A native of Dallas, Texas, Juan Hamilton had a peripatetic youth. His family lived in South America (Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela) until he was fifteen and then moved to New York. After attending City University of New York and New York University, Hamilton graduated from Hastings College in Nebraska, and then earned his MFA in ceramics from Claremont College in California. Initially his focus was on pottery.
Hamilton’s outlook on life and art were profoundly affected by his exposure to the concepts and practice of Zen Buddhism during a trip to Japan in 1970. Zen, as a philosophy and an aesthetic, became central to his art, which he hoped would generate in viewers an inner peace. Abstract forms for him were never merely decoration.
Hamilton’s life and art took a new direction in 1973 when he moved to New Mexico and became the primary assistant to the renowned modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Her rigorously simplified yet sensuous forms in painting influenced Hamilton’s aesthetics. But as he moved from pottery to sculpture, he went further into pure abstraction, sculpting smooth, curving forms in the tradition of the pioneering European modernists of the 1920s and 1930s, particularly the elegant, pristine sculptures of Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp—artists of O’Keeffe’s generation.
Unlike those earlier abstractionists, however, who derived their forms from sources in nature, Hamilton conceived his as projections of his innermost state of mind: “They come from inside me. I feel them three-dimensionally in the center of my chest.”
From 1978 through the 1980s, Hamilton’s works were exhibited at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York. In 1983 he had his first museum show at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. After O’Keeffe’s death in 1986, Hamilton became one of five trustees of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Museum in Santa Fe.
Curve and Shadow No. 2, 1983
Curve and Shadow No. 2 was made when Hamilton was working for O’Keeffe. Like many of his sculptures, it relates to the elemental form of a circle or sphere. The sculpture stretches from ground to ground; when exhibited in sunlight, its shadow appears underneath in a reciprocal curve. As the lighting changes, the shadow grows shorter and longer, thinner and thicker—making visible the passage of time.
When the light is very strong, the shadow becomes darker and more pronounced, so that it can appear as substantial as the bronze sculpture itself (and conversely the sculpture may seem like an extension of the shadow). Hamilton emphasized the integral importance of the transient shadow’s curve—and the perceptual ambiguities it creates—by giving it equal status in the title.
The relationship of abstract form to ground was a theme explored by many abstract sculptors from the 1960s through the 1980s, particularly the Greenbergian formalists like Anthony Caro and the minimalists Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, and Sol LeWitt. In contrast to their rigorous geometry, Hamilton preferred a more sinuous and sensuous solution, like this sweeping single-gesture form, a stroke of slender volume through space and time.
As part of Hamilton’s intention to create art relevant to spiritual contemplation, Curve and Shadow No. 2 has a superbly refined surface. Not content with the usual finishes applied to bronzes, Hamilton worked with a local foundry in Colorado to sand the metal repeatedly, each time to a finer degree, and then finished the surface with a lacquer sheen. To him, the visual purity of the form expresses an inner clarity of spirit.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.