Richard Hunt’s Sculpture is Always Rising
If the art industry press has paid less attention to Richard Hunt than to other Chicago artists (e.g., Kerry James Marshall , William Pope L., Theaster Gates, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, etc.) or other Black American artists who work in sculpture (e.g., Gates, Hank Willis Thomas, Melvin Edwards, Simone Leigh, Kara Walker, Martin Puryer, etc.) it is of no loss to the enormous size of the artist’s national audience. In fact, it is likely that the number of people who see and appreciate Hunt’s work on a daily basis supersedes the audiences of these other artists combined.
Over 130 pieces and counting, Hunt has created public artworks since the 1960s alongside his other sculptures (and sometimes prints and drawings) for galleries, art museums, and collectors. These works live outdoors and inside architectural spaces, at universities, memorial sites, cultural centers, divinity schools, sculpture parks, museums, public parks, plazas, airports, theaters, state capitals, and libraries. Even the art museum I was often shuttled to on elementary school field trips boasts a large Hunt installation that reaches out from two walls over the main lobby, casting on me first impressions of what sculpture can be.
Richard Hunt’s aesthetic configurations are true to nature, as if shaped directly by forces of water, wind, and turbulent weather. Straight and curved contours twist and twirl around each other and then outward into space, with pointed tips, like fingers, tongues, or ends of wings. This organicism, always gesturing toward figuration while seldom confessing it, is offset and contradicted by its materialization in metal: steel, bronze, and aluminum, either cast or welded, using slabs and pieces often selected from heaps of scrap. The artist, born in 1935, has worked with a blowtorch in hand for some 70 years, with a sculpture he made at 19 years old presented at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. In this way, Hunt was never not a success, and a new book on his life and art reveals why.
Gregory R. Miller & Co has recently published Richard Hunt, the definitive monograph on the artist with over 350 images and contextualized by writings from Courtney J. Martin, John Yau, Jordan Carter, LeRonn Brooks, an interview with Adrienne Childs, and a chronology by Jon Ott. Until now, the literature on Hunt consisted mostly of exhibition catalogs and reviews (of which there are many), book references, and essays in periodicals.
Arts Magazine covered Hunt’s career closely from the 50s through the end of its print run in the early 90s. In April of 1956, writer Allen Weller notes an early achievement by the artist:
Richard Hunt, still a student at the Art Institute, was given the second highest award of $1,000 for a cottonwood and steel Construction D …. It is handsome and accomplished, and well worth being distinguished in this way.
Hunt was a firmly established institutional artist ten years later. It is curious that during the public and political rise of exhibitions of works by Black artists from the 60s and 70s – or what we call the Black Arts Movement – Arts Magazine critic Anita Feldman did not mention Hunt’s race in her review of his show at Dorsky Gallery, in May of that year:
While it was common for Black artists to be reviewed as “artists” with no adjective – Hilton Kramer does not mention Hunt’s race in his New York Times review of the Dorsky show – the absence of qualification is more salient with Hunt in particular. He referred to and still refers to himself as a “Chicago artist,” and an abstract artist. As he recalls in this volume to his interviewer Adrienne Childs, “There were African Americans who lobbied for … some kind of recognition. They were disappointed that my work, which was abstraction, was chosen for [a show of sculpture] rather than somebody who worked with more African American themes.” In 1971, Amiri Baraka took issue with the work: “The Richard Hunts and Barbara Chases [Riboud] & other less serious names touted as ‘non-political’ black artists do not actually exist in the black world at all. They are within the tradition of white art, black face or not.” Baraka is bluffing here. Hunt was routinely celebrated in “Black” exhibitions, even organized by Black curators, such as Henri Ghent’s exhibition “Afro-American Artists: Since 1950” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1969.
But artistic idiom was a tension, or at least target of criticism, for many if not all Black artists who worked abstractly during the Black Arts Movement. For example, in a panel discussion “Black Artists/White Critics” in 1973 (which, perhaps by accident, included Wee Kim, the not-Black-nor-white editor of Arts Magazine) the activist and artist Ademoloa Olugebefola complained about the curatorial choices in the Guggenheim, deriding the abstracted fabric constructions, that happened to the work of Al Loving, hanging from the museum ceiling. When Artforum critic John Coplans clarified that Loving was Black, Abdemioloa refused to believe it – “I am not talking about a Black artist” – and doubled down on his institutional critique without pause.
Richard Hunt’s rise to stardom, in Chicago, at such a young age, and in working abstractly – a formal approach considered “universal” within the mainstream artworld – accounts for his natural distance from initiatives of racial solidarity, then and now. The city, and the [School of] the Art Institute of Chicago in particular, where Benny Andrews also attended, had been more hospitable to Black artists than New York, perhaps, with fewer provocations or denials demanding resistance and rebuttal.
Hunt continues to live and work on Lill Avenue in an enormous building he purchased a half-century ago, a repurposed electrical substation built in 1909. Soon his work Book Bird will be installed in the Library Reading Garden on the Obama Presidential Center campus at the Chicago Public Library. If you are like me, you may have encountered the art of Richard Hunt somewhere in America without knowing the artist. In the monograph Richard Hunt, you can now put a name with the experience.
Richard Hunt is published by Gregory R. Miller & Co and distributed by DAP Books.