Alan Tompkins is trying to define his legacy. The novogenarian says, “I am a painter. I resist using the word ‘artist’ even. But I painted. I’ve devoted my life to it, and that’s one of my wishes to be known as a painter.” Influenced by Picasso, Klee, Matisse and others, Tompkins says the inspiration for his paintings comes from life and his thoughts about it. But ask Tompkins to discuss his works in more detail and he can’t.
“If I did so, I would be speaking against my theory,” he says. “There is no verbal equivalent to a painting. The minute you try to do it, you’re off track. You’re losing your way. Words are incapable of repeating what graphics can give you.”
He goes on to say that words can get in the way of appreciating art, and believes exhibits should be viewed in silence. He mentions the silent viewings held every Wednesday at the New Britain Museum of American Art, which houses one of his paintings. And I was having such a fun time skipping through the National Gallery listening to Ralph Stanley on my IPod, but in deference to Tompkins I’m going to give the silent treatment a try.
“Think how rare that is today, ” he says. “Turn on your television set and you get a thousand images thrown at you with music. You go to the movies, always music and voice. When you use the sense of sight by itself, there is a whole richness of life that can be revealed to you through the graphical elements.” Reminds me of the story of the blind person who upon regaining her sight, wished only to be blind again, such was the sensory overload of her world now.
Tompkins was born in 1907 in New Rochelle, NY, the youngest of three children. He eventually earned degrees from Yale and Columbia (flunking out of calculus and thus avoiding a degree in engineering, necessitag his switch to art history b/c Columbia did not have an art dept at the time). In the 30’s he was awarded commissions for murals at three post offices in Indiana and a fourth in North Carolina. He eventually became director of the Hartford Art School.