"One can believe in paintings, as one can believe in miracles, for paintings, like miracles, possess an inner logic which is inescapable" (B. W. Tomlin, as quoted in The New American Painting, New York, 1958, p. 80).
After painting for ten years in a style that consisted of scattered Surrealist-inspired images locked in an Analytic Cubist grid, Tomlin developed his mature abstract style in 1948, which he would explore and refine until his untimely death in 1953. Painted during this short but seminal period, Number 14 consists of the artist's signature, painterly calligraphy, executed on a dark background. Other Abstract Expressionist works, such as Mark Tobey's "white writing" and de Kooning's early paintings like Orestes and Zurich (both 1947) incorporated letters or characters into their work. Tomlin's mature works read like an abstracted alaphabet, that he reinvents in every picture.
Tomlin was generally mistrustful of color. Number 14's subdued palette allows the drama of the sensuously painted white characters on the richly painted dark gray background to be the primary visual action. Unlike many of his peers who integrated the background and foreground to create an all-over pattern, Tomlin's marks stubbornly remain on the surface, causing the eye to bounce and vibrate from form to form. "People will respond to the luminous quality of his painted surfaces and will see in his complex arrangement of bands, pot-hooks, boomerangs, letters, dots, rectangles, zigzags and so forth a sort of pictorial equivalent of ballet, in which the many figures shimmy, gyrate, contort or drift at two or more levels with stimulating spontaneity and with an over-all coordination which is as satisfying as it is unobtrusive." (E. Root, 15 Americans, 1952, New York, p. 24).
Dorothy Miller chose Tomlin for the important 15 Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952, which included other New York School artists such as Pollock, Rothko and Still. Tomlin died suddenly the following year of a heart attack, at the height of his powers as an artist. He left behind a small, but important legacy of paintings, less than 50 of which are from his later, most sought-after period.
Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1950 Photograph by Rudy Burckhardt Photo c Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY