Bradley Walker Tomlin's paintings balance the action painting of de Kooning and Pollock, with the geometric abstraction of Newman and Reinhardt. Tomlin's calligraphic brushstrokes, worked up in subtle tones of browns, grays and greens which contrast with black and white, appear to be highly controlled in their execution and composition. However, the brushstrokes are not premeditated; they display a freedom and spontaneity that is analagous to Pollock's drip paintings. It is the contrast between restraint and abandon, between the rational and the emotional that gives Tomlin's best work its power and, ultimately, its elegant beauty.
Tomlin was friendly with Pollock and Motherwell, whose knowledge of Surrealist automatism were great influences upon his painting. Mark Tobey's "white writing" paintings, and Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Impressionist style of the 1940s were also highly influential on Tomlin's mature style. What he took from his colleagues was an attitude more than an image: that one could make abstract paintings that were conceived as process, but still control certain elements of the process (color, scale, rhythm) to achieve the most expressive result.
"Of all the Abstract Expressionists, Tomlin was the most controlled and sober. He shied away from the extremes of exuberance and sensuousness in his rectilinear calligraphy, as well as in his choice of colors (he favored tans, olives, and off-whites). His painting is also the most elegant and graceful of his contemporaries, yet it never lapses into decorativeness, for it possesses an elegaic cast that is its most affecting quality." (I. Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting, New York 1970, p. 244)
No. 5, painted in 1951, shows Tomlin's mature style at its apex. The lush, closely toned greens and browns of the ground act as atmosphere for the calligraphic strokes of shades of blue, gray, black and white. Some of the brushstrokes seem to be engulfed by the ground, others seem to float high above. The structure of the painting is loose, undefined, which conveys a sense of freedom and spontaneity that, paradoxically, appears to be hard won, since the brushstrokes appear to be precisely placed and shaped. The overall impression is that of a syncopated, musical piece, composed in the moment by a master performer, like the improvisational jazz of the 1940s that Tomlin loved. Although his career was shortened by an untimely death in 1953, Tomlin's works were widely exhibited during his lifetime, with major examples in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.