Monday, December 29, 2014

Richard Hunt at the Chicago Cultural Center

Richard Hunt has had two careers. Immediately upon graduating the School of the Art Institute in 1957, he embarked on a career as a gallery artist that culminated at the age of 36 in an unprecedented retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Thereafter, he became the most prolific public sculptor in America, with over 160 commissions over the last 45 years. Over that time, the Artworld has grown ever more elite, confrontational, and distant from the world of public art, making Hunt’s upbeat, acrobatic, aspirational  expressions more suitable for a street corner than a gallery of contemporary art. But his non-public work, as revealed in this exhibit, has not lost a beat, even as he enters his eighth decade. In work that has now become more triumphant than defiant, his virtuosity remains stunning. Has anyone else ever drawn space with welded steel as apparently effortlessly and spontaneously as ink might be brushed on paper? He appears to have an endless appetite for balance, tension, and ever-erupting energy. In contrast to the strategies of conceptual art, there appears to be  one obvious explanation for his production: his virtuosic ability to do it. It’s work that is quite independent of his reputation, as it would likely stand out in any un-attributed collection of welded metal objects.

But it’s also work that thrills more than  satisfies. He has dedicated his career to the flame-like intensity that he picked up from one of his teachers at the Art Institute, Egon Weiner. But unlike Weiner, and Weiner’s generation of figure sculptors, mass, weight, character, history, and narrative have not been his concerns. His abstract pieces still feel figurative, like dancers balanced on one toe with both arms in the air.   But they don’t feel like members of an historic, human community. They’re more like daemons or spirits that belong in some other realm. In this, he stands apart from the primary concern of so much African American art that preceded him (Charles White) and followed (Kerry James Marshall).  And though public works sometimes enhances their sites, his pieces may appear to emerge in spite of them. (or - at least that's my response to the piece installed at the northwest corner of the Cultural Center)

As an artist, just like each of his pieces, he stands wonderfully and triumphantly alone.

(Matt Morris's politically more correct panegyric  is published here )