New Paltz

Bradley Walker Tomlin, Number 4, 1952–53, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

Bradley Walker Tomlin, Number 4, 1952–53, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

Bradley Walker Tomlin

Bradley Walker Tomlin, Number 4, 1952–53, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

It has been forty years since Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899–1953) last had a retrospective. The stated rationale of this exhibition is to bring home to the Hudson Valley the Syracuse-born artist who lived in New York and chose to have a place in Woodstock. But a deeper reason is to attend to an artist who, now as then, is overlooked. In the years right after his early death, Tomlin was admired by collectors and museums of high and advanced taste. Since then, the distinctive paintings of his final years these patrons and institutions so admired have not been given the respect they deserve. But, curiously, the absence of huge market values and an established body of criticism lends the works an independence and a freshness. They are open for the looking. I experienced this show not as an invitation to consider an unfairly diminished reputation, or the work made by an artist who was unacknowledged as gay, but rather to consider once again the nature of painting itself. Next, let’s hope for an exhibition of all the paintings in his great late style.

Tomlin had a successful career. One should write careers in the plural. Designed as a tribute to an elegant, restrained man, the show takes us through them chronologically in six sections: work made at art school during and after World War I at Syracuse University, where he won several prizes (“He was the only one of that group who knew how to mix colors,” Herbert Ferber remarked after Tomlin’s death); 1920s magazine covers under the patronage of Condé Nast and sojourns in Europe; realistic portraits and flowers in the 1930s with a show in 1931 at the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, home to Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper; an uncertain stretch with some paintings destroyed while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College; the 1940s discovery of Surrealist imaginings; admiration for Adolph Gottlieb’s pictographs and the move to join the avant-garde soon to be known as Abstract Expressionists; finally, the courageous leap to show with Betty Parsons, their gallery, in 1950. Tomlin spoke of it as a renewal. Though he embraced the community, he kept his distance in his art.

The exhibition shows that Tomlin took up, and turned away from, a succession of pictorial modes. It is not helpful to see this as a development. There is no need for despair on his behalf, although sometimes he did despair over his work. In retrospect, it seems he was biding his time. Certain pictorial moves are consistent right through: thin paint scraped into by a sharp point; an assemblage of flat geometric shapes; witty furls of paint handling, as around the collar in a portrait of his mother. Then, quite suddenly, he found his script-like marks and with them the ordered spontaneity in which he discovered himself as a painter. The interest lies in the latest works and less in how he got there.

A characteristic Tomlin mark is white paint dragged with a flat, squared-off dry brush to form a ribbon shape. We see it first on its own on a black ground in the small Tension by Moonlight of 1949. The white stroke persists in horizontals and verticals, which come to be combined with colored squares and large dots of paint arranged in a syncopated, layered sequence over a large canvas. No. 4, 1952–53, is the most dazzling example in this exhibition.

Music has been a theme in descriptions of the rhythmic nature of Tomlin’s strokes, which have drawn comparisons to Bach (the point is repetitive play with simple motifs) and Miles Davis (the point is the mimicking of spontaneity through non-spontaneous means). Emotional urgency is replaced by the look of worked paint. It is not surprising that Robert Ryman bought a Tomlin (think also of the centrality of white in the works of both artists).

We should not end without a word on Tomlin’s doubt. You see it in the fragility of the relationship between his multiple marks. The simple truth about the matter of links, he once wrote, is if they are good at all they break.

Svetlana Alpers