Catalog Essay | September 17, 2020 | Lot 57
Bradley Tomlin was born 1899 in Syracuse, New York. He died in 1953 in New York City abruptly culminating a career and a lifespan concurrent with the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States.
After graduating with a degree in painting from Syracuse University, Tomlin moved to New York City. There, he worked as a magazine and commercial illustrator. In 1923, he went to Paris on a fellowship to study at the Academie Colarossi and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1926, he had his first solo exhibition and in 1929 he sold a painting to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, his first sale to a museum.
During the depression from 1932-1941, Tomlin taught painting at Sarah Lawrence College and other preparatory schools in New York. During this period, he was primarily painting in a cubist style. MoMA’s 1936 exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” had a profound effect on Tomlin as it did on many other artists of the day. Tomlin’s work after this show became increasingly abstract and surrealist.
In 1945, Tomlin met Adolph Gottlieb and through him some of the leading Abstract Expressionists including Robert Motherwell, Phillip Guston and Jackson Pollock. At this point in Tomlin’s career, his work became assertively distinctive. He stopped teaching in order to focus on his own painting. He began to experiment with automatism using themes like calligraphy and typography. In the 1940s and 50s his work was abstract but focused on geometry and order.
In the present work “Number 16” Tomlin used the yellow/khaki ground that is apparent in his other works from the 1952-1953. The use of 14 different colors on top of this ground and texture of the brushstrokes are magnificent. Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, called examples in this style “petal paintings” because the thick, rhythmic brush strokes resemble falling flower petals.
In a new volume The Irascibles: Painters Against the Museum, New York, 1950, author Daniel Belasco notes, “Tomlin isolated the brushstroke as a discrete image, becoming among the first to pare Abstract Expressionism to its gestural essentials.”
Tomlin died in 1957 of a heart attack, prematurely ending his career. Rothko remembered him saying “the first of our family to leave us.” In 1957 the Whitney organized a memorial exhibition of his work and MoMA included him in their landmark 1958-1959 travelling exhibition The New American Painting.
In 2016 the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz together with the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York organized the first retrospective and catalog of Tomlin’s work since 1975. A review of the exhibition noted, “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.”
 Joyce Beckenstein, “Bradley Walker Tomlin, A Retrospective,” in The Brooklyn Rail, Oct. 4, 2016,
 Bradley Walker Tomlin, catalog, circ. Exhibition organized by the Art Galleries of the University of California, Los Angeles, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, Published for the Whitney Museum of American Art by Macmillan, 1957).