Along with iconic artworks, the Art Institute is filled with iconic spaces, and the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase is decidedly one of them. Lit by natural light filtering in through skylights and encircled by fragments of Chicago’s rich architectural past, the majestic multidirectional marble steps are at once truly grand, as their name suggests, and historic, bearing the imprint of the millions of visitors who have traversed them.
The sculpture chosen to sit at the center of this monumental structure and primary thoroughfare is thus of great consequence; it must hold up to the splendor of the space and both welcome and engage museumgoers. For a few months now, that sculpture has been Richard Hunt’s Hero Construction (1958). Hunt, who is internationally renowned for his public sculptures, many of which reside in the Chicago area, graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1957. In 1971 he became the first African American sculptor to receive a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Hunt created Hero Construction just a year after graduating from SAIC, welding together objects that he discovered in junkyards and on the street—old pipes, bits of metal, and automobile parts—into an abstract yet recognizable figure. This composition, made of found materials, updates the tradition of figurative sculpture displayed throughout the museum, while its inspiration in mythology ties it thematically to sculptures across time, from ancient statues of Greek heroes to modern monuments of statesmen. In its current installation at the Art Institute—a neoclassical space of such prominence—the sculpture evokes a contemporary hero who maintains strength in the face of the uncertainties and dangers of the present age.
Richard Hunt. Hero Construction, 1958. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold H. Maremont.