Richard Hunt, prolific Chicago sculptor whose public works explored civil rights, dies at 88

CHICAGO — Richard Hunt, a prolific Chicago artist who was the first Black sculptor to receive a solo retrospective at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and whose public works drew praise from presidents, has died at age 88.

Hunt “passed away peacefully” Saturday at his home, according to a statement posted on his website. No cause of death was given.

During his career, Hunt created more than 160 commissioned pieces of public art that are displayed nationwide, including at libraries and college campuses. In Chicago, his 35-foot high stainless steel “Flight Forms” is at Midway International Airport. In 2021, his monument with bronze columns honoring the late civil rights icon Ida B. Wells was dedicated in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

“Richard’s legacy will live on for generations to come,” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said in a Saturday evening statement. “A lifelong Chicagoan, his extraordinary career spanning 70 years leaves an indelible impact on our city and our world.”

More than 100 of Hunt’s pieces are displayed in museums worldwide. That includes the 1,500-pound bronze monument called “Swing Low” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The sculpture, an ode to the spiritual by the same name, is suspended from the ceiling on the first floor.

A sculpture by Richard Hunt hangs in the lobby at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 14, 2016, in Washington, DC.
A sculpture by Richard Hunt at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 14, 2016, in Washington, D.C.Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Born on the city’s South Side, Hunt was 19 when he went to the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, a Black teenage lynching victim. Hunt later said the experience influenced his artistic work and a commitment to civil rights. A piece Hunt recently completed to honor Till, called “Hero Ascending,” is expected to be installed at Till’s childhood home in Chicago next year.

Hunt was a graduate of the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the National Council on the Arts. Three years later, he was the first Black sculptor to have a solo retrospective exhibit at MoMa.

His commissioned work, “Book Bird,” will be placed outside a planned Chicago Public Library branch at the Obama Presidential Center, which is under construction. The sculpture shows a bird taking flight from a book.

“It will be an inspiration for visitors from around the world, and an enduring reminder of a remarkable man,” former President Barack Obama said in a Saturday statement. “Richard Hunt was an acclaimed sculptor and one of the finest artists ever to come out of Chicago.”

Hunt described the sculpture as something that shows the progress one can make through reading and study.

“There are a range of possibilities for art on public buildings or in public places to commemorate, to inspire,” Hunt said in a presidential center video last year about the commission. “Art can enliven and set certain standards for what’s going on in and around it and within the community.”

Hunt is survived by his daughter, Cecilia, and his sister Marian.

A private funeral service is planned for Chicago. A public celebration of his life and art will be held next year, according to his website.