Richard Hunt was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2009. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.
Richard Hunt’s sculptural journey began in the 1950s with his startling achievements as a prodigy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While he was still a student, his work was shown at a New York gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art acquired one of his sculptures.1 Fourteen years later, that student work, Arachne, appeared on the cover of the catalogue for Hunt’s MoMA retrospective (1971). William S. Lieberman, MoMA’s director of painting and sculpture and curator of the exhibition, stated in his introductory essay that “Richard Hunt ranks as one of America’s foremost living sculptors.”2 The New York Times echoed that praise in a review of the show, calling Hunt “one of the virtuoso practitioners of ‘open-form’ sculpture.”3
A modestly sized, welded steel sculpture fabricated from found objects, including an automobile muffler and two lampshades, Arachne depicts the mythological waver as transformed into a spider by Athena.4 The sculpture previewed Hunt’s lifelong interests in mythology and biology and introduced a major theme of his early work: metamorphosis. Appearing like something from a science-fiction film, Arachne resonates with major moments of Modernism, Surrealism, the assemblage sculpture of Picasso, and the open-form sculpture of Picasso’s friend, protégé, and technical advisor Julio González.5
As a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hunt saw examples of González’s work in “Sculpture of the 20th Century,” which was organized by MoMA and shown at the Art Institute in 1953.6 González was a leading proponent of the then-revolutionary technique and conceptual approach to sculpture known as direct-metal or open-form sculpture, which transformed the concept of sculpture from solid cast or carved objects into forms with open interiors revealing negative voids and exterior perimeters defined by linear and planar forms. Although Arachne retains its essential mass, Hunt opened the torso by cutting and splaying the muffler section that forms the body. In the tradition of the direct-metal process, Hunt welded steel rods to Arachne’s attenuated limbs, casting thread from his spider.
Through the early 1960s, Hunt’s sculptures evolved into their most linear forms, taking the concept of “drawing in space” to a poetic resolution far beyond González’s introductory explorations. Forms Carried Aloft, No. 2 (1960) masterfully illustrates Hunt’s success at creating lyrical forms seemingly drawn in the air. In a 1963 review, Hilton Kramer praised the lyrical heights of another open-form sculpture, Linear Spatial (Theme) (1962): “The work virtually floats before one’s eye, looking as if it had only moments before been quickly and perfectly sketched in light out of the very air.”7 Kramer went on to draw formal parallels between Hunt’s work and the roughly contemporaneous American school of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, Hunt’s sculpture and Abstract Expressionist painting share an honesty to materials and an interest in reduction to essential processes within their respective media. In much of his work, Hunt uses the raw, cast-off materials of the American industrial landscape, and he makes no effort to conceal the material’s elemental form or appearance by adding paint or chemical patinas. As in Abstract Expressionist painting, the fabrication process is self-evident, in fact, an integral part of the work. Not only are Hunt’s welds visible, so is the discoloration from the heat of the cutting torch; one can see where he hammered the metal as easily as one can follow the swirling patterns of the grinding wheel.
Hunt’s subject matter also connects with Abstract Expressionist content and its mythical mother lode, Surrealism. Clearly Hunt was influenced by Surrealism, an affinity that Lieberman did not find surprising. He asserted that Hunt’s interest “is not entirely unexpected, since Chicago, where Hunt was born and where he lives, has always been hospitable to Surrealist art, and since many of its best examples are owned in that city.”8
From within this Surrealist milieu, Hunt created The Chase (1965), about which New York Times art critic Grace Glueck said, “Richard Hunt has handled the medium of welded steel with mastery since the beginning of his career. A perfect example is The Chase (1965), a beautifully wrought piece of biomorphic parts – wings, antennae, and legs – whose solid and linear elements play off in superb balance while giving a very real sense of the insecthood.”9 With The Chase, Hunt was at his early best, bringing together interests in Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, assemblage sculpture, open-form sculpture, biological evolution, and mythology (he suggested that The Chase has roots in Diana the Huntress, with dogs “tearing at Actaeon”).10 The work skillfully assembles its industrial materials through manufacturing processes. It is confident in controlling a complicated, asymmetrical balance and lyrical in imparting a keen sense of motion within a directional attitude. In The Chase, Hunt created a sculpture pregnant with explosive energy, born of a fusion of the natural and manmade.
Hunt’s interest in hybridizing natural and industrial forms continued in Natural Form (1969). The sculpture rises from a massive and solid base that resembles a foothill or a rock outcropping. From some vantage points, this base is smoothly rounded and sensual; other views reveal hard edges and a menacing thorn or claw. Within its individual elements, it mixes geometric forms with organic shapes that could be feathers, wings, seedpods, leaves, or thorns.
Natural Form evidences Hunt’s movement away from open-form and linear sculpture toward the more planar, volumetric sculpture that has characterized the major portion of his mature output for the past 30 years. This shift occurred in the mid-1960s, when Hunt’s career as a public artist began to take off. The scale required for outdoor works, as well as concerns for public safety and commercial fabrication, required mass and volume.11
In 1970, Hunt installed a series of hybrid sculptures, solid masses that did not rely on found materials and the improvisational process of fabrication. These works were cast in aluminum and bronze in a foundry that Hunt and John Henry set up in Hunt’s Lill Street studio in 1970. Hybrid Form (1970), in the collection of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, retains Surrealist imagery. Rising to nearly four feet, its protozoan forms suggest cacti, fungi, or coral. The integrated base, which is typical of hunt’s work, echoes the branching form of the sculpture with its swollen polyps about to burst forth. Large hybrid (1971), at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is cast from bronze and appears to meld organic polyps with Hunt’s preferred wing forms; from some vantage points, it can be read as a winged Victory figure.
While Hunt connected his early sculptures to international and national art developments, he has always rooted his protean sculptural vocabulary within his Midwestern urban experience. Specifically, there is a nod to Chicago, which fuses Lake Michigan’s natural, watery realms with the muscular, steel-framed presence of gritty industrial areas and gleaming glass-clad neighborhoods.
Hunt described the topography where Chicago’s skyscrapers meet its lakefront in a 1975 public commission, Slabs of the Sunburnt West, a memorial to poet Carl Sandburg at the University of Illinois Circle Campus. For Hunt, the “sculptured slabs and the ground…make an imaginative reality of some of the landscape references in Sandburg’s poem.”12 The poem begins with images of train passengers traveling from the Midwest to the “Great American Desert.” Their journey references the early pioneers who traveled the same route. Symbolically, the trip is an extended metaphor for the journey of faith that humankind undertakes on its approach to eternity. In this way, the poem resonates with Hunt’s favored themes of growth, aspiration, and freedom.
From above, in plain view, the sculpture is diamond shaped, a form that echoed the hexagonal paving originally surrounding it (it is now an island within a sea of grass). The diamond is bisected by a vertical drop-off which, based on information found in Hunt’s preliminary drawings, represents where the shoreline of Lake Michigan meets the skyline of Chicago. A large section of the sculpture is recessed, below ground level, representing the lake bottom.
Hunt’s Memphis memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have Been to the Mountaintop (1977), was dedicated at a public ceremony on the ninth anniversary of King’s assassination. The sculpture takes its title from the eloquent and prescient “Mountaintop” speech that King delivered on the night before his assassination. The mountain is a metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle, which can be compared to scaling a mountain of racism, as well as a metaphor for King’s spiritual ascension. The pyramidal shape alludes to Memphis’s symbolic connections to Egypt; from some views, it also suggests a recumbent sphinx, symbol of the Egyptian pharaoh or “king.” From this same vantage point, others see a reference to the compacting machinery in the garbage truck that killed two Memphis sanitation workers, the tragedy initiating the sequence of events that brought King to Memphis.
The sculpture’s circular elements suggest paddle wheels. According to Hunt, “One of the early models had…paddle wheels, references to boats on the Mississippi. Part of incorporating them into it had to do with the idea of trying to move the mountain form: energize this sort of solid unmoving things, which was like the institution of segregation.”13 Steps beckon children to play on the sculpture. Like Hunt’s ladder forms, they evoke an ascension to freedom and to God. A pulpit-like projection refers to King the preacher and eloquent orator.
Another memorial sculpture, Wing Generator (ca. 1982), developed one of Hunt’s major formal themes – the hybridization of the Greco-Roman winged Nike/Victory with bird forms found on African (Yoruba) iron staffs. This gravesite monument, commissioned through the will of a deceased friend, is rich in Western and African mythology. Hobart Taylor, Jr., whose grave Wing Generator marks, achieved victory through a successful private and public life as a civil rights lawyer, an attorney for the City of Detroit, a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s staff for the enactment of civil rights legislation, and a prominent corporate lawyer. The winged motif also symbolizes the Christian victory of life after death. Like the Louvre’s Winged Victory of Samothrace (the best-known example of the Greco-Roman type), Wing Generator seems to be in motion, “energized,” as Hunt says, “with fins that suggest the rotation of an electrical generator.”24 This motif references Taylor’s interest in energy, “being on the board of several companies involved with energy, General Electric, U.S. Steel, and at the time, Eastern Airlines…it also suggests…his aspiration, his vision.”25
An avid collector of African art, Hunt own several iron Osanyin staffs depicting abstract bird forms. His use of this symbol in Wing Generator acknowledges the traditional meanings associated with the staffs. As African art historian Robert Farris Thompson explains, “The persistent equation of the bird with the head, as the seat of power and personal destiny, is of the essence in comprehending elaborations of this fundamental metaphor, including staffs.”16 The metaphor is especially significant for Wing Generator, because Taylor’s only requirement for the memorial was that it include the phrase, “There are no barriers to the mind.” This is fully consistent with Thompson’s discussion of a specific Osanyin staff, wherein he states, “This strong and elegant bird staff carries with it forms of universal thought: the triumph of the mind.”17
In a park directly across the street from Hunt’s studio, three bronze eagles, Eagle Columns (1988-89), alight atop bronze pedestals. They are guardians to the memory and ideals of John P. Altgeld, governor of Illinois during the 1890s. Altgeld supported the labor movement, “pardoned three of the anarchists convicted of inciting violence during the Haymarket ‘riot,’ and…denounced President Grover Cleveland’s armed federal intervention in the Pullman strike.”18 The sculpture again combines bird forms with the winged Victory to represent aspirations to freedom. Here, they reference Altgeld’s concern for the economic independence and workplace dignity of laborers. The eagle forms and title were also inspired by a poem written by Altgeld’s neighbor and friend Vachel Lindsay, “The Eagle That is Forgotten.” The poem bitterly recalls how Altgeld’s political enemies made a great show of falsely mourning his passing and how the common people, whose lives Altgeld was dedicated to improving, seemed quickly to forget him.
And You, Seas (2002), in St. Joseph, Michigan, was commissioned by the family of Patrick J. Kinney as a memorial to their husband and father. To express Kinney’s love of sailing, Hunt based his work on the structure and imagery of the poem “And You, Seas” by Saint-John Perse. The memorial’s location – in a park on the south pier of the harbor, where the St. Joseph River enters Lake Michigan – also honors Kinney’s maritime interests. Hunt’s water-born imagery included wave forms at the work’s base; the lighthouse shape of the central column, which echoes working lighthouses nearby; and the abstracted fish and seagull forms at the top. The inscription “D 63” on the base refers to the sail number of Kinney’s boat.
Since beginning his journey as a sculptor 50 years ago, Richard Hunt, recipient of the ISC’s 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, has become a pre-eminent American sculptor at the apex of a prolific and successful career. His evocative works are immediately recognizable for their fusion of the manmade and the natural, melding the gritty muscularity of America’s industrial/urban environment with a passion for natural forms and biology. In source and content, they combine European Modernism with the art of African blacksmiths and blend ancient mythology with American literary and musical traditions. Drawing potency from such broad and diverse sources, the sculptures resonate with multiple layers of meaning, giving voice to America’s unique hybridized cultural experience. Hunt’s art is the product of transformation, improvisation, and regeneration – firmly rooted in multiple histories and traditions – and always moving forward in positive ways.
Charles R. Loving is a director of the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book to be published by the Snite Museum; portions were previously published in “Circumnavigating the Currents of Modernism: Richard Hunt’s Sculptural Voyage Through the Last Hald of the 20th Century,” in Prestige of the Passage: Sculpture for a New Century, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah, 1999.
1 Jane Addams Allen, “A Very Private Artist Seeks a Very Public Art,” Capital Life, 1985, p. 18.
2 William S. Lieberman, introduction, The Sculpture of Richard Hunt (New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1971), p. 4.
3 Hilton Kramer, “Hunt Show Has 50 Sculptures, Drawings and Prints.” New York Times. March 24, 1971. P. 50.
4 Richard Hunt, written response to a questionnaire delivered with a letter by Dorothy Miller, curator of Museum Collections, Museum of Modern Art. April 25, 1957 (in the Arachne object file at MoMA). In a November 29, 2005, conversation with the author, Hunt indicated that the steel lampshades were removed from two goose-neck lamps discarded by the University of Chicago, where Hunt worked at the time. Holes in the lampshades, created by removing electrical sockets, became the eyes.
6 The exhibition was organized by Andrew Carnduff Ritchie of the Museum of Modern Art and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, among other venues, January 22-March 8, 1953. In addition to the work of González, whom Hunt credits as a major influence, the show featured other artists whose work also made an impression on him: Picasso, David Smith, and Theodore Roszak. Hunt also considers British sculptors Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick as early influences.
7 Hilton Kramer, “Art,” The Nation, March 23, 1963, p. 256.
8 Lieberman, op. cit., p. 5.
9 Grace Glueck, “Richard Hunt,” New York Times, March 16, 1984.
10 Hunt, interviewed by the author, January 20, 1998.
11 During an August 12, 1998 interview with the author, Hunt indicated, “I started to do some things I called ‘hybrids’ during the ‘60s and on into the ‘70s. As I started to do more large-scale things, public things, I started to work with a more planar material. I worked with more volume.”
12 Hunt, interviewed by the author, August 22, 1997.
14 Hunt, interviewed by the author, November 29, 2005.
15 Hunt, 1997, op. cit.
16 Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p. 45.
17 Ibid., p. 50.
18 Frank Getlein, “Combining the Root with the Reach of Black Aspiration,” Smithsonian, July 1990, p. 66.