Art NotesArts & Culture

The Meaning of Metal: Richard Hunt Balances Natural and Industrial Through Sculpture

A true pioneer of public art in America, Chicago-born sculptor Richard Hunt has created over 130 large-scale commissions during his career, which has spanned the past six decades. While always maintaining a strong interest in linear forms, he incorporates seemingly disparate influences—biology, zoology, classical literature, music and history—into interesting works that pull the eye in and allow the mind to wander and make sense of their abstracted forms. Welding metal as his medium, his body of work explores the reconciliation between the organic and industrial.

In Georgia, “Wisdom Bridge” adds intrigue to the downtown branch of the Atlanta Public Library, while “And They Went Down Both Into the Water” and “Tower of Aspirations” are hard to miss at Springfield Park in Augusta. Now, Georgia residents can see even more of his work in “Richard Hunt: Synthesis.” On view at the Georgia Museum of Art Oct. 20–Feb. 3, the exhibition is the first to examine the artist’s process with special attention to the way he applies traditional practices to modern ideas. Curated by Shawna Harris, the museum’s Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art, the show also includes drawings and prints that serve both as conceptualizations of sculptures as well as works of art on their own. Hunt will visit Athens for a public conversation on Friday, Oct. 19 at 4:30 p.m. 

Many of Hunt’s sculptures imagine the forms nature may have made herself under the right conditions of metal and heat. “Study for ‘Iceberg,’” a framework of thin steel rods welded together into a cluster of triangles, represents an interesting public art sculpture that formerly peeked out from the surface of a pond at Adams Park in Atlanta during the ’80s. Designed in 1977 for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Memphis, TN, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” commemorates the leader’s legacy by materializing a line from his final speech, delivered in Memphis the day before his assassination, into a stark black assemblage of abstracted shapes that form the silhouette of a mountain range. Inspiration from nature can also be observed in “Growth and Extensions,” a slender, sapling-like form with budding branches that curve as if moved by the wind. 

Some sculptures exist as impressions of their original subject or idea, reduced down into their most elemental form. Launching his career in public sculpture, Hunt designed “Play” in 1967 for the John J. Madden Mental Health Center in Hines, IL. Responding specifically to the atmosphere and needs of the surrounding community, the sculpture captures the essence of lighthearted play through two abstract shapes interacting. A pair of small-scale studies demonstrate his contemplation of both structure and mood. “Play, Version #1” emphasizes the body language of one form leaning towards the other, while “Play, Version #3” hones in on gentle, curving lines that would feel much friendlier and less jarring than sharp lines would have within the given location. 

Hunt excels at pushing the limitations of metal by experimenting with shape, scale and weight. Several of his sculptures appear delicately balanced, often with thin appendages that stretch out precariously. “Falling” seems to defy gravity as a human figure is hurtled face-first towards its anchoring pedestal. “Hero’s Head” plays with shadow and the absence of material to create a skull, while its blockish base provides contrast in both line and color with a rainbow sheen across its surface. 

Drawn to art from an early age, Hunt attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and had an early break during his junior year, when one of his pieces was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he would later be the first African-American sculptor to have a major solo exhibition. In addition to being appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as one of the first artists to serve on the governing board of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1968, he also served as commissioner of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Art from 1980–’88. His work can be found in many major museums not limited to the National Gallery and National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC, and the Whitney Museum of American Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

Hunt’s visit to the Georgia Museum of Art will be followed by the museum’s quarterly reception, 90 Carlton: Autumn, at 5:30 p.m. Harris, who has known Hunt since 2003, will lead a tour on Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. Additional events include Family Day on Nov. 3, Toddler Tuesday on Nov. 13, a screening of the documentary Richard Hunt: Sculptor on Nov. 29, an Artful Conversation on Dec. 5 and a Teen Studio on Jan. 17. A hardcover book by Harris was published by the museum to accompany the exhibition.