Whitehot Magazine

The Dream Mine: Painter Robert Hawkins in Conversation

 Robert Hawkins, Crown in Water (Philosophy), 1985, Oil on canvas, 72 x 59 1/2 in. (182.88 x 151.13 cm), Collection of Gina Nanni and the Estate of Glenn O’Brien



If Buckingham Palace and the Church of England were aware of the statical evidence that the majority of Britain's population identifies as "non-believers," they did not let it affect the planning of the traditional anointment of King Charles III. For the devout, the coronation is nothing less than a sacramental encounter with God, known as unction, no longer practiced by the remaining monarchies of Europe.

Still, for the ungodly, there was the dazzling array of jewels worn by Charles and Camilla for the ceremony, starting with St Edward's Crown, then exchanged for the imperial state crown, set with 2,868 diamonds, including the Cullinan I, the world's largest at 317.4 carats (plus 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 269 pearls).

…”a Barbie Doll's wish for jewels.”

Even that pales compared to the boundless treasure seen in Robert Hawkins latest paintings, based on The Dream Mine, a listed Mormon mining company from which the artist has recently inherited some shares.

"Everyone can be a king — I mean how many crowns are there?" Robert Hawkins.

Born in Sunny Vale, California, self-taught painter Robert Hawkins grew up in a family and community that were followers of the Mormon Church. In 1980 Hawkins left the West Coast to move to NY, where he began to make a name for himself after his first exhibition at the seminal Club 57. During a time when Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat used the streets and graffiti to become known, Hawkins joined the stable of the Patrick Fox Gallery, where he exhibited his paintings along with Alain Jacquet, David Bowes, Stefano Castronovo, and designer Stephen Sprouse, amongst others.

Robert Hawkins, Bejeweled Snake, 2009-2023, Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 27 5/8 in. (60 x 70.17 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Off Paradise, New York

"You cannot name one painter of his generation compared with whom Basquiat would not find laughable. The exception would be Robert Hawkins, whose work Jean admired and collected" Rene Ricard, Jean Michel Basquiat Catalog, Whitney Museum 1993. 

If the back room (known as the Tin Room) of the Patrick Fox Gallery was the closest thing to a downtown salon of the time, then Rene Ricard was its poet laureate. When Ricard published his first collection of poems, he asked Robert Hawkins to do the illustrations (Love Poems, CUZ Editions, 1999, edition of 547, publisher Richard Hell).

A subtle, almost hidden design feature of the publication is the dust jacket which, when unfolded, reveals a three-word poetic preface in small type;


Robert Hawkins, Throne Under Wave, 2023, Oil on canvas, 54 x 38 in. (137.16 x 96.52 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Off Paradise, New York

Roses, blood, jewels.

Ricard's koan-like poem exudes a sense of erotic detachment enhanced by Hawkins' sparse cover drawing of a penetrated testicular heart, generating a frisson of word and image beyond the author's instruction that "any departure from the Tiffany catalog prototype would be a liability. "

Writer and curator Steven Pollock got together with Robert Hawkins at his London studio to talk about 1980s New York (where they first met), notions of manifest destiny, and the story of The Dream Mine paintings, Off Paradise Gallery, NY, June 7- August 7, 2023.

SP What is the background to this series? Does it have to do with the Mormon Church? The Dream Mine is in Salem, Utah, isn't it?

RH The Mormons were first in Missouri, and then a mob chased them out, and they just continued for the West, and they ended up in Utah, where the leader of the church seemed to think that that was the place that God wanted them to go, so they stopped.

SP Where it influenced the entire state.

RH There was no state; there was nothing there. There was nothing there and they started planting orchards and building.

SP Was that the mid-18 hundreds?

RH Yeah.

Robert Hawkins, Millions of Crowns, 2023, Oil on canvas, 60 x 40 in. (152.4 x 101.6 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Off Paradise, New York

SP And they didn't feel the need to head further west, to California?

RH The Donner Party (you know the Donner Party, they cannibalized each other in the Sierra Nevadas), they were Mormon. Everyone wanted to eventually get to California, but wherever they decided was good enough, and since it had taken them that long, I think they were sick of traveling.

SP Coming back to the show — what's the title again?

RH Dream Mine.

SP Dream Mine, and when they sold shares, was it already named the Dream Mine?

RH It didn't really have a name, it got that name from the press, it was called the Relief Mine, but nobody outside of The Church would understand that name. "Relief" because it was giving relief to the world when it needed it, and they do this thing, the Relief Society in the Mormon Church to help people.

SP Was it a charity or potentially a charity?

RH It's just a term. The guy (John Hyrum Koyle) already had a reputation for being kind of psychic, or he made predictions when he was a kid; he predicted where a well was. He had this reputation already, and then he claimed that he had a dream, a vision that there was gold on this side of the hill, and he started selling stock in it.

Robert Hawkins, Mine in the Morning, 2023, Oil on canvas, 19 ¾ x 15 ¾ in. (50.17 x 40 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Off Paradise, New York

SP So his focus was on gold, most of your paintings have gold, but they also have rubies and emeralds.

RH All the riches in the world, whatever kind of riches it took, you know, I think it was any kind of riches. There was lots of weird stuff, like a gold vein that would change shapes. Kyle claimed that there were seven rooms, caves or caverns — I don't know what they were— but there was also a vein of gold that would change shape, and he would say it is in the shape of such and such now, and, oh now it's in the shape of something else, and at one point he said it was in the shape of the United States… totally nuts. And they still believed it, and we went to the place about three years ago, and it was being watched over by, like, you know, polygamous sects.

SP How many shares did he sell?

RH I'm not sure how many he sold.

SP Do you know other people with shares?

RH No.

SP Are these yours? Did you inherit them?

RH Yes, now they are mine; my grandfather bought 50 shares, and then when he died, he gave ten shares to each of his three daughters, and then my two aunts were just like, "I don't know, this is stupid, do you want these?" So my mom got all 50 of them.

SP They were old-fashioned paper shares?

RH Yes, I have 50 shares of stock. A single certificate that states 50 shares that says Hawkins, it says "Hawkins Revocable Trust".

SP What happened to Koyle?

RH Yeah, so he was thrown out, whatever they call it, excommunicated.

SP From the Mormon church.

RH Yes, but only because he said that he had gotten his message directly from God; it wasn't that he was scamming all the other Mormons, and it was because he made claims that he had received a real message from God, which was a problem and so he got kicked out.

SP I guess sometime between 1930 and…

RH Koyle started selling it in 1894, but my grandfather bought shares of it in the 30s (2nd offering).

SP As a safeguard against the Depression?

RH No, to build the new facade, the white building. They didn't know; they weren't thinking, whatever. I don't know what they were thinking, not thinking, that's for sure.

SP There is a parallel to a whole world of things, carnival people who went from town to town with dreams for sale. I see a relationship. The US is a nation of snake oil salesmen. Manifest Destiny was a concept of westward expansion sanctioned by God, which justified everything from slaughtering First Nation people to the extinction of species, in service to the idea that the 'settlers' were destined to move further West, endless expansion while proselytizing to justify the means.

RH Yeah, and I think proselytizing was ingrained in them anyway. Expansionism wasn't even a Mormon philosophy; that is just America.


Rene Ricard, Flowers, blood, jewels. Dust cover, Love Poems, 1999, Illustrated by Robert Hawkins, first edition of 547, CUZ Editions

SP I'm interested in the westward movement, which brought with eccentrics with their plans to gain fortune and fame. Take Eadweard Muybridge, arriving from the UK with his portable desert darkroom, to exploit photography which coincided with the gold rush. Out West his young wife cheated on him with a gold prospector, whom he hunted down and shot. He then turned himself in, but got off when the judge was convinced that as a man he shouldn’t have to tolerate such humiliation. A murderer invented American film. Muybridge was not an artist; he was an enabler of Manifest Destiny.

RH I don't know; I don't think he was trying to be an artist anyway. If you say you are, you are.

SP. In your work, or some of your work at least, there is a tendency towards anachronisms with imagery that often relates to the turn of the century, which also suggests a West Coast sensibility.

RH Yeah, I'd say that. Probably, yeah, it's more a cowboy thing.

SP The melt-down of Manifest Destiny was in 1983, when Ronald Reagan ordered the Naval burial of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. A US Coast Guard ship dropped his body in the Pacific — the only non-Naval American to receive such an honor.


Portrait of Robert Hawkins, London 2023, Photo, Steven Pollock

RH Okay. For me, it's because the work is narrative because the paintings are a narrative, and the sources are like from Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and stuff like that, which is folktale-ish, so yeah.

SP If Poe had written only fantastical stories, we wouldn't be interested; the detective story method makes his horror work. There is a temptation to see this series as a cautionary tale, but I don’t think that’s right.

RH That's not my message. And you are saying you don't think it's right as far as a philosophy? 

SP Exactly.

RH No, what I'm trying to do is dissuade that narrative. Other than that, there is a mine there, and it's real.

SP It looks like the MI6 headquarters from the outside.  

RH It's made out of, like, whatever, stucco and wood. There is nothing behind it except dirt; there are not even rooms.

SP By removing the narrative, these paintings respond to a suggested scene and visualize it.

RH Yeah, sometimes it's quite literal, especially the small ones.

SP The mine and the fortress… nine rooms with stacks of gold. They all have this cumulative effect.

RH It's about accumulation…and there is enough to share, and then everyone can be a king. Everyone can be a king — I mean, how many crowns are there?

SP All you need to do is believe. The titles written on the paintings seem to match the images, which suggests they are not dream pictures, commentary, or satire.

RH But I had painted some of the paintings before this (points to a work captioned Relief Mine, lower right). This was before Dream Mine.

SP What's the title of that piece with a crown in the river (Collection of Ginna Nanni & Estate of Glenn O’Brien)?

RH Crown Underwater or I don't know, Crown in River, I don't know, Crown in Water, something like that, the word philosophy is written on it, but that's not the title. I put words in the corners to be obtuse, but people continue to call it Philosophy.

SP I bet Glenn never said anything to you when he got it, but do you think he wanted to pair it with his Basquiat crown?

RH I don't know, I wonder.

SP What year was that, the painting that is not called Philosophy?

RH 1985, I think, the mid-80s anyway, another painting went with it, that like the Rubells bought

SP The throne with a wave behind it?

RH Yeah, Throne in Wave. Apparently, they don't have it anymore, so I painted a new one.

SP Okay, and what's the name of that?

RH A Better Version of Throne in Waves.

SP I love the water and the brush strokes.

RH Yeah, it turned out quite nice. These jewels are tough to paint, and a gem dealer in New York is getting the painting, understanding it's a parody of jewels. I mean, he knows that gems aren't shaped like that, and only somebody like him gets away with showing it.

SP Exactly. When you started, did you avoid art school?

RH No, I didn't avoid it —I went for a little while, I tried, but …

SP Where?

RH San Francisco Art Institute, but I was in on like somebody's good graces — and then they fell out with the school.

SP So you had some informal sort of admission?

RH Yeah, real informal.

SP So, how long ago were you?

RH Not very long.

SP Less than a year?

RH Yes, less than a semester. I mean, I would never say that I went there.

SP And that was it for school, for art school?

RH Yeah, I don't have the concentration for things like that: I mean, I went to college for a while and took art classes and stuff.

SP Another art school?

RH Just like a community college.

SP You and Jean-Michel were the model for those who just painted, and weren't hung up by their education.

RH Well, it's funny, I don't know, I was surprised to hear that the people I knew did go to art school, that people had gone to art school, "Oh really? You went to art school, Wow"?

SP Miles Davis went to Juilliard, but everything he learned was in the clubs.

RH Yeah, yeah, I'm talking about my friends. I'm talking about those people, yeah, Keith and everybody.

SP Keith Haring, when I was working at SVA, Keith was a student, and he just quit.

RH Did he?

SP Yes, but John Sex went to SVA and finished, and so did Kenny Scharf. My situation was that they hired me as an assistant teacher which paid well, so I knew Keith a little from SVA and then he just stopped coming.

RH Oh gee. Really? Wow.

SP He was in the third year, and by the following year, he was having a one-person show at Tony Shafrazi, so everything shifted —SVA had been the temple of Joseph Kosuth and by the time I left that had changed. Diego's (Cortez) PS1 show (New York New Wave) and Rene Ricard's Radiant Child article changed everything. I knew something new had arrived from the scene at the Mudd Club, where I curated my first show.

RH Yeah, but you know it was the teachers who usually were (I'm making an assumption anyway) that they were telling students to paint whatever, you know, whether it be Impressionist, Expressionist, Pop, or one of those things when I did go to art school for those split seconds. They said, " Oh you know, painting is dead," and said, " There is this new thing called a video camera, video is the new way to go," and stuff like that.

What was going on in the East Village was that they were not doing what they had been told to and were doing something they thought of for themselves, and it was so off the wall that it worked. But you know, all through art school history, it has been, " Here is how you paint like Jackson Pollock and here is how you paint like whoever is current"… Look at Saint Martin's now; they are going, "Here is how you make a fucking Tracy Emin, you pile shit in the middle of the gallery!"

SP And expose raw emotions, but that’s dogma and It's always been dogma, which can't help but produce more. It may start with a split from the past, like fifteen core Abstract Expressionists living on the edge and drunk all the time and freeing themselves from the School of Paris, but that turns back into Abstract Expressionist dogma, and before you know it, they are teaching it.


Robert Hawkins, Millions of Stacks of Gold Coins (Room Six), 2023, Oil on canvas, 19 ¾ x 15 ¾ in. (50.17 x 40 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Off Paradise, New York

RH Academia is always dogma.

SP What are those? (Points to a stack of tondos).

RH I'll show you. That one goes on the floor, that's from Edgar Allan Poe, that's the Maelstrom (Descent into the Maelstrom).

SP. Is it from a short story?

RH Yeah, about a ship caught in a whirlpool in Norway.

SP Of course, and you are showing this?

RH No.

SP Are they all for the floor?

RH No, that one is for the wall; this goes on the ceiling, this goes on the wall, this also goes on the ceiling because it's like a tornado inside a tornado, and this is when the Prince is trying to find Sleeping Beauty.

SP These are newer works, 2022, 2023?

RH Yeah, they're not finished.

SP Because I remember the Fire Paintings, they led to other forces…

Afterward, recalling the Fire Paintings & the Entrance to Hell, you often work with the four elements, earth, wind, fire, water, or myths where natural forces come into play.

RH Yes, these round ones are air, water, wind, and earth.

SP Because many of them spin off from science — but equally, they are either mythological beliefs derived from science, or an augmented vision from science, as in the case of Poe. Nature as an antagonistic force.

RH Yeah.

SP. But you are still a realist; these came about by hypothetical observation, not a distortion or a cartoon.

RH You know, these gold paintings are so cartoon colored, in the sense that I'm going to have a problem framing them because I want gold frames on them— but real gold frames just look so brown because these paintings are not realistic. They are closer to cartoon gold, and when you put a gold frame on them, it just looks brown, so at first, I was going to get gold spray paint and paint my own frames, but we decided to use golden ribbon to line the edges.

SP. Your level of realism mirrors how our brains have been re-wired for quantum storytelling and post-truth consumption. You play with the visions of the creator of the Dream Mine and present them to those without Mormon beliefs, like alchemy in reverse.

RH Yes, but that is because you are saying it now.

SP Yeah! (laughs)

RH Because a long time ago, somebody said to me you know, your job is to paint a painting, and after that, it's not your job to explain the painting. It's not your job to sit at some symposium and talk about it with some other painters who also painted some paintings, and they are going to talk about theirs: and somebody once said to me a very long time ago it's not up to the artist to explain, it's up to the viewer to tell the artist what he has done basically— it's up to the viewer to say to the artist what they have done. They don't know what they have done; they think they know, but whatever, and the artist should let them say, "Oh yeah, I see it, and this means this or that." Go for it. It's good whatever they come up with; it's good just like an old Ingmar Bergman scene, where you think, "Whatever if you say so."

SP These are interpretations, and I'm throwing them out there — and if they stack up, I will try to use them.

RH Yes, and you wouldn't be wrong. Another writer will have a different interpretation.

SP So that one, the snake with a ring, are you showing it?

RH Yeah.

SP What's the title of that?

RH Snake with Ring.

SP That's very poetic.

RH I name them like they are supposed to be if they were in like a police report, or an auction catalog. They are Spoon with Jewels, Bejeweled Spoon, Seven Bejeweled Crowns, and 22 Golden Crowns.

SP And how many crowns are here (points to a large canvas filled with crowns)?

RH A million golden crowns, does this read as gold? Only because, you know, it's supposed to be gold.

SP I would call it gold, aren't they supposed to be gold?

RH Yeah, they are supposed to be gold. I wanted to charge their weight in gold, and the gallery didn't go for it.

SP. But people charge by size, and it would have worked out correctly.

RH It would have worked out; I was going to get a little more than they are asking and with some …. but they will be more. It is perfectly logical, mathematically it's sound.

SP This will appeal to buyers regardless, with the knowledge they are buying a hundred thousand depictions of gold, an acquisition related to capital.

RH It is bizarre that the rich would want to hang a picture of exaggerated wealth in their mansion.

SP: Most of them are pretty informed, like that prominent jewellery collector who bought one. He doesn't have to call up his art advisor to explore the investment—he already knows.

Speaking of value and moving away from the gold, a lot of the objects are bejeweled, and you were friends with Rene Ricard, and we know that he had a thing about gems; whenever he got a hold of some money he bought gems—and he correlated color by value. In a text about Per Kirkeby he wrote for Art Forum, he brought attention to the amount of cadmium red in those paintings, at a high cost more resulting in too much Naples Yellow.

Red is also implicit in his Love Poems book (1999, published by CUZ, Richard Hell NY), which you illustrated. On the front sleeve is the first poem, which for me connotates red with just three words. Flowers, Blood, Jewels. Would he make anything out of that with this series, that this might be more expensive than that?

RH No, he would think about the hours spent on the painting; that's how he would price them.

SP A long while ago, I was once in front of one of your paintings, you weren't there, and he was there, a painting with a cobblestone road.

RH Probably the guillotine; it was Snake with Guillotine. 

SP Yeah, it was in the Tin Room ( Patrick Fox Gallery ), and he was saying, "Look at these cobblestones that go on forever, like a snakeskin," and it was not that the image had transformed into a snakeskin, but he said it's like a snakeskin. And it wasn't a surreal half-snake that merged with a half-road. It was a cobblestone road, and there was a snake, but hearing him describe it in his way was literary, insofar that the syntax of the images connected without words.

RH There's a lot of them, and it's also about them bouncing off each other. They work together, but each stands on its own.

SP They tell stories by the simplest means, with visual rhymes.

RH And I want to use gold again, and I will you know, but I won't do it as a theme again, just like I didn't do the cavemen again. I will do cavemen again every once in a while, but I'm done with the cavemen as a theme; I'm done with whatever else.

SP Coming back to Rene, I'm also thinking about his ability to attribute value to other things, whether it was the price of cadmium or as you said, clocking how many hours might have gone into a picture, or visibly counting heads before a poetry reading.

RH Yeah, and those are values based on tangible things, and he would have probably said to get something stretched out on a normal canvas rather than paint on a door or something like that. I wonder if he told Jean-Michel to paint on canvas and not found objects.

SP. But in all that, there is also the gesture, which makes for a poetic hierarchy.

RH Like you said, he was a poet.

SP He did it with his life—he knew where to sit at a table or where to stand, what to say and Rene wasn't measuring this with an ordinary scale. He was quoted, “I am Rene Ricard, friend to the rich—enemy of the people.”

Your subject of jewels brings me of story of the lost ruby rings in the second-hand furniture shop.

RH What about it?

SP Wasn't it in a second-hand furniture shop, where you worked refinishing furniture, and he came to visit right after he had just bought some rings?

RH No, it was the used furniture shop around the corner from the one where I was stripping. He had several rings on a string around his neck, and then just the string.

SP Yes, no gold chain, just a piece of string.

RH Yeah, like two ends hanging around his neck, and as we were leaving. He was so angry because he saw they must have slipped off, and they were gone, but he wouldn't look for them. I wanted to, but he wouldn't.

RH I said to him, "We'll find them," but he said, "No…No! I can't be seen crawling around on my hands and knees in a second-hand furniture store!"

And he wouldn't do it— which was the same with the fire on Twelfth Street.

SP What was the fire on Twelfth Street?

RH He wouldn't go back and see what was missing, or what was burnt rather, or what was destroyed, or anything like that— when his apartment burnt down, and you know people were just saying, "Go back and see, it's not that bad, your stuff is still in there."…. and he went, "No, no I can't, I can't. "

SP Could it have to do with a poetic aristocracy?

RH Aristocracy, in the sense of snobbism?

SP Yes. Savoir vivre.

RH The snobbism was the string—it wasn't the jewels. The fact that he would dare to put these things around his neck on a string. It's like a cavalier, "It was all I could find!"

SP Exactly! But something resonates similarly in your series, not that you and he were cooking up the school of; how do I say it? An inversion of values, likewise your proposal to price them by their weight in gold. That's the syntax, whether painted or by a gesture. After all, when publishing his first collection of poems, he instructed, " Any departure from the Tiffany catalogue prototype would be a liability. "

RH, I mean, I'm glad that you can say that. I keep doing it and painting on top of it until I can get some sense of rightness somewhere, and I just leave it and stuff, and I know it's silly, as there is no such thing as these.

SP Jewelry is poetic.

RH It's a Barbie Doll's wish for jewels.

SP. We are enthralled just the same

RH I wonder. I wonder if there will not be some snobs who say, " Yeah this is a really bad painting." Sometimes they can get good and sometimes look pretty cool, I know.

SP Not everybody gets it. I am thinking of the Circus Paintings, which were more fanciful because you could combine different animal formations on various apparatuses. They were fantastical, but you did keep working; I didn't see you working on them, but the finished paintings were a tour de force.

RH Because that's what I hope for and worry about, you know this lady already bought this big golden cave two years ago, and I'm still painting over it and fixing it up constantly.

SP Whistler did the same thing, and Jean-Michel did the same. I was in one of his last group shows (Re-bop, 1987), curated by Glenn O'Brien.  We went to the studio Basquiat leased from Warhol, the day before the opening to collect his painting. It was still wet, and he was still painting it.

RH As long as it's in the studio, you still work on it until they come to get it. You know, Rene loved to go into a gallery and smell turpentine and varnish, which meant the paintings were that fresh.

SP Are you ready for the next chapter?

RH I don't want to work on this one anymore because it's already paid for, and the collector hasn't even seen it, so they are not going to appreciate all the extra work. Their painting will be the first work anyone sees as they walk out of the elevator.

SP This will probably be the press pick for the Relief Mine, which you told me that the relief is benign.

RH. The show is called that because there is a church auxiliary called the Relief Society, it's like the women's Wednesday Afternoon Group, with church meetings. It's about making sure that everyone in the church has the essentials, especially if they are old and needy. They go around mowing people's lawns and doing their chores, stuff like that.

S.P. Cutting their toenails and making them kings.

R.H. Cutting their toenails and changing their adult diapers. WM


Steven Pollock

American-born Steven Pollock is a writer, curator and music producer living in Vienna. While still an arts major at SVA he became active as a curator at the Mudd Club, NY—followed by a museum show in Tokyo of Kenny Scharf & Club 57 (1985). In 1990 he was instrumental in realizing an immersive installation for Hiroshi Teshigahara at Leo Castelli & Larry Gagosian (65 Thompson St) and in 1996 invited David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Asha Putli to participate in a pioneering online curatorial project. After a move to London, he staged an installation by Bjarne Melgaard (2003) curated Warhol vs Banksy (2006) and in Paris an homage to Hokusai (2021). He is an Andy Warhol specialist and has curated 5 exhibitions of his work in London, Oslo & Australia. He is currently writing and recording a musical docudrama, set in 1980’s NY, with director Marieli Fröhlich.


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