Remembering Richard Hunt (1935–2023)
Over seven decades, the celebrated Chicago sculptor and printmaker stayed focused on getting things done.
Dec 27, 2023
I never met Richard Hunt, to my great regret, but I am charmed by the practicality that comes through in many of his published statements. Take, for example, his response to art historian Adrienne L. Childs in the luxurious monograph on his work that was published just last year.1 Childs asked Hunt if he was aware of his contribution to what a former generation of curators had called “a renaissance for sculpture in the 1950s.” “No,” Hunt replied. “You just do what you do. I mean, it’s not like you can go into the studio and say, ‘Okay, this is my place in history. I am going to make this, and this is going to be a part of something.’ You are just trying to get things done.”
Hunt really got a lot done over the course of his 70-plus-year career. His first three decades in particular were intertwined with The Museum of Modern Art. His turn to metal as a sculptural material was inspired by seeing an exhibition co-organized by MoMA at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1953. Two years later, while still a student welding his work in his parents’ basement, he sold a sculpture to William Lieberman, MoMA’s curator of Prints. (That year, Lieberman was also responsible for bringing early work by Barbara Chase-Riboud into the Museum’s collection.) Dorothy Miller, the legendary MoMA curator whose Americans series of exhibitions helped define a history of American art, saw Hunt’s sculpture Arachne in a 1957 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (she served as a juror for the show). It was acquired and on view at MoMA mere months later.
Two views of Richard Hunt’s sculpture Arachne (1956)
Jump ahead to 1971, when the Museum presented the midcareer survey The Sculpture of Richard Hunt. The artist was 35; the exhibition press release references his “astonishingly short career.” When Childs asked him how he felt about being the subject of a solo exhibition at MoMA, Hunt responded, “Well, I mean, things happen the way they happen. It was certainly an opportunity that I was pleased to be accorded.”2
Of course, Hunt earned all of this early acclaim by making great art. For Arachne, he transformed a car muffler, two lampshades, and various other metal odds and ends into a haunting figure: part insect, part human, and part machine. Elsewhere in New York, at the corner of 125th Street and Morningside Avenue, you can see his monumental public sculpture Harlem Hybrid and marvel at how its massive geometric forms seem to spring from the city’s bedrock into the tiny patch of nature it occupies, a small triangle of green set between major urban thoroughfares.
The Sculpture of Richard Hunt, The Museum of Modern Art, March 25–June 9, 1971
In 1957, responding to this Museum’s standard artist query—“What in your ancestry, nationality, or background do you consider relevant to an understanding of your art?”—Hunt answered simply, “Nothing, or maybe everything?” What a perfect answer for the artist who, in 1971, became only the second Black sculptor to have a solo show at MoMA. (The first was the self-taught stone carver William Edmondson, whose exhibition took place in 1937.) I cannot imagine the pressures he must have felt, and the kind of personal strength it must have taken to keep on making work in the face of criticism that his abstract sculpture was not what was needed from him at that moment in history.
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