I HAVE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP (1977)
Any visitor to downtown Memphis is most likely familiar with this sculptural tribute to MLK. I Have Been to the Mountaintop was completed in 1977 by renown sculptor Richard Hunt. Hunt is famous for his unique public art works often created from steel. The piece commemorates the famous speech in the heart of the city where King’s life ended. It was Hunts second public art commission and one of his first major pieces using steel, the material that he eventually became so well know for shaping.
Hunt started his career in his hometown of Chicago, where many of his sculptures are featured. He attended the prestigious School of the Art Institute and quickly gained notoriety as an artist with his first show in New York City at the age of 23, in 1958. Hunt won an award that allowed him to tour Europe and study the masters, which was an incredible opportunity for a young black man from the South Side of Chicago. His technique was very influenced by nature, both from his travels and his college job in a zoology lab.
Large public outdoor pieces later became what Hunt was most known for, with his self expression often defining a public message. His pieces are a reflection and draw their inspiration from the black experience in America, with I Have Been to the Mountaintop being one of his more famous works. A unique aspect of Hunt’s work is the juxtaposition of his organic methods of creation and the forms he shapes with the industrial associations of his tools. The steel he uses becomes more than a material but it treatment indicative of his artistic process.
His sculptures must be viewed in the 360 degrees to get the full effect. When I see I Have Been to the Mountaintop, emotions of strength and pride are evoked within me. The whole piece reminds me of a figure looking up to the sky, head held high. The mass has a weight that asserts its power and strength, indicative of King’s message and legacy. The curved legs are inviting, pulling one’s eye up the ‘mountain’ and drawing you into its climb. The triangular ‘wings’ create a path and resemble a mountain peak, but also conjure images of wings. This idea of flight is recurring in black mythology, often representing ideas of freedom and transcendence. There also appear to be many figures side by side atop the mountain, walking together, towards a common goal. These are all images and ideas that reinforce that great speech. Hunt’s piece manages to take his personal style and transmit a message that is timeless through art.
Check this website to get 360 views of the sculpture and see for yourself!