Slabs of the Sunburnt West

Slabs of the Sunburnt West, 1975
Richard Hunt
University of Illinois at Chicago campus, south of library
801 South Morgan Street, between Polk and Taylor Streets

            Commissioned by the B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund, this massive 30 x 30 foot bronze ground plate with five protruding slabs was conceived as a memorial to Illinois poet, journalist and biographer Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). Inspired by Sandburg’s 1922 poem of the same name, sculptor Richard Hunt (b. 1935) exhibits his technical virtuosity in the medium of welded metal as he gestures toward Sandburg’s lines:

            Stand up, sandstone slabs of red,
            Tell the overland passengers who burnt you.

            Tell ‘em how the jacks and screws loosened you.
            Tell ‘em who shook you by the heels and stood you on
                        your heads,
            Who put the slow pink of sunset mist on your faces.

            Sandburg, winner of three Pulitzer prizes (two for poetry and one for his multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln) came to prominence with the publication of his work in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in 1914. He was part of the second wave of Chicago’s Literary Renaissance, along with writers Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters and Ring Lardner. His coverage of social unrest during 1919 for the Chicago Daily News resulted in a book called The Chicago Race Riots. Deeply interested in American folk culture, Sandburg also spent years lecturing and performing folk songs and, in 1927, he published one of the first collections of folk music, titled The American Songbag.
            Richard Hunt began his artistic training at the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of 13 and he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Art Education from the Art Institute in 1957. By 1963, prominent art critic Hilton Kramer described Hunt as “one of the most gifted and assured artists working in the direct-metal, open form medium” anywhere in the world. Hunt began exploring the sculptural possibilities of metal welding after viewing the 1953 exhibit “Sculpture of the Twentieth Century,” which included works by the Spanish artist Julio González (1876-1942). González, who acquired his autogenous welding skills while working at a Renault automobile factory, described his welded-iron pieces as “drawing in space.” Hunt’s early career included a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Tamarind Artist Fellowship from the Ford Foundation and a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971, but he has since become best known for his large-scale public sculptures. 

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