When architects need a public sculpture, they often look to Richard Hunt, the Chicago artist whose massive projects over six decades have made him one of the most respected monument builders in the U.S. Hunt works in the tradition of the great twentieth-century modernists such as Picasso, melding stainless-steel, copper, and bronze into towering abstract structures. Look out the window of any El train and you’ll likely spot a Hunt sculpture proudly guarding a plaza or university campus.
In 1976, the New Art Examiner asked: “Will success spoil Richard Hunt?” The question is answered only by the passage of time. Over the years Hunt has created over 125 public sculptures in the United States, and in 2009 he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center.
Born on the South Side, Hunt found success in New York City in the early 1960s, after graduating from the School of the Art Institute and a stint in the Army. He decided to stay in Chicago rather than move to New York, like many of his peers, because “the likelihood of me having a studio like this in New York or Brooklyn is very small,” he says. “Chicago turned out to be a better place for sculpture.” (His 1909-built studio used to be an electrical station for the El.)
He moved to that studio in Lincoln Park in the 1970s, a time when Chicago’s art scene was smaller. Over the years luxury townhouses and condos have popped up around his property—Lincoln Park was one of Chicago’s first neighborhoods to gentrify—and now the neighborhood families frown on semi trucks hauling tons of steel down their street, so Hunt oversees his largest projects in a West Town factory. He still assembles most of his body-sized sculptures in Lincoln Park, however, and it’s those that are becoming better known to art world audiences thanks to concurrent retrospectives at the Chicago Cultural Center (through March 29) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (through May 17).
Hunt turns 80 in September, but he’s as busy as ever. Between four new commission projects on the docket—including an airport terminal in Atlanta and a college of music in Iowa—Hunt spends most of his days in his enormous 4,500-square-foot studio, firing up his industrial-strength blowtorches and wielding giant scraps of metal.
On a recent winter morning, Hunt was working on a few personal projects. When I mention retirement, he chuckled. “Sculpture is both my vocation and my hobby.”
Asked how he continually finds fresh ideas over all those decades, Hunt says he thinks of his artistic profession as “maintaining a garden where things grow and develop in a natural way.”
“The kind of work he does is in demand,” says Daniel Schulman, curator of the Chicago Cultural Center. Hunt’s lasting success is due in part, says Schulman, to his uplifting themes of self-improvement and growth. “These strike me as American things.”