New York 27 August 1915; married 1948 Lillian Bluestein (deceased; one daughter); died New York 16 June 1999.