Let’s start with the work and not the person. The retrospective of the paintings of Bradley Walker Tomlin, opening to the public this Saturday, September 10 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz and running through December 11, stands up well in comparison with other shows of work by single members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism that I have seen. For me, the show is that good.
Oh, sure, you can get blown away by solo shows of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. But each of these artists – a famous photograph from November 1950 includes them and 11 others – did his own thing. And so did the minor planets circling near the major names. The Nina Leen photograph has three Woodstockers: Adolph Gottlieb, James Brooks and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Other significant figures in the reproduction in the New Paltz catalogue of the photo include Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, William Baziotes, Richard Pousette-Dart, Jimmy Ernst and Theodore Stamos.
It’s important to add that not all the important Abstract Expressionists were pictured, of course: no Arshile Gorky, no Franz Kline, no David Smith, no Milton Avery, no Mark Tobey, no Philip Guston, no Sam Francis, no Helen Frankenthaler. Some of them came into prominence later.
As curator Daniel Belasco shrewdly points out in his essay, Tomlin’s place in art history, such as it was, was secured by his appearance in that 1950 photograph and one other thing: his inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling exhibition of 1958/59, “The New American Painting.” Important art critic Clement Greenberg’s statement that Tomlin had “joined up” with the others “codified the misunderstanding that Tomlin followed and did not innovate,” according to Belasco.
The present New Paltz one-man show gives the lie to that line of thinking. Though the members of the New York School certainly influenced each other’s work, I can’t think of any whose homages stooped to imitation. Maybe that’s due to the nature of abstraction itself. My dreams are not your dreams, and yours are not mine. Each of the Abstract Expressionists developed his own language and vocabulary, his own gestures, expressed his own inner feelings.
Miracle upon miracle: Many produced masterpieces.
In one of the few Tomlin writings in the incredibly carefully produced New Paltz show catalogue, the artist speculates about the mystery of art, likening painting techniques to articles of clothing available to the artist on a hall rack. The artist picks one, perhaps a tattered old hat: “Confronted by the cast of his own mind, he says, ‘It is at least mine.’” Thus begins the miracle of art.
Why was Clement Greenberg, usually so right in his pronouncements, so wrong this time? If you’ve ever looked down at a bathroom floor where colored tiles seem placed in a seemingly random distribution, you’ll know exactly why. You try to find that hidden pattern, that sense of order. It seems only logical that there is one. It seems so right that there would be one.
And there isn’t one.
In Tomlin’s late work, there are ebbs and flows of relationships of forms, gestures and colors. The painted lines are often thick, as though made with a roller; the colors usually playfully placed, the way a small child might have done it. There seems sometimes to be a layering of paint, and sometimes not.
After examining the careful evolution of Tomlin’s competent earlier work from commercial artist to experimenter with various artistic styles (including calligraphy), look at the last abstract paintings in the final room of the Dorsky show. You say to yourself that there must be a guiding grid, pattern or probabilistic distribution; you just don’t see it.
At least I didn’t see it. And that’s why I came away loving the work. For me, art doesn’t get better than this. Like John Cage taught us, the happy accident of life affords an inscrutable mixture of plan and improvisation, pattern and outburst, control and exuberance, display and disguise. This guy Tomlin has been greatly underrated.
This Sunday, September 11 at 2 p.m., a panel consisting of art historians Svetlana Alpers and Tom Wolf and curator Daniel Belasco is scheduled to discuss Bradley Walker Tomlin’s legacy. Moderated by Janice La Motta, the event will be held at the Student Union Building, Rooms 62/63, on the SUNY-New Paltz campus.
The opening reception this Saturday, September 10 from 5 to 7 p.m. is open to the general public. For more information about the Dorsky Museum and its programs, visit www.newpaltz.edu/museum or call (845) 257-3844.