The Richard Hunt Retrospective: a monumental exhibit for a monumental artist

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Eddie Okosi
Staff Writer

Richard Hunt in his Chicago studio (2022), finishing a large-scale sculpture for The Riverfront Revitalization Project and the Gene Leahy Mall Park in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Jim Grot

A Richard Hunt retrospective is coming to Omaha. The Chicago-based artist of sculptures that possess a life of their own will have their work displayed at the KANEKO exhibition this fall from Oct. 13, 2022, to Feb. 5, 2023. The event, titled Richard Hunt: Monumental, features 40 selected pieces that are definitive of the artist’s career. 

Hunt, born in the south side of Chicago on Sept. 12, 1935, was taught by his parents Howard and Inez Henderson Hunt about the power of art and expression through different art forms at an early age. Hunt received an enriching knowledge of Black excellence and history through his parents, listening to different genres of music, going to Black opera productions, reading books of literary substance and listening in on intriguing conversations that would happen at his father’s barber shop.

A light was ignited in Hunt, and he decided to act on it by enrolling in a summer program at the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was taught to sculpt under the mentoring of Neil Bar. Hunt would go on to graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving awards like the prestigious Logan, Palmer, and Campana award, and the James N. Raymond Foreign Traveling Fellowship.

Hunt’s official debut in the art world was when his piece titled “Arachne” was inducted into the MOMA, Museum of Modern Art in New York. His art portfolio has 150 separate solo exhibitions that have been housed in 100 museums worldwide. Featured in places like the Smithsonian in Washington and London, his piece “Book Bird” was the first art piece installed at the Chicago Public Library at the Obama Presidential Center campus.

Hunt is a creator first. Known at his start to produce works of art in a homemade studio he made in his room, the stories he tells are from the heart. Hunt’s life of exploring art and the Black experience has allowed him to create work that will stand the test of time. Hunt welds his values into his work, depicting stories like the great migration, African spirituals, and scenes from the slave trade. Hunt has also created monuments for some notable leaders of the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ida B. Wells.

Curator of the Monumental exhibit and art historian Marin Sullivan has the task of compiling a collection of pieces that encompass Hunt’s work and chronicle the interwoven messages that connect his standalone works.

“Richard is very much a part of this generation of sculptors who completely changes the sculpture game,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan says that Chicago is Richard Hunt’s city and vice versa, as you can’t move a couple of blocks in Chicago without seeing his work displayed.

Sullivan says this idea of an artist who has pioneered a practice of making but also doing it in a public sphere, very committed and invested in making his work accessible to all public has been the main reason why this show was created. 

Accessibility is a value a lot of artists shy away from exploring out of fear their work will be deemed low brow or oversaturated. The art world has debated  for a long time who gets to view art and what is considered high end art. But Hunt disregards all the art politics in favor of sharing his skills and expertise he has crafted for decades. 

The Hunt Monumental Experiment comes at a perfect time; his new installation titled “Planar and Tubular” will reside at the new Gene Leahy Mall for three years with other art pieces by Linda Fleming, Bruce Beasley and John Clement.

The exhibit will coincide with the sculptor and the people of Omaha will be able to see his work and learn about it. Sullivan says there will be a lot of surprises in store for the exhibit, as she has pulled pieces from Hunt’s archive and private collectors that have not been seen for decades. The exhibit will also include art that has never been seen in public. This exhibit will be a unique experience, as each piece is a puzzle that connects a full story. 

“I wanted to use this show to really bring to light a lot of the motifs and approaches that have always been present in Richard’s work,” Sullivan said.  

Sullivan says it will be an interesting dialogue of his work across decades and approaches, and it will provide a nice showing of huge parts of the artistic practice he has. His work is abstract, but underpinning all abstract elements is just a huge amount of research and understanding of his subject matter.

“There are so many constituents involved, so this exhibit started from a place taking this concept of monumentality, playing on this idea of what’s monumental in Richard’s work about Richard’s work,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, a figure who got the opportunity to explore archives of many different artists, found the experience of working with Hunt and his team impactful. 

“When you start working with Richard Hunt as a curator or art historian, you realize how much of an impact he has made on so many people and how generous he is of his time,” Sullivan said. “Everything [he creates] is a hybrid; it’s never completely representational, it’s never completely abstracted, it’s infused with important stories and profound pride of his identity as a Black man and it feeds into his work, and that to me is a monumental approach to art making.”

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