Richard Hunt’s career trajectory reads like a modern-day version of a Baroque-era prodigy’s story. In 1957, while he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of his works. Soon after, his sculptures were on display at the Whitney, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Hunt received his first public commission in 1959, was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962, and was appointed to serve on the National Council on the Arts in 1968 during the Johnson administration. In 1969, Ebony magazine hailed him as “one of the foremost sculptors in the country,” a sentiment echoed almost verbatim by MoMA’s William Lieberman in his introductory essay to Hunt’s 1971 retrospective, which received enthusiastic praise from the New York Times. All this, and Hunt was still in his 30s. Today, he has over a dozen honorary degrees and 150 public commissions to his name.
Hunt has often credited his Englewood public high school and the Art Institute of Chicago as formative influences, particularly the AIC’s “Sculpture of the Twentieth Century” exhibition (1953), where he encountered the sculptures of Julio González. Hunt’s current show, “Scholar’s Rock or Stone of Hope or Love of Bronze” (on view through summer 2021), situated on the AIC’s Bluhm Family Terrace with a commanding view of Millennium Park and the Chicago skyline, seems the perfect occasion for a celebration of the life and work of Chicago’s most decorated and prolific sculptor.
While the works on the terrace mostly date from the last 10 years, a selection of maquettes for public sculptures and works from the 1970s (shown in the museum’s Modern Wing) hint at Hunt’s stylistic breadth. Some are biomorphic studies suggestive of the Surrealist forms of Jean Arp and Henry Moore. More recent maquettes such as We Will (2005) and Flight Forms (2000) imply ascent; the latter, suggestive of a stylized bird, was installed at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Lift as You Climb (2020)—a study for the yet unrealized Ida B. Wells Commemorative Sculpture, celebrating the Chicago journalist and civil rights leader—speaks to Hunt’s social and historic engagement. These works, which recall Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space and a very stylized Nike of Samothrace, are all framed against floor-to-ceiling windows, answering the geometry of the Chicago skyline with curvaceous, flame-like, and organic forms.
A single-pedestal display features some of Hunt’s earliest works from the 1950s, including the whimsical Unicycle Built for Two (1956) and Standing Figure (1955), both depicting linear human figures in a scribbled, gestural style. They seem the near-opposite of the monumental and weighty abstractions that comprise the bulk of the show.
Like the maquettes, the larger, more recent sculptures occupying the terrace engage in a dialogue with the Chicago skyline, bridging the linear and the organic. In Inside and Outside the Frame (2006), a twisting organic form, suggestive of ascent or growth, emerges from a rectangular frame. In Growing and Built and Grown (both 2020), bronze seems to sprout limbs as it ascends skyward. Out and Further Out (2018) also harnesses right angles and organic lines to suggest growth, this time horizontally, poetically exploring and flaunting the tensile strength of bronze.
Hunt’s sculptures reward close inspection. Their textured surfaces, worked by abrasive disks and animated by sunlight, lend a luminosity that would be largely muted indoors. Hidden within the crevices, natural bronze and steel patinas are sometimes interrupted with areas of arrestingly intense color, the result of exposure to focused, intense heat in the studio. Though Hunt’s works are constructed intuitively, they never come across as random.
Scholar’s Rock or Stone of Hope or Love of Bronze (2014–20), from which the exhibition takes its name, is a monumental sculpture that seems to reject the vertical ascension so typical of Hunt’s work. Immobile and steadfast, it is uncompromisingly rooted to the ground. Alluding to Chinese scholar’s stones sculpted over many years by the forces of nature (whose multifaceted textures bear an uncanny resemblance to Hunt’s work), the title also evokes the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, whose stone statue takes its name from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Although Hunt’s work is principally abstract, it frequently addresses specific people or events, and Scholar’s Rock situates itself squarely in the tradition of socially and historically engaged works like I Have Been to the Mountaintop (in Memphis), Freedmen’s Column (Howard University, Washington, DC), and Jacob’s Ladder (Chicago).
The first of Hunt’s works to be acquired by a major museum was Arachne, which appeared on the cover of the catalogue accompanying his 1971 retrospective at MoMA. By using Modernist language to address an ancient story, that sculpture bridged past and present. This exhibition demonstrates that Hunt’s work has remained remarkably consistent throughout his decades-long career, which is certainly not to suggest that it’s stagnant. He articulated an elegant artistic vocabulary early on, and he continues to invent and harness abstraction to express eternally resonant themes. It seems only fitting that these recent works be exhibited under the open sky; like so many of Hunt’s works over the years, they’re optimistic, energetic, and ever ascending upward.