Jane Addams Allen > Article: A very private artist seeks a very public art The Washington Times

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A very private artist seeks a very public art

“One of the problems with art is that it doesn’t get used up,” says sculptor Richard Hunt. He points out that almost all other commodities have to be regularly replaced, but art has the unfortunate tendency to hang around and be venerated. “In order to have a vital art life,” he says, “there has to be a natural constant demand.” It might even be a good thing, he thinks, if art was occasionally destroyed. “There were a lot of bronzes made in Greek and Roman time,” he says almost approvingly, “that were melted down and made into canons later on.” It’s a surprising attitude for an artist who creates imposing works out of very imperishable materials. One of Mr. Hunt’s huge welded bronzes titled “A Bridge Across and Beyond” gracefully curves and swoops over a site on the Howard University campus. It would be all right with him, the sculptor insists if the students decided to melt it down. Richard Hunt likes bridges. He should. At 50 this quiet American artist can look back on 30 years of bridging the gap between the work of art and its audience. Through his own art, through his innumerable public service appointments, through his tireless promotion of public sculpture, Richard Hunt has helped to develop a mass audience for art. “Bridging and Branching” is the title of another of his large public works near Chicago where he lives. It is an apt description of his own career. Yet somehow this most successful contemporary American sculptor has never become a public personality the way that Sandy Calder or David Smith did. Even though he has had more official honors heaped on him than many more famous artists, Richard Hunt never became a darling of the media. He is an intensely private, quiet-spoken man, who prefers to remain behind his welder’s mask. Perhaps that’s why his one-man show which opens the attractive new Adams Morgan premises of the Marie Martin Gallery is his first in Washington. Mr. Hunt has spent a lot of time here as member of the National Council on the Arts between 1968 and 1974 and commissioner of the National Museum of American Art for the Smithsonian from 1980 to the present. But aside from such large-scale pieces as the Howard commission, his work is unfamiliar to Washington audiences. For this reason Miss Martin has included a range of the artist’s sculpture and graphic works. Standing amid the recent polished bronzes is an early welded steel called “The Chase,” from 1964. Like many of Mr. Hunt’s early pieces, “The Chase” suggested highly animated insect or animal forms. His technical mastery over the medium is extraordinary. Mr. Hunt was not one of your suffering, isolated geniuses whose talents go unappreciated until late in life. Virtually from the moment he began taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago Junior School at the age of 12, his exceptional abilities were noticed by those who could help. Nelli Barr, who taught him sculpture in junior school, became a personal friend, introducing him to other artists and encouraging him to see local shows. And then in his second year of art school in 1956, an outside juror, sculptor Ibram Lassaw gave him the top award in the annual Chicago and vicinity show sponsored by the Art Institute. The work titled “Construction D” was panned by indignant Chicago critics, but a New York dealer was intrigued by its photograph in the paper, visited the young srtist’s studio and offered him a show. Excited by this prodigy in their school, Frederick Sweet, curator of American Art for the Institute, put Mr. Hunt’s work in the prestigious American Exhibition the following year. Dorothy Miller of the Museum of Modern Art saw it and purchased it for the New York museum. It was included in their 1957 show “Recent American Acquisition.” Richard Hunt was only 20 at the time. “I though this early success happened to everybody,” the laid-back Mr. Hunt says laconically. The piece purchased by Miss Miller was “Arachne.” It was one of those seminal works which seemed to integrate for its art world viewers amny of the post-war period’s ideas about sculpture. Over a decade later, it was still impressive enough to be chosen for the cover photograph of the catalogue for Mr. Hunt’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. For Mr. Hunt, the mythic theme of a woman turned into a spider gave him an opportunity to draw together all his different interests. He loved the biological sciences and put himself through art school by working as a lab assistant in the University of Chicago’s department of zoology. And the idea of metamorphosis was in the air – “Kafka in the hip pocket and Bullfinch’s ‘Mythology’ on the bed table,” jokes the sculptor. “I was looking at ‘Arachne’ as both something that was constructed and something that was dissected,” he says. “I was thinking not only about a woman turning into a spider, but also about what anatomical, physiological, psychological process might bring that about.” And then there was the medium, which itself had been metamorphosed. “Arachne” was made of recycled junk; its bulging eyes had originally been motorcycle head lamps; its gaping torso came from parts of cars. Inspired by the direct metal sculpture of Julio Gonzalez, Picasso’s contemporary, Mr. Hunt had taught himself to weld during his first year at art school. By the second year he was a master at the craft. Critic Hilton Kramer later wrote in the New York Times: “I think 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.” To a certain extent, Mr. Hunt feels that he was fortunate to have matured as an artist before the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Segregation limited his freedom of movement. But among his own friends he was accepted as an artist without any racial qualifier. “If I left the Art Institute with some of my friends and wanted to go to the far north side with them to have a drink I might get beat up on say, Devon Avenue or chased home. On the other hand I could be interested in Gonzalez or Picasso or David Smith,” he says with a touch of irritation, “and nobody said, ‘Well, they’re not black you know.’ I could do a sculpture called ‘Arachne’ and not be Greek.” A fellowship to Europe followed the young sculptor’s graduation. There he looked with interest at Etruscan and Renaissance sculpture, but the experience only confirmed his conviction that steel was the sculptural medium of the 20th century. Looking at the modern Italian stone workers repairing Michelangelo’s bridge over the river Arno, he was moved by the fact that during the Renaissance, artist and stone worker belonged to the same industry. “I looked back in time,” Mr. Hunt says, “and though about how a great master of the Renaissance was also a master of a vocabulary of techniques that were used every day. Stone was to those times as steel is to ours. Working in stone now is kind of anachronistic.” Buoyed by the idea that he was an ironworker like the welders who create our own bridges, the sculptor steadily expanded his technical mastery of metals. His reputation soared during the 1960s. By 1971 he was accorded a retrospective by the Museum of Modern Art. William Lieberman, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, called him “one of America’s foremost living sculptors.” It wasn’t until the late 1960s, however, that he became interested in the problem of public sculpture. As a student and a young artist he though only in terms of exhibitions, museums and private collectors. He recalls thinking that “public art as we knew it came to a halt with the end of the WPA [Works Progress Administration] program of the 1930s.” But after he received an invitation from President Nixon to serve on the National Council for the Arts, he bewgan to think more and more about a larger audience for art. Not only did he begin working primarily on large-scale commissions, he started with fellow Chicago sculptor John Henry, a foundry capable of casting large-scale work. Since 1970, he has completed over 30 public commissions, 19 in Illinois and others in California, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Missouri and Tennessee. He articulated the nation’s sorrow over the death of Martin Luther King in three large memorials, the most impressive of which is in Memphis, Tenn., where Dr. King was shot. Titled “I Have Been to the Mountain,” the welded Corten steel work is part altar, part pyramid and part playground for the many children who climb up its steps, look out over the cityscape below and slide down its gentle slopes with whoops of joy. That is the way the sculptor best likes to see it. With his belief that art should not be considered sacrosanct, one might imagine that Mr. Hunt would have scant sympathy for Richard Serra, who has been fighting to keep his “Tilted Arc” in its original New York site in spite of protests of workers in surrounding buildings who hate it. The General Services Administration, which placed it there, would like to move it to another site, and the whole issue has become a cause celebre in the art world. “It may seem simple-minded,” says Mr. Hunt sharply, “but I make my living as an artist and I figure if someone buys a piece, they can do whatever they want with it . . . I figure if I get enough money for it, I buy food, material, pay on my mortgage and make more art.” Paradoxically, his undoubted success as a public sculptor over the past decade has taken Mr. Hunt out of the art world’s eye and out of the curatorial circuit. His big pieces can’t be brought indoors for museum shows, so that it is difficult to get an overview of the past decade’s work without doing a good deal of traveling. This is a problem which the sculptor wants to spend the next few years solving. He is interested in making smaller sculptures that will concentrate ideas from larger works. “I’m interested in making things that are more complex, that compress more images, more symbols,” he says. And he also has become interested in color, not applied color although the Marie Martin show includes some handsome color lithographs, but the inherent color of different metals. “It occurs to me that you have a palette with metal,” he says. “Corten steel, brass, bronze. You might contrast warm and cool, get a variety of surfaces within a given piece.” But whatever he does, one can be sure that he will maintain his contact with the broader public. For him it is a good feeling when some assistant city manager for housing and urban development sees a piece in another city, asks you did it and says, “Hey we’re getting a HUD grant to redo a park; I’ll give him a call.” Enthusiasm for his work from people outside of the precious confines of the art world means a lot to him. “One of the problems of art in our time,” he says, “is can it live with success?” He believes that most critics who complain that there is too much art and too little quality are simply finding it difficult to accommodate elitist pretensions with the reality of a confirmed large-scale public for art. “If you are an artist,” he says, “you like to make art and you’d just as soon have more people want it. The public can decide whether it is good or bad.”