Richard Hunt: Chicago’s Dean of Sculpture
By FRANCK MERCURIO
On a quiet section of Lill Street overlooking Jonquil Park, a one-time CTA transformer station stands anonymously among its more gentrified Lincoln Park neighbors. Unassuming from the outside, the 1910 structure boasts an impressive three-story-tall interior space illuminated by rows of cathedral-like windows. Within this building (that once housed giant rotary converters powering Lincoln Avenue’s trolley car system), resides the studio of Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt.
Hunt purchased the old transformer building from the CTA in the early 1970s and relocated his studio there. The atelier contains a diverse array of “stuff” bearing witness to Hunt’s vocation. Mountains of scrap metal stand next to large-scale works in-progress. Dozens of maquettes line tabletops alongside random pieces of African art. Rows of archival boxes and filing cabinets overflow with the memorabilia of Hunt’s 60-year artistic practice.
Chicago is celebrating the artist’s long and highly successful career—and his 80th birthday—with two new exhibitions: Richard Hunt: 60 Years of Sculpture at the Chicago Cultural Center (through March 29) and MCA DNA: Richard Hunt at the Museum of Contemporary Art (through May 17).
Best known for his monumental works of public art, Hunt has completed numerous commissions throughout the city and the nation. Chicagoans are perhaps most familiar with Hunt’s Flight Forms (2001) at Midway Airport, We Will (2005) on Randolph Street near the Chicago Cultural Center, and Eagle Columns (1989) in Jonquil Park. But Hunt has also created public works in nearly a dozen other states, including significant commissions in Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington, DC.
Yet his prominence as a public sculptor often obscures Hunt’s thriving studio practice. “I make things from coffee table-sized to plaza-sized,” said Hunt during a recent interview. Indeed, the compact exhibition at the MCA focuses attention on eight of the artist’s more modestly-scaled works.
“People know Richard from his public projects, but I think it is really important to address that he has been laboring in his studio making studio work as well,” says Naomi Beckwith, MCA curator. “There is this humbler-scaled, yet no less significant, practice in his studio that’s ongoing.”
Hunt became famous at an early age through these “humbler-scaled” works. Arachne (1956) was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art when the artist was still in his twenties. Hunt created this and other early sculptures using found objects, such as discarded automobile parts and other detritus of industrial production.
“It was about creating something from found material and the industrial waste that we’ve been producing as a society,” explained Beckwith. “You have artists starting to make things out of waste [in the 1950s]. I can’t help but think about it as a kind of commentary on excess production.”
As a young artist, Hunt displayed a talent for imbuing obsolete, static objects with life and movement. “Some of the earliest works that Richard created were figural. They’re all humans or humanoids or little robots,” says Beckwith. “And it’s about reactivating—or literally reanimating—some of this stuff that seemed lifeless and pulled apart and wasted.”
Hunt himself cites Julio González (1876–1942) as a major influence on his early work. “Gonzalez talked about sculpture being the marriage of material and space—drawing in space—you know, that kind of thing,” says Hunt. “It got my attention.”
González and other modernists pursued a more “constructed” way of producing sculpture, often assembling or welding separate components together to create three-dimensional compositions. It was a method that inspired Hunt. “I started out modeling, but then I saw this constructed stuff and was very excited by it,” explains Hunt. “I wanted to move in that direction. So that’s what got me started doing metal work, first soldering little things, then going on to weld.”
Although Hunt still uses this technique today, the idea of modeling isn’t entirely absent from his mature work—often, he welds together modeled components to create his sculptural constructions. Hunt works out his initial ideas using wax slabs that he shapes and solders to create maquettes. Guided by these initial models, he then models larger pieces from steel or bronze and welds these together to fabricate the finished work.
The final product is consciously abstract, yet reflects an underlying figural quality. Hunts sculptural compositions suggest wings, waves, body parts, and other moving, flowing, curvilinear shapes. Says Beckwith, “I’d always been amazed by his practice that is abstract, but borrows from these kind of surreal, biomorphic forms.”
In the Cultural Center exhibition, 60 of Hunt’s signature sculptures are displayed from different periods of his career, including two new works never before exhibited in public. Along with the MCA show, the Cultural Center exhibition offers visitors an opportunity to view some of the best pieces created by Chicago’s prodigious dean of sculpture.
• At the Chicago Cultural Center Thru March 29, 2015
Richard Hunt: Sixty Years of Sculpture
• At the Museum of Contemporary Art Thru May 17, 2015
MCA DNA: Richard Hunt
MCA Talk: Naomi Beckwith on Richard Hunt, Tu, Feb 10, 12–1 pm
Image pictured at top of page: Gathering scrap in a junk yard at Clybourn and Sheffield Avenues, Chicago, 1962. Photo courtesy Richard Hunt