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A Painter At 100

Alan Tompkins, Former Director Of Hartford Art School, Has Made Creativity His Lifelong Passion

July 29, 2007
By OWEN McNALLY, Special To The Courant

Just a few months shy of turning 100, Alan Tompkins, a ruggedly independent painter and intellectual, is the proud owner of a forever young, razor-sharp mind that issues well-honed thoughts about everything from art theory to art show openings.

To celebrate his centenary, Tompkins, who was director of the Hartford Art School at the time of the historic merger that produced the University of Hartford, presents an exhibition of his paintings that opens today at the Art School's Silpe Gallery.

Tompkins has some original, unconventional thoughts about exhibition openings - even his own - that might shock wine-imbibing gallery-goers who prefer hors d'oeuvres to chefs-d'oeuvre and idle chatter to aesthetics that matter.

For his own opening today - a festive occasion featuring 45 of his paintings and serving as a sequel to his last UofH exhibition in 2001- the old master says he's contemplating asking for a period of silent viewing, a tightly concentrated focus on the art itself, muting the usual party trappings.

He acknowledges that it might be hard for him to impose a period of abstinence on old friends and colleagues, many of whom might not have seen him for years.

Up until fairly recently, when it became too physically demanding, Tompkins had painted daily since moving into Bloomfield's Duncaster retirement community in 1990.

Anything but a "retirement" home, Tompkins' art book-packed apartment has for years been a hothouse of creativity. For his centenary exhibition (he turns 100 on Oct. 29), he has had the luxury of selecting from 100 paintings housed in his basement and another 35 in a closet.

Tompkins supported his wife and two children by working as a muralist, book illustrator, portraitist, teacher, industrial designer, lecturer and arts administrator.

During the Depression, he painted murals in post offices for the federal government.

During World War II, the graduate of Columbia University (1929) and Yale Art School (1933) labored as an industrial design supervisor. He applied his highly trained eye - one educated with, no doubt, much "silent viewing" of masterworks in Europe's major museums - to designing toasters and disposals for General Electric in Bridgeport.

Arriving in Hartford with his family in 1951, he worked at the Hartford Art School as a drawing instructor but was soon appointed assistant director. From 1957 to 1969, he served as director of the art school, a pivotal period in the school's history.

Tompkins was an articulate advocate for and shaper of the sort of institution the school would become in the three-way merger in 1957 that allied the art school, Hartt School and the old Hillyer College to form the University of Hartford.

Always the artist, he designed the official UofH seal.

One of his favorite creative refuges was the light-filled, 11-foot-high studio he set up in his former Bloomfield home - not far from his Duncaster residence.

"I find that when I tell somebody that I'm a painter that they really don't know what I mean. They think that you're a hobbyist, someone who goes out and paints nice pictures, or that perhaps you are a portraitist," Tompkins says in his deliberate, elegantly cadenced manner.

"Maybe I'm feeling - egad! - let's get this across before I die - but the understanding of graphics is the treasure that I have received in my life.

"The title of my book [an invaluable catalog written by Linda P. Tomasso] is `Alan Tompkins - Painter,' which is very deliberate in its use of the word `painter,'" he says, with dramatic emphasis.

Tompkins wants to zero in totally on the work itself, analyzing the use of line, form and color, for example, to the exclusion of intrusive biographical details.

The works, in his view, are literally everything - autonomous objects, not snapshot reproductions of real objects. When examining a painting, the artist's private life isn't the least bit relevant - a heretical idea in an age when celebrity and gossip reign supreme.

Paintings - or what Tompkins calls his "poetic graphics"- are meant to be read closely.

Meticulous attention must be paid, Tompkins stresses, to the work's graphic language, its visual diction and syntax, which create a kind of drama and interaction among all the painting's elements alive on the canvas.

Exactly this sort of play - a very serious, elegant form of poetic play - runs through Tompkins' well-orchestrated paintings, whether in his early representational pieces or on through his abstract, or, what he calls, non-objective works.

"What I look for in the landscape," Tompkins says to illustrate his point, "is not what a tree actually looks like but the relationship it would have over there," he says pointing to where he would choreograph his graphic impression of a tree in one of his paintings.

"The goal is to make a new entity, a work of art which has all these interrelated parts where each one knows what the other is going to do. Now, that's not true of nature," he says.

With a Tompkins painting, the action is in lines that echo one another, playing off one another brilliantly in an almost musical sense, complete with rhythms, a sense of harmony, tonal colors and contrapuntal melodies. The work is an autonomous thing in itself, he stresses, not an illustration of a tree, a person, or whatever.

A subject's facial features, for example, might not be as revealing of character, as say, the abstract, geometric details of what he or she is wearing. Revelations are made through the interplay or tension generated by these shapes that emerge from the artist's intuition, which, he argues, is the ultimate source of art.

"The graphic language comes from the intuition of the artist. If something feels right, he puts it in. As soon as he begins to tell you why he did it, it loses its life," he says.

For Tompkins, art is a graphic way of viewing and expressing the world, catching the very essence of things just as, say, Charles Dickens did with his imaginative, precisely on-target selection of details in his vivid use of descriptive language.

He casually illustrates his finer points about visual art with apt, even entertaining analogies to classical music and literature, eloquently reciting long passages from memory of Hamlet's soliloquy and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

A widower who was predeceased by his children, Tompkins had "a calling" since he began painting as a boy in a family that prized literature, opera and art. (Tompkins' wife of 49 years, Florence, died after a long illness at age 78 in December 1984, not long before the death of their daughter, Catherine, who died from breast cancer at 44 in August 1985. The Tompkins' son, Alan, died in April 1999 at 61, also of cancer.)

Tompkins' father, who lived to be 102, was a noted civil engineer who supported his son's commitment to art. His mother, who often read Dickens and Thackeray to Tompkins, was a teacher and department head in the New York public school system before getting married in 1900. She lived to be 93.

Tompkins' smooth, gracious outward appearance has long mirrored his internal intellectual rigor and artistic vigor.

Power Boothe, dean of the Hartford Art School since 2001, attests to those Tompkinsesque qualities.

"When I first came to the Hartford Art School, I was taken over to Duncaster one day to give a little talk about the school. And this elegant guy, who had retired as director 45 years before I even got here, was introducing me to the audience. He retired about the time I was 10 years old!"

In her book, Tomasso concentrates primarily on Tompkins' paintings and artistic practices, a serious painting-for-painting's-sake approach that pleases her subject.

A product of almost three years of intense conversations, plus hours of transcribing interview tapes and late night writing sessions, Tomasso's catalog is a first-rate portrait of the artist.

Tomasso, herself a painter, met Tompkins, who was then 86, when she took a course in painting with him at the West Hartford Art League.

This teacher/pupil connection led to meetings and long conversations and even lunches at Duncaster, spontaneous seminars in which the erudite Tompkins shared his years of wisdom with reflections on art and painting. Eventually, there were even excursions out of Duncaster to check out exhibitions in galleries and museums.

On their mini-road trips to art venues, Tompkins would expound brilliantly, Tomasso says, on everything they saw, from colonial to contemporary art.

"We would have these wonderful conversations in his studio. Sometimes I'd bring my baby [she has four children], who I'd have to crawl after on my knees.

"It was a friendship, but then it became a personal artistic journey. It dawned on me how much I was learning over the course of time," she recalls.

At 97, Tompkins announced that he wanted someone to write a book that would recount his legacy and his 100 years and be a companion of sorts for a centenary exhibition at UofH.

Tomasso willingly agreed to become Tompkins' Boswell. And the long, arduous yet exciting, in some ways enlightening, process began for her in earnest, one that evolved into a creative collaboration between artist and biographer.

While Tompkins' work is sophisticated, Tomasso says, it's also sensitive and about enjoyment, and now and then even seasoned with humor. (While majoring in history and art history at Columbia, Tompkins, for all his profound seriousness about art, was also art editor of the Columbia Jester, a collegiate humor magazine, and was the quick-witted, Mercutio-like captain of the varsity fencing team.)

A handwritten note from his journals, which is reproduced in the catalog, starts with one simple word of advice for all viewers of his paintings: "Enjoy!"

A kind of shorthand for his belief in the pleasure principle in art, the journal entry encourages viewers to: "Let the shapes move you. Let the colors tingle in your being. A painting is wonderful if it is unfamiliar - does not merely repeat old formulas."

Some paintings, he adds, "are serious and profound" and ask you "to look in silence and invite you to reverie." Others, however, are "light-hearted or humorous," and some "make you a gift of a new visual understanding of your world and your life."

"Let them speak to you," he urges future viewers of the graphic poetry in his paintings.

Summing up her subject's career, Tomasso says Tompkins always chose his own route, avoided art world trends, was deeply devoted to his family, didn't seek fame and fortune and never marketed or commercialized himself by stooping to what he calls "playing the gallery game."

"I never wanted music in my workplace, often just the company of my devoted Airedale, Peggy," Tompkins says. "At evening I would take her for a rambling walk in the fields behind my studio before we returned to the house - and my wonderful family.

"Life doesn't get much better than that. Looking back, I have so very much to be thankful for."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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