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My Search for Tomlin

Number 9, 1952.

On the morning of September 1st, 2017, I found myself driving to a suburb of Hartford to meet with a woman named Rebecca Morrisey. I had recently made contact with her after I learned she was the great-grand niece of the painter Bradley Walker Tomlin. She was gracious enough to invite me to her home to see some forgotten Tomlin paintings that were in her possession, and I was grateful for the privilege. Driving from my home in Providence, I had more than an hour to ruminate on the sinuous twists of fate that led me to this meeting.

I have always had a fascination with Tomlin’s work. It began when I was a student in art school. One day I happened upon a small black and white reproduction of his painting, Tension by Moonlight in my volume of Arnason’s History of Modern Art. Deeply curious about this calligraphic work, I asked my professors about him, but to my dismay they were unfamiliar with his work. I would learn over the years that this was a recurring problem, as there is painfully scant literature on Tomlin. Suffering from heart trouble as an adult, Tomlin died shortly after he peaked, at the young age of 53. His slow development and brief career seem to be among the reasons curators and historians glaze over his contribution. In the early days before Google, my attempts to find out more about Tomlin proved frustratingly difficult.

Tension by Moonlight, 1948.

Who is this forgotten painter? Bradley Walker Tomlin was one of the premier members of the Abstract Expressionists. Having a more reserved, almost genteel demeanor, Tomlin was easily overshadowed by the more mythic stature of painters like Pollock and de Kooning. Compared to the gush of drama that mark the lives of these painters, Tomlin’s story is just not as interesting to write about. All too often he is consigned to being a marginal figure of the group. Just look at the famous photograph of the Abstract Expressionists known as The Irascibles, and you will see Tomlin standing on the edge of the group to the extreme right, close to Rothko and Motherwell, quite literally in the margin.

The Irascibles, the famous photograph by Nina Leen, photographed for Life Magazine. 1950.

Tomlin’s approach to painting was set apart from the more macho aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism. A sensitive, introspective soul, Tomlin doesn’t give us the urgency, the fury that we come to expect from this era. We don’t feel him contending with the existential angst of the Atomic Age. His canvases are not the arena for the alienated individual coming to terms with a psychic dilemma. Instead, Tomlin’s paintings have a delicate poise about them. His typical network of calligraphic strokes are carefully and deliberately placed. They weave slowly, almost fluidly through space until they’re caught in a delicate equilibrium- a harmonious tension between balance and movement. Tomlin creates syncopated, offbeat rhythms that are a visual equivalent to improvisational jazz. He does not give us his entangled struggle; instead he offers us his music and we dance with him.

In Praise of Gertrude Stein, 1950.

Tomlin was a close friend of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. He would often visit them in their home in Springs, Long Island during the summer months. In fact, just two days before his death, Tomlin sat awkwardly on a couch in their living room while the couple was embroiled in the latest in a series of violent arguments. He had recently bought the property next door, though he wouldn’t live to move in.

Perhaps his deepest friendship, however, was with Philip Guston. Both painters shared a kind of “outsider” status within the group for various reasons, and their aesthetic affinity brought them closer together. For a time they were neighbors in Woodstock, NY. Guston, always a staunch defender of Tomlin’s work, was deeply affected by his death. One of his most celebrated works of the 1950s, titled To BWT, was a requiem for his recently deceased friend. In it Guston works his way across the canvas using short horizontal and vertical strokes, an homage to Tomlin’s own staccato rhythms.

Philip Guston, To BWT, 1953.

Back in the early 1990s, when I was that aspiring art student keeping my ears and eyes open for information on Tomlin, I could never have guessed that his life unfolded not far from mine, in Providence, Rhode Island. This discovery was a kind of peculiar epiphany that presented itself in a most unusual way.

Here’s the story: in 2003 I made a trip to New York to see the Philip Guston retrospective at The Met. After an afternoon in the exhibition, my wife and I decided to see some favored pieces in the museum’s collection. We didn’t have much time, and because we were close to the modern wing, we decided to focus on the museum’s collection of post-war American painting. One of the paintings I insisted on seeing was Tomlin’s painting, No. 11. I had come to know it well over the years, but when I stood before it that day, it seemed different, as if something was just a little bit….off. It took a moment before the confusion was lifted, and the unwelcome revelation bowled me over: the painting was hung upside-down!! Our tight schedule made it difficult to speak with a curator, though I did point out the embarrassing mistake to a guard who chuckled at me until I showed him Tomlin’s upside-down signature.

Tomlin’s painting, No. 11 hanging the proper way at the Met.

The next morning I called the Met and spoke with the assistant to the head curator to inform them they have a painting hanging upside-down. After a shockingly casual response, I asked if this type of thing happens often at the Met (which to remind you is a leading world institution). To my surprise, she replied, “it happens more often than one would think”.

It was an unsatisfying and anticlimactic end to the story, but there’s a major twist: Later that same afternoon, still brooding over the injustice perpetrated on Tomlin, I took down an old Tomlin catalog from my bookshelf. I had acquired this catalog several years back. It had a broken spine and loose pages, but it was still a treasure. This catalog was published in 1975, when Jeanne Chenault organized a travelling Tomlin retrospective. It was exceptionally well researched, including a complete catalog of his oeuvre, and a detailed provenance of those who owned his work. It was at that moment during my perusal that I noticed an intriguing detail I hadn’t noticed before- many of his earlier works were owned by Tomlin family members who lived in and around Providence.

My mind immediately shifted to the whereabouts of these works. Almost 30 years had elapsed since the catalog was published, so I wondered if extended family still owned them today. Did these paintings eventually make their way into a museum’s permanent collection? Could they have been sold long ago in an estate sale, or worse, could these paintings have fallen victim to the trash-heap? Tomlin never married or had children and I knew there was no official Tomlin estate keeping track of his work. So it was then that I resolved to do my best to pursue these works myself. And it became a kind of obsession.

My first order of business was researching the Tomlin family who came to live in Rhode Island. I learned that Tomlin’s brother, Reverend Earl H. Tomlin, settled in Providence with his small family where he became a prominent and influential community figure. Searching public records I tracked down the addresses to Earl’s grandchildren, now grown and on the verge of retirement. I reached out to them with a carefully calibrated letter, letting them know I was interested in locating some of their grand-uncle’s paintings. Unsure of how they would respond, I was delighted when I received two polite emails one day later. Though they didn’t know what happened to the work that was in family hands, they did provide addresses for extended cousins that might be of more help.

I should take a moment here to say how much gratitude I have for the help of the Tomlin family. They have always been generous and kind, allowing me access into their family history, and sharing many personal stories. They were always eager to share with me whatever information they had. Some Tomlin heirs were tickled that I would be so interested in their grand-uncle’s work, not knowing he was as important as he was. Over the course of several months a correspondence grew consisting of letters, emails, and phone conversations; and my discussions with the family grew to encompass towns from coast to coast. I appreciated the personal connection, but my goal was to find lost paintings. Eventually my trail went cold. The paintings once held by family would remain a mystery for ten more years.

Then, in 2016, a new lead: I was given the name Rebecca Morrisey by a curator from upstate New York, named Daniel Balasco. In that year Balasco organized the first Tomlin retrospective since Chenault’s in 1975. Rebecca was the great grand-niece of Tomlin. She was the beneficiary to Tomlin’s closest sister named Lila, and since Lila maintained Tomlin’s affairs after his death Balasco thought Rebecca might hold the key to the missing paintings. When I eventually called Rebecca, she told me over the phone that she had several Tomlins that were passed down to her, and if I would like, I could drive to Hartford and take a look.

And that’s where I found myself on that late summer afternoon of September 1st, 2017, standing in the sun-filled living room of Rebecca Morrissey’s home. Before my arrival she had organized the works carefully, oil paintings against the wall, smaller works and photographs on a large tabletop. The oil paintings consisted mostly of still lives from Tomlin’s formative years in the 1920s. These paintings were by the student Tomlin, well before he was associated with Abstract Expressionism. In these still lives we glimpse a young painter setting his foundation, learning his craft, carefully observing how light defines space and form. Though not spectacular, these paintings show a hand that is assured and confident. Look closely at these paintings and you will see hints of the mature Tomlin. It’s revealed in his brushstrokes: dexterous and flexible flicks of the wrist, foreshadowing the bravura of his calligraphic works of the fifties.

Bowl of Tulips. ca. 1915. This early study by Tomlin evokes the color harmonies of early Matisse.

Detail of Bowl of Tulips.

Still Life with Samovar, 1920.

In the corner of the room Rebecca cleverly displayed a painting of a chair with flowers. The painting itself was deliberately placed on the same chair depicted in the painting. Along with the paintings, this chair was passed down to Rebecca, and it had special significance. It was the actual chair that Tomlin sat in when he made these early works. When I commented that the seat seemed quite low, she showed me the bottom of the legs. Rebecca related a story that Tomlin had to cut several inches off so his own legs could fit comfortably under the drafting table he worked at. Carefully inspecting the bottom of the legs I could still see what remained of saw marks, though there was an attempt to smooth them out through sanding.

Tomlin’s studio chair, with an illustration he did for the cover of House and Garden Magazine, 1926.

In addition to these early traditional paintings, Rebecca had several sketchbooks. Here we witness Tomlin experimenting with a new approach, challenging literal depiction, evidently working through some exciting new ideas. Probably dating to the mid-forties, Tomlin at this point was under the spell of Surrealism, introduced to him through Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell. It’s in these sketchbooks that we begin to recognize fleeting glimpses of the mature Tomin. With a nod to Gorky and Miro, Tomlin’s sketches become more playful, less self-conscious.

Tomlin’s Surrealist experiments, likely from the mid-forties, are still in their original sketchpad. I would like to think these drawings have only been seen by close friends and family.

Many of these sketchbook studies were quite unexpected and beautiful; others likely not meant to be seen by anybody outside of himself. Filled with unfinished ideas and false starts, it is possible Tomlin would have preferred some of them destroyed. There was a sheet of studies marred by an inadvertent coffee-cup ring. Curiously, that stain seemed to magnify the artist’s presence for me. It was as if he was there, moments ago.

A photograph of Tomlin at 18, with experiments on several pieces of paper. One with a coffee cup ring.

Rebecca was intensely proud of these works and considered them precious family heirlooms. She dutifully guarded these works for her own heirs. She told me she had them appraised by the team of experts on the PBS show, Antiques Roadshow. On a tour through Hartford several years back the team was impressed with her cache of early Tomlins, though I don’t recall what they estimated the worth as.

I proposed she allow them to be shown locally. I’ve always entertained the idea of having an exhibition of Tomlin’s work, highlighting his local ties. She was very enthusiastic about sharing the works of her great-uncle, though the idea of selling the work she owned was anathema to her. “I will never give them up, no matter what they’re worth.” She told me.

At the end of the afternoon I gathered my notes, took photographs, and packed up. After several years of searching, I was finally able to check off the early Tomlins I had been looking for. I thanked Rebecca for her generosity in letting me into her family’s history. It was a memorable afternoon. To think this journey was possible because of the mistake of hanging a painting upside-down.

As I made my way back to Providence, I thought about Tomlin’s standing in American art. I always make a point of bringing up Tomlin’s name to every curator, critic, professor, and art historian I speak with. I’m always pleased when his name is met with approval. There seems to be an almost universal sentiment that he is a great painter who doesn’t quite get his due. Would he have had a greater stake in American painting if he didn’t die at the very moment his colleagues were just beginning to get recognition?

After Tomlin’s death in 1953 his sister Lila took charge of his estate, organizing his unsold works, and divvying up the work amongst family. Some of the Tomlin family I corresponded with suspected that Lila actually forged his signature to these works (there is a very noticeable difference in his signature). Predictably there was a brief spike in sales of Tomlin’s work right after he died. The Rockefellers scooped up his work, and according to the Chenault catalog, the Met bought their Tomlin painting, No. 11 (the very one I found hanging upside-down), just three days after the artist’s death. He was honored posthumously with major retrospectives at the Phillips Collection and the Whitney Museum within five years of his death. Over the next few decades, however, his name quietly slipped into obscurity as his friends and associates fought their way to the attention of the art world.

If you are unfamiliar with Tomlin, I encourage you to take a look into his short career. I have since been back to the Met many times after the incident of 2003, when his painting hung upside-down. As far as I know, they haven’t repeated the mistake. But I remain vigilant. The next time you are at the Met, check for yourself. If you’re unsure, look for his signature, which is on the bottom, about a third from the left.

Many people are surprised to learn that Tomlin is buried in the family plot in East Greenwich, RI.


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