Cynthia Carlson: Serious Play

Curated by Mary Birmingham

Cynthia Carlson, What’s That?, 2017, oil on canvas, shaped, 36" x 36"
January 21 - April 28, 2024

For more than sixty years, Cynthia Carlson’s paintings, installations, sculpture, drawing, and public art projects have defied categorization. Possessing an adventurous and often restless artistic spirit, she has consistently pushed boundaries and experimented with various styles and techniques. As a pioneer in the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, she created immersive installations by applying thickly painted swirls and squiggles of paint directly onto the walls with a cake decorating tool. 

Since then, her work has continued to change and evolve through innovative explorations of color, shape, and pattern. While much of Carlson’s career has been ground-breaking, she has always maintained a witty outlook, crediting “a healthy sense of play” as an important ingredient in her artmaking process. Serious Play presents a focused view of Carlson’s work from the last two decades and includes paintings and a series of artist books. Several of the paintings feature cat toys set against jumbled layers of colorful patterns and tilting perspectives. In more recent work Carlson continues to “shift the edges” of painting by incorporating multiple panels, irregular shapes, and imagery that is lighthearted and even playful.

Mary Birmingham, Curator

Cynthia Carlson, What’s That?, 2017, oil on canvas, shaped, 36" x 36"

About the Artist:

Cynthia Carlson was born in Chicago and moved to NYC in 1965 for her graduate studies. In her sixty plus years as a professional artist she has had one-person shows in a number of galleries in the USA, such as, the Barbara Toll Gallery (NYC), the Pam Adler Gallery (NYC), the AIR Gallery (NYC), the Marian Locks Gallery (PHL), the Charles More Gallery (PHL), the Phyllis Kind Gallery (CHI) and the Marianne Deson Gallery (CHI), among others. Her work has been featured in numerous one-person museum exhibitions including, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia; the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, OH; the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY; the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC; the Milwaukee Art Museum, WI; the Lowe Art Museum in Miami, FL; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY; and the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY.

She is the recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award (2020); the City University of NY Research Awards (1996, 1990, 1988); the Rockefeller Foundation Residence Award in Bellagio, IT (1993); the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1987, 1980, 1978); the New York Foundation for the Arts Award (1978); the Natural Heritage Trust Artist in Residence Grant, Artpark, Lewiston, NY (1977); and others.

Her work is represented in museum collections across the USA, including, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC; the Museum of Modern Art in NYC; the Guggenheim Museum in NYC; the Brooklyn Museum in NYC; the Philadelphia Museum of Art in PHL; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art Museum in PHL; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Milwaukee Museum of Art, WI.

She is Professor Emerita at Queens College, CUNY, NY. She has traveled in the USA and Europe and she has lived in Italy for several years. She currently resides in New York City and Upstate New York with her husband and a cat.

A member of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, at the time of the first exhibition, Cynthia Carlson was known for using a pastry tool to cover her paintings and installations in thick squiggles and swirls. Although her work has changed over time, she remains consistent in incorporating color, pattern, and her signature humor. Carlson cited the Chicago Imagism movement as an early influence, and her 1970 work ‘Untitled Inscape #1,’ included in the original show, was a response to the minimalism that was prevalent during the time through what Carlson refers to as an “interior landscape” that is “spatially unclear.”

Mainly a painter, her work has evolved within a number of different stylistic concerns including installation, sculpture, and public art commissions.

Learn more about Carlson at

Show Your Support

In addition to inspiring people with our classes, we spark imaginations with world-class art installed on our terrace and in our galleries. We maintain the beautiful stone mill that deepens your ties with the past and provide a gathering place for your family and friends on the Toshiko Takaezu Terrace. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation so that we may continue educating, challenging, and inspiring community through the arts.

The Hunterdon Art Museum is barrier-free and accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Patrons who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired may contact the Museum through the New Jersey Relay Service at (TTY) 1 (800) 852-7899. Visit our Accessibility page for complete information.

Programs are made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; Hyde and Watson Foundation; The Large Foundation; and The Holt Foundation, along with other corporations, foundations, and individuals. 

Back To Exhibitions

More Past Exhibitions