Art

Looking Back on William Hawkins, the Outsider Artist Who Became Wildly Popular in His 80s

There is this sense, in looking at Hawkins’s bold and humorous paintings, of returning to something one has always known.

William Hawkins, “Tasmanian Tiger 3” (1989) (all images courtesy Columbus Museum of Art)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) has a real knack for presenting artists who not only have local connection and cache, but have gone relatively unnoticed by other major institutions. The work of William L. Hawkins has been gathered in unprecedented scope for his first major museum exhibition, William L. Hawkins: An Imaginative Geography, the joint effort of CMA and the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. In many ways, Hawkins’s aesthetics represent the Platonic ideal of outsider art, so utterly definitive of the genre that to encounter his works feels like suddenly recalling a childhood memory. There is a sense, in looking at his bold and humorous paintings, of returning to something one has always known.

William Hawkins, “Ohio State University Stadium” (1980s)

The accretion of some 60-plus pieces of 2D and rare 3D work are all the more impressive when one considers that Hawkins was not discovered or embraced by the art world until he was in his 80s. Most of his extant work comes from the single decade between his public debut, when he took first prize at the 1982 Ohio State Fair, and his death in 1990 — but during his years in the limelight, Hawkins was so wildly popular and successful in selling his work, it’s entirely possible that the artist himself never got to see this many of his paintings in one place.

The work falls into several general categories, based on subject matter. There are buildings, mostly notable landmarks and architecture of Columbus, Ohio and New York City — including the rendering of the Atlas Building, which is the painting that caught the eye of a New York-based critic who happened to be guest judge at the Ohio State Fair in 1982, when Hawkins’s close friend Lee Garrett entered his painting in the amateur category. There are also two versions of “Ohio State University Stadium,” one of which is a new acquisition by CMA, and together demonstrate Hawkins’s tendency to return to certain subjects.

“Atlas Building” (1979), Hawkins’s Ohio State Fair-winning entry
William Hawkins, “Neil House with Chimney #2” (1986)

But sometimes, as in his two takes on “Tasmanian Tiger,” you wouldn’t guess that the paintings came from the same source material. The “Tasmanian Tigers” (animals are a rich vein for Hawkins) are arresting works that highlight not only Hawkins’s dramatic rendering of the same subjects, but his experiments with dimensionality and the incorporation of startling collage elements into painted works. The snout of “Tasmanian Tiger 2” (which more closely resembles a wolverine or perhaps a very angry panda) rises off the canvas in a mound of painted plaster-like substance made of cornmeal; “Tasmanian Tiger 3” incorporates metal half-canisters, painted in more recognizable tiger stripes, and smacks the viewer with surprising blue lady eyes, clearly lifted from an advertisement photograph of some sort.

William Hawkins, “Tasmanian Tiger #2” (1986)
William Hawkins, “Dragon Snake” (1987)

The twists and surprises in this exhibition never stop coming, including the 3D sculptural work that anchors the second gallery — one of the few large-scale constructions that was salvaged from the dilapidated art-house-complex that Hawkins purchased as his home base with his first sales in the New York gallery scene. The third gallery contains some ephemera from Hawkins’s studio, including his famous “research suitcase,” and a number of his collage-heavy works, as well as several more dramatic examples with snakes and an entire human figure hanging from one of the canvases. The exhibition terminates in a gallery entirely dedicated to his Last Supper series — there are eight of nine, most of which portray Jesus and his disciples as African American. It is difficult to pick a favorite, but the one that features a painted-over clipping of young Stevie Wonder in the role of Jesus is a strong contender.

William Hawkins, “Last Supper #9” (n.d.)
William Hawkins, “Last Supper #6” (1986)

The exhibition embodies Hawkins’s daring and enterprising spirit. He embraced the limelight and developed a flamboyant artist persona, eagerly engaging with the art scenes in New York and Columbus. He also had an openness and generosity of spirit — he was known to engage in conversation with a cadre of artists, students, and researchers that came knocking. With this exhibition, CMA continues its excellent track record of bringing the lesser-known and shining stars of Columbus contemporary art history into the spotlight. One suspects that William Hawkins would be very much enthused.

William Hawkins, “Robotech “A Team” Collage” (1985)

William L. Hawkins: An Imaginative Geography continues at the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) (480 E Broad St, Columbus, Ohio) through May 20, before traveling to the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, and the Columbus Museum in Georgia.

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