Richard Hunt, a prolific sculptor whose towering metal works became a mainstay of American public art and whose 70-year career attracted the attention of presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson to Barack Obama, died Saturday at his home in Chicago. He was 88 years old.
The death was confirmed by Hunt's study and by his biographer, Jon Ott. A cause was not disclosed.
Hunt, a son of Chicago's South Side, was 19 in 1955 when he attended the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, a young black Chicagoan who grew up near Hunt and who was tortured and murdered while visiting Mississippi. That searing experience helped shape the artist's career and prompted him to experiment with welding and transforming discarded materials into art.
His work earned early praise. Two years after Emmett's funeral, while Hunt was still a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of his sculptures, a steel work called “Arachne.” In 1964, Hunt became a visiting artist at Yale. In 1968, President Johnson appointed him to the National Council on the Arts. And in 1971, when he was 35, the Museum of Modern Art displayed dozens of Hunt's works in a retrospective exhibition.
In an assessment of Mr. Hunt's art that year, The Times reported that “there are actually very few American sculptors of Mr. Hunt's generation who have produced a comparable body of work at so early a stage in their development.” But since he resided in Chicago, not New York, “his reputation here remains that of an outsider,” the 1971 article added.
Mr. Hunt's sculptures combined classical techniques honed at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he began taking classes as a child, with self-taught soldering and soldering. Using methods unusual for the time, he would scour alleys for scrap metal or collect broken pieces left over from car accidents to use in his art.
He was quoted as saying: “The sculpture is not a self-declaration but a voice of and for my people; above all, a rich fabric; above all, the dynamism of the African-American people.”
Over the decades, Hunt became known for his impressive works of public art, more than 160 of which have been exhibited across the country, according to his studio. They include “Swing Low,” a 1,500-pound welded bronze work hanging from the ceiling at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and “Flight Forms,” a towering welded stainless steel work outside Midway International Airport. from Chicago. . Other works created by Hunt have been installed in locations as varied as a sculpture garden in Kansas, a museum in Kentucky, and a playhouse in Michigan.
A recently completed work depicting a bird taking flight from a book will be displayed at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago once the facility opens. Obama has called Hunt “one of the greatest artists Chicago has ever produced.” The city's mayor, Brandon Johnson, said in a statement that the sculptor had an “indelible impact on our city and our world.”
Richard Howard Hunt was born on September 12, 1935 in Chicago, the first of two children of Cleophus Howard Hunt, a barber, and Etoria Inez Henderson Hunt, a librarian. He became interested in art early and frequently visited Chicago museums, where he was captivated by works from Africa. When he was a young teenager, he began taking classes at the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Mr. Hunt is survived by his daughter, Cecilia, an artist, and his sister, Marian, a retired librarian.
Hunt would say his attendance at Till's funeral nearly 70 years ago helped set the course of his career. Like Emmett, Hunt was a black teenager from Chicago who sometimes traveled south to visit his relatives. The artist was quoted as saying that what happened to Emmett “could have happened to me.”
“That really set the tone for his entire artistic life, which really focused on representing freedom and liberty in every sense,” said Mr. Ott, the biographer.
Even as his work attracted the attention of art collectors and political leaders, Hunt spent much of his adult life sleeping on a mattress on the floor of his Chicago studio, which had no television, few amenities, and enormous piles of scrap metal with the that he and his colleagues would build.
The studio building, which he acquired in 1971, blends into a tree-lined residential streetscape in an affluent area of Chicago's North Side. But inside, the high-ceilinged space, which had been a substation to power the city's elevated rail lines, is a living museum.
In addition to half-built sculptures and memorabilia from his career, Hunt continued to work well into this year, supervising other sculptors carrying out his vision for public art installations. One of his last pieces, Ott said, had been a sculptural model for a monument to Emmett Till.
The plan, Ott said, is for other sculptors who worked with Hunt to complete a large-scale version of that piece, which will eventually be displayed outside Emmett's childhood home, just two blocks from where Hunt was born.
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