Grant Recipients Helen Frankenthaler Award for Painting Visual Arts 2023

Cynthia Hawkins

Cynthia Hawkins looks intently and directly into the camera. She wears glasses, rose-colored pendular earrings, a light blue turtleneck sweater, and a scarf with bright, multicolored squares.
Photo by Todd Smith Fleming.
  • 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Award for Painting
  • Visual Arts
  • Artist
  • Born 1950, Flushing, NY
  • Lives in Rochester, NY
  • Additional Information

Artist Statement

My practice is abstraction. I use a variety of resources that include natural and astronomic forms, maps, and proximity to construct and reconstruct notions of positionality and distance. I employ nonobjective geometric forms and combine that with abstraction—a method that does not seek actual representation—to yield a kind of organic geometry. I synthesize these two ideologies to reinterpret the real. My compositions explore the potential of objects and ideas to expand our notions of space, depth, form, and color. My work gives each of these elements the space to perform differently, so viewers can engage with the idea of abstraction in a new way. By working in series, I can maintain a basic format or structure throughout, and that can be a word, phrase, or an object that anchors the work. That is followed by layering forms, marks, and colors. The paintings can change radically from the beginning to final reveal. My work is joyful yet complex. It should take time for the work of art to reveal itself to viewers.

- December 2022


Cynthia Hawkins is an abstract painter and a scholar engaged in recovering the work and lives of African American artists of the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her art references naturally-occurring forms, physics, astronomy, and geometry, and asserts gestures that simulate written language and the conversational methods of jazz. Mark-making is a significant aspect of her work, as is building forms that have the potential to be and perform differently.

Her solo exhibition Natural Things: 1996–1999 (2022) at STARS in Los Angeles, CA featured a series of works inspired by imagery from nature. Using a dynamic palette of colors, these paintings suggest an alternate way to observe natural elements such as rock formations, light, and trees. Working in loose series, Hawkins repeats, evolves, and adds to her own index of forms, allowing abstract and organic shapes reminiscent of aquatic, celestial, and terrestrial bodies to perform differently each time they are used.

Her solo exhibitions include Gwynfor’s Soup, or the Proximity of Matter, Ortuzar Projects, New York, NY (2023); Work from the Butterfly House, Livingston Arts Center, Morris, NY (2016); Signs of Civilization, Universidad de las Americas, Puebla, Mexico (2010); Clusters: Stellar and Earthly, Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, NY (2009); Selected Works: 1990–1996, Queens College Art Center, Flushing, NY (1997); New Works: The Currency of Meaning, Cinque Gallery, New York, NY (1989); and Cynthia Hawkins, Just Above Midtown/Downtown Gallery, New York, NY (1981), among others.

Hawkins’s work has been included in the group exhibition Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2022), as well as in exhibitions at Karma, New York, NY (2022); Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA (2021); Lederer Gallery at SUNY Geneseo, Geneseo, NY (2013); The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY (1999, 1988); The Bronx Museum of Art, Bronx, NY (1997, 1994, 1980); Artists Space, New York, NY (1993), and many others.

Hawkins has been awarded residencies at The Butterfly House, LaGrange, GA; Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College, Easton, PA; and The Studio Museum in Harlem. She is the recipient of a Black Metropolis Research Consortium Fellowship (2009), a Rockland Community College Award for Artistic Excellence (1996), and The Herbert and Irene Wheeler Foundation Grant (1995).

Hawkins received a B.A. from Queens College, CUNY, an M.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art, and a Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo. She has served as an adjunct faculty member at several institutions including SUNY Geneseo, SUNY New Paltz, and Ramapo College of New Jersey and was the gallery director at Cedar Crest College (2000–2003) and at SUNY Geneseo (2007–2021).

An installation view of five paintings by Cynthia Hawkins hanging in a gallery space with white walls and a cement floor. Two rows of globe lights hang from the ceiling and a beige curtain hangs in the back of the gallery space.
Installation view of Natural Things: 1996-1999, Stars Gallery, Los Angeles, 2022. Photo by Paul Salveson.
Large ovular shapes in shades of white, tan, and orange are painted on top a field of red/orange on two panels hung side-by-side. Abstract gestures and shapes are suspended or float throughout the piece. Reed-like lines reach upward from the bottom right panel next to thick strokes of blue.

The First To Arrive, #3, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 60” x 96.” Photo by Todd Smith Doyon.

Abstract shapes of green, pale yellow, orange, pink, and burnt umber are painted on top of a pale, cloud-like white/blue/lavender background on two stacked panels.

The First to Arrive, #1, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 96” x 48.” Photo by Timothy Doyon.

Abstract organic shapes of yellow and red are painted on top of a green and purple background, with lines of blue and colored dots throughout.

The First to Arrive, #2, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 60.” Photo by Timothy Doyon.

Bold rock-like shapes are suspended over intersecting fields of marigold and sky blue. At the center of the work, a painted opening reveals a grid and more color fields underneath.

Clusters: Eta and Ecrus Don't Live in the Same Neighborhood, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 50” x 40.” Todd Smith Fleming.

Bold abstract colors and shapes in orange, yellow, red, purple, and green are painted on a pale blue background on two stacked panels. A dark purplish field bleeds in on the right side of the top panel.

Not Gravity, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 96” x 48.” Photo by Todd Smith Fleming.

A split painting with a red background and brown triangle on the left, and a gray multi-ringed circle with a cloudy white background on the right. Long, textured brushstrokes are visible on the left side of the painting.

The Creed of Athanasius and the Temple Curtain, 1990, oil on canvas, 68” x 100.” Photo by Timothy Doyon.

A whimsical array of red and purple abstract, organic shapes painted on fields of peach and pale yellow divided by painted gaps. A grid is slightly visible under a cloud of white on the left side of the painting.

Untitled: Veiled Grid, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48.” Photo by Timothy Doyon.

Painted on a green background, there are gray circles and yellow triangles at the top of the piece. At the bottom are organic lines in black, yellow, blue, and green. In the center are two large organic shapes with squares below it.

Signs of Civilization, #11, 2007-11, mixed media on paper, 37” x 41.” Photo by Todd Smith Fleming.

A painted orange and red background with accents of white, green, peach, blue, and yellow organic shapes.

Blue Passage, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 60” x 48.” Photo by Timothy Doyon.