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Number 10

Not on view

Number 10

Artist: Bradley Walker Tomlin (American, 1899 - 1953)

Date: 1952-1953
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 72 x 102 1/2in. (182.9 x 260.4cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'B. Tomlin'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 53.217
Text Entries

Number 10 is one of the largest, greatest, and last paintings by Bradley Walker Tomlin, the elder member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. As Barnett Newman stated, the group did not represent a movement in the conventional sense of a style, but a collection of individual voices.(1) What these artists shared were cultural and aesthetic values, a common ideological background. After an academic training begun at Syracuse University in 1917 and continued in Paris during the 1920s, and years of both figurative and abstract painting in New York City and Woodstock, New York, Tomlin relinquished his Cubist-Surrealist mode of the early 1940s and in 1945 turned to the nonobjective, expressive automatism of the avant-garde to which he was introduced by Adolph Gottlieb. After experimenting with psychic improvisation, which itself was an outgrowth of Surrealism and dependent upon the dominant role of the subconscious, he finally achieved his mature style, a synthesis between spontaneity and control, energy and order. The results are “a heroic but gentle Mozartian kind of quality.”(2)

Some of Tomlin’s finest paintings were created during the last five years of his life. Number 10 is one of these. It consists of horizontal and vertical bars, produced with a flat, square brush and dragged stroke with dryer added to the paint. There is a new stability which has replaced the free surface drawing of his previous mode. Simultaneously, the identifying number, typical of the New York School during the 1950s, has now been substituted for the more poetic titles of the 1940s. This grid-like composition, which was invented either by Tomlin himself or by Gottlieb, precedes those of Tomlin’s subsequent and final “petal paintings” with their adjacent spots of delicate color, an approach reminiscent of Impressionism at close range. Tomlin’s late paintings have collectively been called “eye-music”(3) with soft and hard, high and low notes according to Betty Parsons,(4) whose gallery he joined during the late 1940s. Although sometimes referred to as a calligrapher,(5) Tomlin was, above all else, a colorist and, according to the sculptor Herbert Ferber, the only member of the group who really knew how to mix colors.(6) Despite a general consensus by the New York School to maintain the integrity of the two-dimensional plane, the blues and blacks of Number 10, while forming an “all-over” grid, vibrate back and forth amid the accents of oranges, yellows, pinks, and ochers, creating a tension between the three-dimensional space and the picture plane. “Colored disks are superimposed in many places on squares of contrasting hue, causing an optical flicker not explored again in American art until the ellipse paintings of Larry Poons.”(7) The result is not just a decorative pattern but a radiant structure that is both organic and geometric. Its expression ranges from mystical to whimsical. One writer described such paintings as “deeply playful.”(8) In Tomlin we see a juxtaposition not only of color but of seeming opposites such as freedom and discipline, sobriety and humor, as well as fusion of the cerebral and spiritual. Although not primarily a decorative artist, despite occasional references to “prettiness” by those who do not understand his painting, Tomlin “unlike many artists of this time . . . did not mistrust beauty.”(9) Throughout his career Tomlin’s paintings display subtlety, elegance, and sensitivity, which were also characteristic of the man himself.

Respected and admired by the other Abstract Expressionists, Tomlin was a “painter’s painter.”(10) Never personally aggressive, a fact that may have contributed to his relative obscurity as compared to the other members of the New York School, he always manifested a calm authority when it came to painting and it is this combination of sensitivity and assurance that is evident in his best works. The impact that Tomlin’s personality had on his contemporaries is apparent from the comment made by the sculptor Raoul Hague: “Everything came to me out of looking at things and out of long walks and talks with Gorky or Tomlin, and through countless arguments over new developments.”(11) In the statement he made for the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art’s 12 Americans exhibition in 1956, Hague was even more complimentary about Tomlin’s influence: “In the last thirty years, of all the artists I have known, there have been only three whose eyes I could trust—Gorky, Tomlin, and Guston—and I have used them in my own development.”(12)

Tomlin considered himself to be very much part of the group, challenging the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with the other members of the “Irascible 18“ in 1951, participating in the school called Subject of the Artist (later Studio 35), and having long discussions at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village with Jackson Pollock and the others. He died in 1953 at the age of fifty-three. Mark Rothko gave a toast at the funeral dinner “to the first of our family to leave us.”(13) Robert Motherwell declared Tomlin an “élan into light . . . one of the rare, joyous spirits in the Abstract Expressionist Group.”(14)

 

Notes

1. Barbara Rose, American Art Since 1900, A Critical History (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1967), p. 189.

2. Christopher B. Crosman and Nancy E. Miller, “Speaking of Tomlin,” Art Journal, vol. 39 (Winter 1979-80), p. 107.

3. Henry McBride, “Abstract Report for April,” ARTnews, vol. 52 (April 1963), p. 15.

4. Crosman and Miller, p. 115.

5. George Flanagan, Understand and Enjoy Modern Art (New York: 1951; rev. ed., New York: Crowell, 1962), p. 318.

6. Crosman and Miller, p. 108.

7. David Bourdon, “In Praise of Bradley Walker Tomlin,” Art In America, vol. 63 (September 1975), p. 56.

8. Letter of George Dennison, December 8, 1970. Jeanne Chenault, “Bradley Walker Tomlin,“ Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1971, pp. 76, 119, nn. 319 and 321. Tomlin was pleased with the term “rational joy” in reference to his painting.

9. Mary Burke, “Twisted Pine Branches: Re- collections of a Collector,” Apollo, vol. 121 (February 1985), p. 79.

10. Jeanne Chenault, Bradley Walker Tomlin: A Retrospective View, exhibition catalog (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Gallery, 1975), p. 7.

11. Gerald Nordland, “The Slow Emergence of Star Sculpture,” ARTnews, vol. 63 (October 1964.), p. 32.

12. Dorothy Miller, ed., 12 Americans, exhibition catalog (New York: Museum ofModern Art, 1956), p. 44.

13. Chenault, p. 28. This account of the funeral dinner was provided by an interview with Gwen Davies, September 10, 1970.

14. Ibid., p. 28. This statement was made during a telephone conversation with John I.H. Baur and is recorded in the Artists’ Files at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

 

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Orphaned work.