Saturday Review: The Arts in Black America
Despite black artists' vehement charges of discrimination, a few of their number have quietly crept into considerable eminence - some at quite a young age. Among the privileged few is sculptor Richard Hunt, who has been a respected figure in the plastic arts for 15 years. Hunt's youth - he was born and raised in Chicago - does not sound deprived; his father was a barber and his mother a librarian. He attended art schools from the time he was 13 on, graduating with a BA from the Chicago Art Institute in 1957. Within a few years, his career spiraled headily upward through awards, one-man shows, important commissions, and extensive gallery and museum exhibition.
Hunt's work was arresting to the art world from the beginning because it refracted popular trends in 20th-century art through an immensely assured, highly personal style. Influenced by the welded metal sculpture of Julio Gonzalez, which he saw at an exhibit in Chicago when he was 18, Hunt set out to master the tool that was to serve him as mallet and chisel: the welding torch. Unlike Gonzalez, who used raw metals, Hunt employed the refuse of technological society. His materials were mostly old automobile parts, straight from the junkyard. From Duchamp onward there was ample precedent for the conversion of detritus into plastic art. Hunt's direct-metal, open-form creations occupied a fascinating perch between non-objective and figurative sculpture. Though most of his work was abstract, its allusions to recognizable human and natural forms were plentiful.
While some critics were captivated by the biomorphic elements in Hunt's work, others hailed him as a gifted exponent of sculptural calligraphy - or "drawing in space," as Gonzalez termed it. For Hilton Kramer, the linear thrust of works like Branching Construction (1962), full of subtly inflected involutions and curves, summoned up associations with David Smith and others who were breaking from older sculptural traditions. In spite of Kramer's insistent use of the word lyricism in connection with Hunt's work, a good deal of it strikes other people as tense, emotionally charged, even a bit menacing. The curvilinear interplay, however delicate, often suggests brilliantly sculpted insects. There is no denying the hypnotic quality of this work, however. One appreciates it all the more after noting the shift in Hunt's style during the past seven or eight years. He has moved steadily away from the calligraphic style of his early period to closed contours and weightier forms.
Naturally Hunt has been criticized for ignoring his cultural heritage and for an esthetic that does not breathe political fire. It should be recorded, however, that he did an engaging steel statue of black hero JohnJones for Illinois's 150th-anniversary celebration, and that he boycotted a black art show at New York's Whitney Museum in 1971 because of charges of racism.
Still, it is hard to deny that neither Hunt's life nor his work has much of a polemical edge. "Many black artists won't even discuss Richard Hunt," says Bill Day, program coordinator of the Studio Museum of Harlem. Much of the resentment is undoubtedly sincere; the rest is probably generated by envy of Hunt's success. The ease of Hunt's climb to prominence suggests that prejudice is far from the only explanation for the obscurity of most black artists. Often themes that are most compelling to blacks seem simplistic and monotonous to whites, while the techniques that blacks find particularly expressive may strike whites as hopelessly old-fashioned.