On ViewSamuel Dorsky Museum of Art
August 31– December 11, 2016
Suny New Paltz, New York
Bradley Walker Tomlin: A Retrospective pays long overdue homage to an artist whose contributions to Abstract Expressionism have been relatively overlooked. Curated by Daniel Belasco, the exhibition and its thorough catalogue celebrate Tomlin (1899 – 1953) and explore the reasons for his marginalization.
Filling in the personal and art historical gaps that have lingered in the forty years since Tomlin’s last full dress show, this exhibition deftly tracks this artist’s idiosyncratic style, one that lives somewhere between early 20th-century modernism and a new abstract frontier where artistic lawlessness courted brash individualism. Two exhibited photographs capture the generational genres he straddled: a 1945 group portrait finds a young Tomlin seated within a symmetrical half circle of American standard-bearers (Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, and Charles Burchfield among them). Five years later, in Nina Leen’s The Irascibles (1950), Tomlin looks quite the elder in an asymmetrical arrangement featuring Jackson Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, and Ad Reinhardt—the young breed that rode Abstract Expressionist turf as if on bucking broncos. Tomlin, less the trailblazer, chose tamer steeds and a more navigable path that ultimately led to the art historical netherland from which this exhibition helps him re-emerge.
The show’s catalogue essays describe Tomlin as a quiet, reserved, gay man, older and more traditional than the precocious avant-gardists dominating the Abstract Expressionist movement. A selection of his 1920s illustrations for children’s books and Condé Nast House & Garden magazine covers, all exhibited with their respective original paintings, traces his advance from art nouveau-to-realist-to-modernist illustrator and point to his formal training and commercial experience as sources of his conservatism. Untitled Cover for House & Garden (1926), for example, is a realist illustration of a fat cat crouched in the crook of a tree, its branches framing the jutting dormer of a federalist building. Its asymmetrical views, contrasting textures, and layering of line, shape, and color to suggest dense, continuous space visually segue to a more abstract 1929 H&G issue. Here, a rooster poised on an outdoor staircase crows toward a background landscape of angled and fractured planes of color, all ricocheting between flat space and deep, multi-angled perspectives. Similar elements inform a group of small 1930s paintings. Tomlin’s Calla Lily (ca. 1930), though reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flattened florals, is a decidedly bolder blossom. This voluminous and assertively outlined flower hovers over layered diamond, spiral, and vertical shapes that simultaneously affirm and deny the canvas its flat surface.
The exhibition proceeds to Tomlin’s modernist period with works like Still Life (Inward Preoccupation) (1939), a jigsaw of irregularly shaped rectangles dancing to the syncopated rhythms Tomlin learned from the school of Paris. Bowing to Picasso’s sculpture, Glass of Absinthe (1914), Tomlin paints a glass stippled with red and blue “fizz,” then nods to Matisse’s open window frames and Henry Moore’s negative open forms. Yet, before dismissing as assimilation, note Tomlin’s subtle palette of colors—lavender-pinks, magentas, maroons, and greens not of nature’s making—and his etched lines, prefiguring his calligraphy paintings of the late ’40s, such as Tension by Moonlight (1948). This sparse series of automatic brushstrokes, mimicking Japanese scroll painting, is a remarkable minimal work for its time that foreshadows Tomlin’s signature Expressionist style.
This compelling narrative, from 1922 to 1949, culminates in the Abstract Expressionist paintings for which Tomlin is best known. In Number 8 (1949), an animated entourage of lines appears to have serendipitously arrived on a vivid turquoise blue field. Some dance themselves into letter shapes, others wiggle along on their own or stop short, forming truncated squares that drip a line here and there. This marks Tomlin’s calligraphic style—well-orchestrated ribbon-like brushstrokes more intuitively considered than aggressively dispatched into space. No violent attacks on canvas. No splatters, slashes, oozing or bleeding of pigment loaded on the canvas straight from the can. In Number 2 (1950), Tomlin’s brushstrokes remain brushstrokes as they contort into x-shapes, loop into themselves, and form vague symbols that adhere to and escape from a murky grid of black, yellow, and mossy green.
It is largely because Tomlin avoided the automatic, action-packed swagger of his compatriots that he’s often denied true Abstract Expressionist honors. Others see, through the unobtrusive, quiet, gracious demeanor of a gay man from the 1940s, an artist who found it necessary to shun all bravado. Some cite his early death and paucity of extant Expressionist works as reasons why he may never have fully realized his vision. However, setting these asides aside, this retrospective provides a fresh view of Tomlin as an artist whose keen understanding of the structure of a new aesthetic enabled him to distill its visual and psychic energy. He did this fully knowing himself, acknowledging his voice, and expressing it authentically, in irrepressibly original ways.