Juan Hamilton, Curve and Shadow, No. 2

Juan Hamilton, Curve and Shadow, No. 2, 1983. Bronze, 32 × 96 × 24 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1983 (1983.540.1). Photo by Mark Menjivar.

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Valerie Fletcher: A native of Dallas, Texas, Juan Hamilton was profoundly affected by his exposure to Zen Buddhism, which he discovered during a trip to Japan in 1970. The next major impact on his life and work came three years later when he moved to New Mexico and became the studio assistant to the venerable modern painter, Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe had become famous in the 1920s for her simplified stylized depictions of flowers and other natural forms. In working for her, Hamilton discovered the evocative power of simple curving forms, but he carried it to a much further degree. O’Keeffe was never really an abstractionist; Hamilton is.

The sculpture here, Curve and Shadow, [No. 2] from 1985, seems to be a simple black arc of burnished bronze reaching from the ground upward and then back to the ground. And while it is seemingly simple, it is not a straightforward curve. Yes, it may be a segment of a circle, but it is not that simple. It has a strong upward movement on one side and a gentle gradual slope on the other. The sculpture is meant to be seen in changing light conditions that can happen by being out in sunlight or the movement of the sun changes, or it can be from the viewer walking around the piece, walking forward and back, close up and at a distance. So even if the light source is fixed, the viewer can change his location to change his perceptions. The sculpture was burnished black, finely, finely finished and sanded many, many times to a super gloss, so that in the strong light the shadow underneath it appears black. The sculpture itself above appears black. They can then unify and become a single form, the black shadow and the black sculpture; or in a different light source, the shadow is very ephemeral, it’s pale, it’s evanescent, and the contrast between substance and shadow can spark us to think about the questions of what is substance in our lives and in reality around us. Hamilton wanted his pieces to convey a sense of harmony, of calm, of inner piece, the essence of a Zen contemplative mode.

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Juan Hamilton, Curve and Shadow, No. 2, 1983.

American, born 1945

Juan Hamilton moved to New York from South America at the age of fifteen. He graduated from Hastings College in Nebraska, and then earned his MFA in pottery from Claremont College in California. Hamilton’s outlook on life and art were profoundly affected by his introduction to Zen Buddhism during a trip to Japan in 1970. After that encounter, his practice of that philosophy became central to his art. He hoped the abstract forms in his work—which were never merely decorative—would generate an inner peace in viewers.

Hamilton’s life and art took a new direction in 1973 when he became the primary assistant to the renowned modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). Her rigorously simplified yet sensuous forms in painting influenced his aesthetics. But as he moved from pottery to sculpture, Hamilton went further into pure abstraction, sculpting smooth, curving forms in the tradition of the pioneering European modernists like Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) and Jean Arp (1886–1966). However, unlike those earlier abstractionists, who derived their forms from sources in nature, Hamilton conceived his works as projections of his innermost state of mind: “They come from inside me. I feel them three-dimensionally in the center of my chest.”

Curve and Shadow No. 2 was made during the time in which Hamilton was working for O’Keeffe. He emphasized the integral importance of the transient shadow’s curve by giving it equal status in the title. The sculpture stretches from ground to ground; when exhibited in sunlight, its shadow appears underneath in a reciprocal curve. The piece relates to the elemental form of a circle or sphere. The changing light alters the shadow—making visible the passage of time. As part of Hamilton’s intention to create art relevant to spiritual contemplation, Curve and Shadow No. 2 has a superbly refined surface. To him, the visual purity of the form expresses an inner clarity of spirit. 

Juan Hamilton, Curve and Shadow, No. 2, 1983. Photo by Mark Menjivar.
Juan Hamilton, Curve and Shadow, No. 2, 1983. Photo by Ben Aqua.

Location: RLP Building, First Floor, South West Entrance

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