Legendary sculptor, Civil Rights Ambassador, and long-standing arts icon at the University of Notre Dame, Richard Hunt, has died. 

Author: Raclin Murphy Museum of Art

Richard Hunt in his Chicago studio, 2012
Richard Hunt in his Chicago studio, 2012

Richard Hunt's relationship with the University began in 1966 when Rev. Anthony J. Lauck, C.S.C., organized a major exhibition of the aspiring artist's work at what was then called the University Art Gallery. Prescient, this exhibition came five years before Hunt's landmark retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York — the very first solo exhibition of an African American artist at that storied Museum.

With sixteen works in the permanent collection of the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art at Notre Dame, the University holds one of the largest collections of Hunt's work, covering the arc of his vast repertoire. Especially noteworthy are several important examples from the 1960s and 1970s that helped lay the foundation for the artist's acclaim.

Hunt was appointed to the University's Museum Advisory Council in 1993 and worked with four successive directors with great harmony and compassion. He was overjoyed by the development of the Charles B. Hayes Family Sculpture Park and the new Raclin Murphy Museum of Art — both of which contain his sculptures. A major, iconic work by Hunt is also installed in the center atrium of the Morris Inn at the University of Notre Dame.

“Richard Hunt’s body of work is truly extraordinary, and his importance as a sculptor cannot be overstated. Equally important, he was an extraordinary human being, a person of wisdom, compassion and gentleness,” said University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. “On behalf of the entire Notre Dame community, I offer my condolences to his family and give thanks for Richard’s presence among us as trusted advisor and cherished friend.”

In 2007, the University of Notre Dame celebrated Hunt’s lifetime achievement and commitment to cultural life on campus with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.

"Richard Hunt is among the most beloved figures in Contemporary art and one of the nation's finest sculptors," comments Raclin Murphy Museum of Art Director and sculpture expert Joseph Antenucci Becherer. "In origin, his sculptures sit at the crossroads of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, but, ultimately, they soar; they ascend into the future. Yet, for all he achieved as an artist, he was a great humanitarian with a heart of gold."

Hunt was 88 but remained active in his Chicago studio until recently. Though based in the Midwest, Hunt became one of the nation's most prodigious and prolific sculptors renowned for his ascending, abstract compositions in metal. Despite challenges for African American artists during his lifetime, Hunt's work was the focus of over 150 solo exhibitions and is represented in more than 100 public museums across the globe. Hunt made the most significant contribution to public art in the United States, with more than 160 public sculpture commissions gracing prominent locations in 24 states and Washington, D.C.

A descendant of African slaves brought to this country through the port of Savannah, Georgia, Hunt grew up on the South Side of Chicago, first in Woodlawn and then Englewood. His father was a barber, and his mother was the first Black librarian in Chicago. During his youth, he was immersed in Chicago's cultural and artistic heritage through art lessons at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) and the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Regular visits to Chicago's major public museums trained his eye and captured his interest in art. Hunt would go on to develop an extensive collection of African Art, which inspired his work.

In 1953, the landmark exhibition Sculpture of the Twentieth Century was held at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hunt studied its artworks of welded metal and became inspired by the works of Julio Gonzalez, Pablo Picasso, David Smith, and Alberto Giacometti, among others.

Hunt attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) on a scholarship from 1953-57, where he focused on sculpture while earning his B.A.E.

When Hunt was nineteen years old, he witnessed the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till held in Chicago. Till, who was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, had grown up only two blocks from the Woodlawn home where Hunt was born. Hunt later remarked, "What happened to [Till] could have happened to me." Hunt went on to create art shaped by this experience, which influenced both his artistic expression and his commitment to the cause of Civil Rights.

Inspired by Twentieth-century sculptures and shaken by Emmett Till's death, Hunt taught himself how to weld and began composing found metal objects into art. Only two years later, he gained national recognition when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York acquired his sculpture, Arachne. In 1967, after Pablo Picasso's large-scale public sculpture was unveiled in Chicago, Hunt began creating works of Cor-Ten steel and later bronze and stainless steel that he continued using throughout his career. Hunt also created works of cast metal, usually aluminum or bronze, and was an accomplished draftsman who created drawings, lithographs, and screenprints in addition to many sketched works.

Hunt created abstract welded sculptures by acquiring bumpers and fenders from scrap yards, which became a signature of his work. He was only 35 years old at the time of his 1971 exhibition at MoMA, the first retrospective for an African American sculptor at the Museum. The exhibit entitled The Sculpture of Richard Hunt included fifty-five sculptures, eight drawings, and twelve prints.

Hunt was the first African American visual artist to serve on the National Council on the Arts, appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. In addition, in 1981, Hunt served as one of eight jurors, the sole African American, for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition in Washington, D.C.

Hunt sculpted major monuments and sculptures for some of our country's greatest heroes, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Jesse Owens, Hobart Taylor, Jr., and Ida B. Wells. His sculptures commemorate events from the slave trade and the Middle Passage to the Great Migration. His massive 30-foot,1,500-pound bronze, Swing Low, a monument to the African American Spiritual, hangs from the ceiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Hunt's masterpiece, Hero Construction, stands as the centerpiece of the grand staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2022, Barack Obama commissioned Richard Hunt as the first artist to create a work, Book Bird, for the Obama Presidential Center.

A memorial service will be held in the New Year.

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About the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art

With origins dating to 1875, the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art (formerly Snite Museum of Art) is one of the oldest and most highly regarded university art museums in America. Founded on the principle that art is essential to understanding individual, shared and diverse human experiences and beliefs, the Museum encourages close looking and critical thinking. Experiences with significant, original works of art are intended to stimulate inquiry, dialogue and wonder for audiences across the academy, the community and around the world—all in support of the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission. The renowned permanent collection contains more than 30,000 works that represent many cultures and periods of world art history.

For more information on the new building, visit raclinmurphymuseum.nd.edu.

Media contact:

Gina Costa
Communications Program Director
Raclin Murphy Museum of Art