Untitled (1963) by Richard Hunt
Untitled (1963) by Richard Hunt Credit: Nathan Keay

When the sculptor Richard Hunt was still a student at the School of the Art Institute, he sold a piece to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That was back in 1957; Hunt was 22. When he was 35, in 1971, MOMA mounted the first retrospective of his work. Hunt is nearing 80 now, but he continues to work in his Lincoln Park studio, welding industrial metal into art. Several pieces from his personal collection, covering the full range of his nearly 60-year-long career, from his student days through work currently in progress, is on display at the Chicago Cultural Center through March. The Museum of Contemporary Art salutes Hunt with a retrospective, opening this week, featuring pieces (mostly) drawn from its own collection.

“It’s rare to see an artist active for so long,” says Naomi Beckwith, the MCA curator who put the exhibit together. “You can see how things have shifted from his early work, the shift in scale, the shift in form. The early work is more figurative, but the later work pushes toward real abstraction.”

That’s certainly not to say Hunt is inaccessible—his sculptures have appeared everywhere, from the offices of Playboy Enterprises to Midway airport.

Although Hunt wasn’t the first artist to work with industrial materials—he was strongly influenced by the Spanish sculptor Julio González, whose work was shown in Chicago in the 50s—he stands out, Beckwith says, because of the expressiveness of his forms. Unlike his contemporary Tony Smith, who embraced minimalism, Hunt, in his sculpture, sought to re-create the fluid lines of drawing. Along the way, he also became a master welder. While in his earlier output it’s possible to see the seams, his later sculptures look like, as Beckwith puts it, “one solid piece of metal extending into space.

“The material doesn’t look like it should be able to do the things it does,” she says. “There’s a sense of vivacity—of aliveness and energy. There’s metal all around us, in buildings and in our cars, but it’s a magical moment to watch metal transform from something mundane and utilitarian into something poetic.”