Automatic Writing as Artistic Tool

Bradley Walker Tomlin, Number 12–1949, 1949, Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 31 1/4 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Abby and B. H. Friedman in honor of John I. H. Baur

Just a few years before he painted this luminous composition, Bradley Walker Tomlin met Adolph Gottlieb and other leading Abstract Expressionists. The close relationships he forged with them influenced his shift from a Cubist style toward a more calligraphic, expressive language exemplified by Number 12. For this canvas, painted while Tomlin was sharing a studio with Robert Motherwell, he used the method of automatic writing to arrive at gestural calligraphic forms that float against a mystical yellow background.

Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips admired Tomlin’s work precisely because of its “interplay of an ordered formalism and spontaneous, expressive gesture.” Paul Klee’s art strove to marry the same principles. Number 12 combines curved arabesques with flat, ribbon-like forms; the latter became a hallmark of his mature style, as seen in Number 9, on view nearby in the Ten Americans exhibition.

This work is on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee through May 6, 2018.

Tuesday Tunes: A Playlist for Bradley Walker Tomlin

Taking inspiration from the major theme of music in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee, we paired 11 staff members with 11 works from the exhibition and asked them to respond to create a playlist in response to their individual artwork. Kelley Daley, Head of Public Programming, created her playlist in response to Bradley Walker Tomlin’s “Number 12–1949.”

Bradley Walker Tomlin, Number 12–1949, 1949, Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 31 1/4 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Abby and B. H. Friedman in honor of John I. H. Baur

When I first looked at Bradley Walker Tomlin’s Number 12, I was struck by the cheerful, spring-like, Nickelodeon-esque slime green in the background. It made me nostalgic, warm, and happy; however, after spending time with the painting, the dark shapes became more prominent and I felt sentimental and introspective. I noticed the drips on some of the shapes; the almost non-existent, left behind shapes and lines in the background; or the bright pop of color mixed in with the dark, bold shapes that didn’t make the painting seem so overwhelmingly sad. I was most inspired by the contradiction of bold black lines with the bright, hidden shapes in the background that created an oscillation between happiness, nostalgia, and sentimentality. From David Bowie to Childish Gambino, this playlist features tracks that have a pronounced, toe-tapping beat (inspired by the bold black shapes), that sometimes overshadows the sentimental tenderness in the lyrics or other instruments.

Kelley Daley, Head of Public Programming

Feeling inspired? Create your own playlist based around works in the exhibition and send it to us at and we may feature it on our blog and social media.

Seeing Art Slowly: Part I

Images of paintings viewed on Slow Art Day 2013

(left) Willem de Kooning, Asheville, ca. 1935. Oil and enamel on cardboard, 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1952 (right) Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8, 1952. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 65 7/8 x 47 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1955.

On Saturday, April 27, Slow Art Day came to The Phillips Collection. Slow Art Day is an annual event that happens all over the world. This event challenges museum visitors to see art differently. In organizing the Phillips iteration, I was excited about the potential discussions a slow art visit would generate. At the Phillips, participants were invited to view works like Willem de Kooning‘s Asheville and Bradley Walker Tomlin‘s No. 8, slowly.

I encourage you to make every day Slow Art Day. Challenge yourself to look at art differently. Slow down and spend time looking. Hopefully this will lead to a meaningful discussion about the pieces of art you see. You can do it right now! Spend 5-10 minutes looking at the Willem de Kooning and Bradley Walker Tomlin paintings above and share your reaction in the comments. Then stay tuned for a guest post by Gallery Educator Lana Housholder who led the tour at the Phillips.

Mackenzie Good, DC Emerging Museum Professionals Co-Officer, Washington, D.C. 2013 Slow Art Day Organizer