American painter. He studied sculpture modelling in the studio of Hugo Gari Wagner from 1913 and painting from 1917 to 1921 at Syracuse University. After graduation he moved to New York and began to work as a commercial illustrator, with many commissions from Condé Nast publications. Tomlin visited France for the first time in 1923 and spent a few months studying in Paris at both the Académie Colarossi and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He remained a freelance illustrator until 1929. In 1925 he spent the first of many summers in the emerging colony of Woodstock, NY. Early paintings, such as Young Girl (1925; Newark, NJ, Mus.) or the slightly later Self-portrait (1932; New York, Whitney), emotionally evocative yet sentimental, soon gave way to a more stylized format.
Tomlin was impressed by the 1936–7 exhibition, Fantastic Art: Dada and Surrealism, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and returned to it repeatedly. He was both attracted and repelled but found most other art dull and uninteresting after seeing such work. The paintings he produced during World War II, such as The Goblet (1940; Washington, DC, Phillips Col.) and Burial (1943; New York, Met.), make occasional use of Surrealist-inspired combinations within a decorative late Cubist idiom. He was a founder-member of the American Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, an organization dedicated not only to modernism but also to the eradication of artistic nationalism. Other members included Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and Balcomb Greene (b 1904). From the early 1930s he began to share studios with fellow artists, firstly with James Brooks, in Woodstock, and lastly with Robert Motherwell in New York from 1948 to 1949. He also began his teaching career at the Buckley School from 1932 to 1933, before transferring to Sarah Lawrence College (1933–41), both in New York.
Tomlin’s mature work can be said to date from c. 1947, when his already abstract works ceased to show a direct debt to either Surrealism or Cubism. The use of dots, crosses and other symbols derived from the Surrealist interest in and use of universal images, but, like Gottlieb, Tomlin spread his thickly applied shapes over the entire canvas in a new and more painterly way, as in Number 3 (1948; New York, MOMA) and Number 11 (1949; Utica, NY, Munson–Williams–Proctor Inst.). Although highly textured and richly painted, Tomlin’s paintings were more lyrical and less gestural than those of Pollock or de Kooning. They relate more to the work of Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt and such painters of the ‘second generation’ of Abstract Expressionists as Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Milton Resnick (b 1917).
Clement Greenberg identified 1948 as the year that Tomlin and Guston joined the Abstract Expressionists, and Tomlin quickly became a recognized leader of the group. In 1952 a substantial selection of his recent paintings was exhibited in 15 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Such paintings as Number 9: In Praise of Gertrude Stein (1.24×2.59 m, 1950; New York, MOMA) show how his last and by this stage very large canvases were filled with a more uniform and overall pattern of calligraphic brushstrokes than had been the case just two or three years earlier. Because of the changes evident in the paintings of his last years, it is difficult to assign him a firm place in the history of Abstract Expressionism, but he remains one of the pioneers of the lyrical branch of the movement of the mid-20th century.
David M. Sokol
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press