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The legendary curator Dorothy Miller first obtained a Richard Hunt sculpture for the Museum of Modern Art in 1957. In 1971, William S. Lieberman organized a large show of his work at the same museum. Hunt was 36. Working in steel and other metals, he made what Lieberman characterized as “three-dimensional ‘space drawings,” which he saw as extending from the tradition that included Julio González and David Smith. To cite Lieberman, Hunt’s work made “reference to the human figure and to plant and animal shapes.” Given this impressive beginning, I think it is fair to ask: why isn’t Hunt’s name more widely known in today’s art world?
I think there is a constellation of overlapping factors that have made Hunt a well-known pubic sculptor who has received almost no critical attention, particularly in New York. When Hunt had his show at the Museum of Modern Art, two years after Frank Stella had his first retrospective there, Minimalism, Postminimalism, and Earthworks – what Rosalind Krauss called “the expanded field” – had taken center stage. However abstract his art was, his interest in “ the human figure” meant he wasn’t a Minimalist and his work was already on the way to becoming unfashionable. What does it mean to see Richard Serra everywhere in the art world and Richard Hunt seemingly nowhere? Hunt has had many public commissions but none that I know of on the international art circuit.
In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, urban riots, and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, the art world seems to have briefly opened its eyes to African American artists, including ones whose practice was largely abstract. Consider this history: Al Loving had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969; in 1970, Mel Edwards was the first African American sculptor to have a show there, and in 1972, Alma Thomas was the first African American woman to have a show at the Whitney. Things seemed to be changing, but then the doors closed once more, particularly for African American artists who did not make trenchant black subject matter their focus. It is an imbalance that speaks to the deeply embedded racism of the art world, now matter how nice and liberal it tries to act.
The exhibition Richard Hunt: Framed and Extended at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 14 – October 30, 2016) offers a small but tantalizing glimpse of what the museum’s press release calls:
[…] three lesser-known but integral aspects of Hunt’s art —printmaking, small-scale sculpture and wall sculpture—that share a vocabulary with the public commissions and express the same sense of lightness and vitality.
At the same time, for those who are curious about Hunt’s public commissions, it is easy to walk a few blocks to the intersection of Morningside Heights and 125th Street to see “Harlem Hybrid” (1976), made of polished and welded bronze.
If we think of what Anthony Caro, Serra, or Carl Andre were doing in the mid-1970s, it is clear that Hunt was never interested in pursuing a reductive or formalist approach. As the title of his 125th Street sculpture makes clear, at a time when a purist approach had long been promoted, Hunt was interested in hybrid forms, in attaining what he called, “a synthesis of organic and industrial subject matter.” Hunt’s rejection of purity and essentialism interests me. I wonder whether we can better see it now, when the art world seems more interested in crossing boundaries. Or does his use of materials such as bronze and steel, and his commitment to the discrete object, get in the way of our actual looking at his work for what is, rather than for what it isn’t?
These and other questions were swirling around me when I went downstairs at the Studio Museum to see Hunt’s work. There are ten sculptures and seven prints. The earliest sculpture, “Hybrid Form #3,” made of cast bronze, was done in 1970, while most are recent, such as “Grown Out,” made of welded bronze, which is dated 2012-2016. The sculptures fall into two categories, freestanding pieces and wall works. Hunt does something very different in each group. In the wall works, he makes a three-dimensional drawing that uses a steel frame measuring less than two feet on a side as its base, from which a linear form extends into the viewer’s space.
Dated 1989, and seemingly part of a larger series, the wall works, all of which are titled “Wall Piece” and numbered, maintain a freshness and humor that suggests a longer, more extensive look is in order. In one piece, with a frame of thick, rusted steel, two small metal sections have been pulled up from the bottom edge to the top of the frame. This tearing-upward of steel forms underscored its weight and resistance, added a note of unexpected lightness and declared that nothing is permanent. In another wall piece, a bar extends and twists diagonally from left to right and top to bottom. For all the flatness of the frame, we have to move around these works to see them. They are, as Lieberman said about his earlier work, “three-dimensional ‘space drawings,’” which gain their power from the fact that Hunt is working within a particular, self-defined constraint: the steel frame from which the linear element must extend into space or reconnect to the base. Starting with this, what kinds of lines or forms can the base generate? In these four pieces Hunt does not repeat himself, doesn’t settle into recognizable moves or a style. He seems to have been influenced by Minimalism and taken it somewhere unexpected.
Spanning more than forty years, the freestanding pieces are about that age-old issue: how does something rise up off the ground? What might that vertical column suggest? In “Hybrid Form #3,” Hunt begins with a tapered plinth that rises to become an organic, seemingly molten form branching into two arm-like structures, the larger of which splits into two wing-like extensions. We move from the architectural base to the organic form, and then to the branches that underscore their own aspiring drive to go higher. In many ways, Hunt’s freestanding pieces go against the grain of modernist sculpture, as it was embodied by Minimalism. He didn’t try to empty everything out.
At the same time, his connection to figurative sculptors, such as Mary Frank or Stephen de Staebler, is tenuous at best. At times I was intrigued by these works. At other times, I did not quite know what to make of them, which I think is a good thing. He is a successful public sculptor and, in some sense, an outlier. His works harken back to Umberto Boccioni’s bronze, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913), and Futurism, as well as Brancusi. And yet they are clearly Hunt’s. It seems to me that his incompatibility with mainstream art, along with his interest in such processes and materials as welding and bronze, Hunt is comparable to Isamu Noguchi. Both men are modern sculptors interested in public works. Neither of them were ever embraced by the commercial art world. There is a much bigger story to be told.
Richard Hunt: Framed and Extended continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through October 30.