The Nation March 23 1963
Richard Hunt exhibition at Alan Gallery. A Review by Hilton Kramer. Drawing-in-space.
Richard Hunt, the young Chicago sculptor, is something of a phenomenon on the current art scene. His latest exhibition at the Alan Gallery - his third in New York - consists of twenty-one works in steel and copper, half a dozen of them six feet tall. Anyone seeing this very rich and crowded exhibition will recognize, I think, that Hunt is one of the most gifted and assured artists working in the direct-metal, open-form medium – and I mean not only in his own country and generation but anywhere in the world. What may not be so immediately apparent is the speed and the aesthetic ease with which he has achieved so remarkable a position.
Born in 1935, Hunt has been exhibiting his work for the better part of a decade. From the start, there was nothing of the student or the arrivist in his work. Hunt took to welded-metal sculpture as if born to the medium, mastering its difficult technology with amazing swiftness and proliferating an imagery entirely his own; and he achieved this without recourse to the gimmickry and extrasculptural high jinks that in recent years have so often degraded the work of young artists in this sphere. At its best, it is an imagery of sustained linear power, deploying slender masses of steel tubing in very precise and elegant traceries that are none the less very strong and forthright in their sculptural stance.
Sculpture of this genre is often described as drawing-in-space. The sculptor-constructor undertakes to build his three-dimensional image in a way that will render its overall unity and intricacy to the eye with a conviction and economy akin to what one feels in the calligraphy of an accomplished draftsman. There are works by Gonzalez and David Smith, the two principal masters of this genre, that are indeed “drawings” of a very high order – but drawings which utilize and inflect the three-dimensional space they occupy as effectively as a draftsman uses a flat sheet of paper. The technical feat by which such drawing-in-space is accomplished – construction by means of welding together discrete metal forms – introduces, of course, a whole range of expressive possibilities new to both sculpture and calligraphy, and some of the most impressive works in the direct-metal canon derive from the audacity with which these possibilities have been perceived and exploited. Smith, for example, has created a new and widely influential style – a sculptural dialectic, as it were – out of his habit of seizing upon the technical and material procedures by which a piece is put together, the ways in which forms are cut and joined and related to one another, and making of them an additional resource for realizing the overall calligraphic gesture of the work as a whole. Every work becomes, at least in part, a clear exposition of the way it has been made. Structure and image are reciprocal and indissoluble, the sculptor’s fantasy being completely assimilated to the technology of his method.
Work of this genre is a sculptural counterpart to the kind of modern architecture in which, as Reyner Banham recently put it, “structure must not only be done, it must manifestly be seen to be done.” Hunt’s sculpture derives directly from the precedents of this genre, which by now form a varied and robust tradition, and subjects them to the pressure of a different imaginative ambience. Whereas in Smith’s work one feels the force of a sensibility that has transmuted a voracious appetite for all the conflicting schools of modern painting – and especially the countervailing claims of Cubism and Surrealism – into a sculptural style ample enough to satisfy so wide-ranging a synthesis, Hunt takes off from the very ground Smith has won. If the latter’s style became a kind of funnel through which the most radical innovations of modern European painting were made available to direct-metal sculpture, to Hunt (who is Smith’s junior by three decades) this feat of imaginative synthesis is as historical as Cubism itself. It forms the point of departure for his own imaginative universe, but contributes remarkably little to the basic contours of that universe.
For Hunt, unlike the majority of sculptors who work in this medium, has liberated his imagery entirely from the atmosphere of Cubism. He has moved his sculpture entirely beyond the reach of those fixed structures of pictorial planes either real or imagined, by which Cubist idea has continued to hold abstract sculpture in thrall and make of it a satellite of painting. The result is a sculptural style whose calligraphic traceries are free of pictorial illusionism, free of painterly precedents in structure as well as technique, and thus all the more forthright in its particular combination of linear invention and lyric finesse.
Hunt’s use of “line” in sculpture – an by “line,” of course, one means those slender masses of steel rod or tubing which are Hunt’s customary materials – is probably the subtlest and most elegant in current art. In a huge and ambitious work like the “Linear Spatial Form” (1962), 85 inches high, the control he has been able to exercise not only over the concept of the whole but in the execution of each separate linear element is truly remarkable. The work virtually floats before one’s eye, looking as if it had only moments before been quickly and perfectly sketched in light out of the very air. It sustains it curiously weightless buoyancy by means of virtuosic handling of masses which vary from sudden thicknesses that dissolve into light to the thin incisive lines and fat “strokes” that inflect the overall image at all its crucial points of juncture and extension. The exhibition at Alan’s abounds in a copious and restless inventiveness of this kind. Hunt can also produce works that are austere and economic, such as the two “Standing Forms,” and then with a simple, emphatic elegance create in the “Branching Construction” (1962) one of the most nearly perfect works of its kind I know. He calls some of his recent works “Peregrinations,” and one does have the sense throughout this exhibition of the sculptor’s fantasy pouring forth in many directions at once, seeking not one but a multitude of destinations for each concept that his fecund imagination poses for itself.
So lyrical and spontaneous a vision places great demands on the welder’s craft as well as the sculptor’s art, and Hunt shows himself entirely equal to the task. His present achievement would be remarkable for an artist twice his age; as it is, still under thirty, he produces art that is an astonishment and a delight.
March 23, 1963