Cynthia Hawkins

Wander Wonder: Maps Necessary for a Walk in 4D, #3, 2024, acrylic on canvas, 177.5 x 152.5 x 5 cm. Photo: Andy Keate

A journey through Cynthia Hawkins’s work reveals the maturation of a highly individual exploration through the permutations of colour, light, and space in two dimensions. Hawkins has always been intrigued with space — both known and unknown. Her stylistic meanderings always come back to the same essential truth — picturing planar realities on canvas.

— Thelma Golden

Installation view, Maps Necessary For A Walk In 4D, STARS Gallery, Los Angeles, 2024. Photo: Paul Salveson

Since the 1970s, Hawkins has investigated the potentials of abstract painting. While often beginning a work or series with a predetermined conceit or strategy, Hawkins’ process-oriented practice simultaneously embraces the improvisational to create a systemised space for her continually evolving vocabulary. Her early works on canvas used systems of geometry to explore fundamentals of space and space-time to investigate three and four dimensional movement. Concurrently she charted the development of symbolic language through the introduction of sequences of shapes and signs that are, as she has written, “strung together [to] imply a sentence or a passage of text”. 

Installation view, Gwynfor’s Soup, or The Proximity of Matter, Ortuzar Projects, New York, 2023. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Installation view, Natural Things 1996-1999, STARS Gallery, Los Angeles, 2022.

While her work in the late 1990s shifted towards the abstraction of references sourced from the physical world — from the forest floor to microbiological contours and astronomic forms — Hawkins maintains that her ‘practice is abstraction’. Hawkins subverts expectations of figuration as a de-facto-political mode, offering the non-objectivity of her chromatic worlds as a way into painting’s social possibilities. The intertextual relationships between symbols, signs, geometric contours, and calligraphic marks merge into an ecosystem of forms that develop the painterly beyond mere expressionism.

Installation view, An excessive ellipse, a sort of distribution, Hollybush Gardens, London, 2023. Photo: Eva Herzog

Signs of Civilization #7, 2007–10, acrylic and oil bar on paper, 89 x 119 x 3.5 cm [framed]

Signs of Civilization #9, 2007–10, acrylic and oil bar on paper, 89 x 119 x 3.5 cm [framed]

Clusters: Eta and Acrux Don’t Live in the Same Neighbourhood, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 102 cm

Clusters: Pi Scorpii, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 102 cm

Clusters: Cephus, Cephus, Cephi, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 102 cm


Cynthia Hawkins (b. 1950, Queens, New York) lives and works in Rochester, New York. She received a BA in painting from the Queens College, City University of New York, an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, and a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Buffalo, SUNY with a dissertation titled, ‘African American Agency and the Art Object, 1868-1917’. Informed by her work as a historian and curator, her art practice wrestles with the history of abstraction across the 20th century, embracing formal reinvention as a fundamental task of painting. Collapsing distinct strategies of painting into a single composition, she builds up layers as distinct planar realities, which are then revealed through breaks or transparencies in their over-painting.

Hawkins participated in the burgeoning black-owned gallery scene of New York’s 1970s and 80s. Her solo exhibitions include Cynthia Hawkins, Just Above Midtown, New York (1981); Cynthia Hawkins, Frances Wolfson Art Center, Miami (1986); New Works: The Currency of Meaning, Cinque Gallery, New York (1989); Selected Works: 1990–1996, Queens College Art Center (1997); Clusters: Stellar and Earthly, Buffalo Science Museum, Buffalo (2009); Natural Things, 1996–99, STARS, Los Angeles (2022); and Gwynfor’s Soup, or the Proximity of Matter, Ortuzar Projects, New York (2023). 

Until recently, Hawkins was the gallery director and curator at the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery, SUNY Geneseo, New York. She was included in the survey exhibition Just Above Midtown: 1974 to Present at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2022). Her work is also in numerous public collections including The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York; Kenkeleba Gallery, New York; The La Grange Art Museum, La Grange, Georgia; and the Department of State, Washington, D.C. She has received many awards such as the Helen Frankenthaler Award for Painting (2023); the Black Metropolis Research Consortium Fellowship (2009); The Herbert and Irene Wheeler Grant (1995); and the Brooklyn Museum Art School Scholarship (1972). 


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