Born near the infamous steel yards on the South Side of Chicago in 1935, Richard Hunt was delivered into a world of metal. As a young artist studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1950s, he perceived a Surrealist dreamworld lurking in the junkyards of Midwestern America. The cast-off, metal skeletons of the Steel Age—even then beginning to corrode in heaps across the rust belt—became lifelike abstractions in his hands, perfectly expressing the beauty and terror of a rapidly changing, mid-20th Century American Dream.
By the time Hunt graduated from SAIC in 1957, his work had already been exhibited by MoMA, a testament to his strikingly personal language of lyrical abstraction, mature beyond his years. Though he was comfortable working with a range of materials, including found objects, wood and steel, a fellowship that allowed him to travel through reconstructed Europe in 1958 convinced him that metal epitomized the spirit of the Modern World.
After returning from Europe, Hunt enlisted in the US Army, serving two years during the early period of the Vietnam War. The uncanny, eerily human forms that dominate his works from this time express the strange marriage Hunt saw evolving between nature and modern machines. A series of untitled drawings from 1959 portray assemblages of dismembered, bonelike forms floating amidst washed out landscapes. The steel sculpture Forms with Moving Line (1960), made the year Hunt finished his Army tour, suggests a dark, creeping hybridity; not only is this landmark early work alarming in its multitudinous visual presence, its title boldly evokes both military lingo and formalist abstraction.
Throughout the 1960s, Hunt's emergent visual voice encapsulated both the hope and suspicion of the era. The graceful lines of Coil (1962) suggest the beautiful marvels of Atomic Age technology, while the inherent anxiety of the era is expressed by the explosive, fragmented burst of tubes and horns at the sculpture's crown. Similar concepts animate Tubing Form #10 (1962), with its antler-like appendages, amalgam of twisted spines, spent bullet casings, and industrial conduits.
A truly transformative year, 1962 was also when Hunt achieved a landmark development in style, freeing his sculptural vocabulary from gravity through a pioneering series called Hanging Forms. This series brilliantly connects a myriad of social and aesthetic concerns. The works defy lingering expectations that a sculpture should be placed on a pedestal or directly on the floor. Instead, these forms hang from the wall. The hanging mechanism theoretically allows movement, but must be manipulated by an outside force to achieve momentum. Note the way Hunt's Hanging Forms dangle from wooden gallows and contain a horizontal platform, material references to lynching. The embedded inference of the title Hanging Forms is a haunting reminder that between the 1880s and the 1960s, more than 3,000 Black people were documented to have been lynched in the United States, with many thousands more undocumented.