In 1973 Juan Hamilton, a trained ceramicist, settled in New Mexico, and for the next thirteen years served as studio assistant for the legendary painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). During this extended period, Hamilton’s own work in clay and bronze evolved into sculptural statements characterized by a mysterious, timeless order. Uniform or irregular spheres, ovoid as well as teardrop shapes, tall monoliths or flattened pebblelike forms, they suggest black rocks worn perfectly smooth over millennia by glaciers or running streams.
The smooth, curving contours of his primordial open or closed forms are based not only on Hamilton’s early experience as a potter, or his knowledge of the works of sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp. They are predicated on the indigenous skills and traditions of adobe building in New Mexico, which Hamilton patiently gained as he restored an old, abandoned house. The artist’s elemental shapes also evoke the timeless eloquence of Japanese Zen gardens. During a trip to Japan in 1970, Hamilton’s artistic vision was profoundly affected be his experience of the stillness, harmony, and spiritual peace of these meditative settings.
Resemblances and external influences notwithstanding, the shapes of Juan Hamilton’s sculptures originate instinctively. “Certain forms just keep coming up, become part of my vocabulary. There’s certainly some basis in natural forms, but they come from inside me. I feel them three-dimensionally, in the center of my chest. Some people see things but I feel them.”
Juan 11−17−84 (1993.54.5) is a burnished bronze sculpture in the shape of a vessel. Like most of Hamilton’s works in bronze, the spherical form began with the construction of an interior steel armature. This rigid framework is next covered by a steel mesh and sprayed with Fiberglas. After a lengthy process of filing and sanding, the shape and surface is finally perfected. The original form is then cast in bronze at a Colorado foundry.
The utter simplicity and smoothness of Hamilton’s sculptures creates special casting and finishing problems: there is no exterior roughness to hide the welds that bind the individually cast sections. After further surface sanding, the outer shell of the bronze vessel was painstakingly finished with dozens of coats of water-sanded lacqueur and a final burnishing with polishing compounds. The smooth, dark, glistening surface is reminiscent of burnished Pueblo Indian pottery.
In its perfection of form and finish, Juan 11−17−84 reveals Hamilton’s complete dedication to craftsmanship. But, he writes, being a good technician doesn’t make one a good artist: “I think the function of art is to focus people’s attention, and that my role is as a visionary. [My] pieces are about mystery, about time and the effects of time, about the interior and exterior worlds—about a certain kind of purity, distillation.”
Jeremy Adamson KPMG Peat Marwick Collection of American Craft: A Gift to the Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994)
Juan Hamilton spent the first several years of his career as an assistant and companion to Georgia O’Keeffe. It was only after O’Keeffe died, and a lengthy estate battle with her heirs was settled, that Hamilton came into his own as an artist. A trained ceramist, he had worked in clay during his years with O’Keeffe, because that was all that time would allow. In the late 1980s, however, he began casting bronze pieces, some as large as a human figure, that evoke ancient statuary as well as natural forms eroded by time.