Till Bartels

Tom X in his studio. Photo credit: Till Bartels

When I met Tom X 20 years ago at an art opening in LA, he looked like a celebrity.He had the leather jacket, he had the hair, and he was surrounded by a crowd.He also had the most familiar way about him, like we had known each other for a long time – we were standing in the midst of his crowd talking as if we were cousins catching up, or the way I’d talk with a brother after not seeing him for a year.A brother who also happened to be a celebrity.

What I remember about Tommy as an artist is his utter enthusiasm.When I was working in a gallery a year later, he would run in with his newest prints to show them off.He was sputtering with excitement, “Look at the detail!Look at the colors!”He was fully engaged in the artistic process and collaboration with the printer, and he was passionate about the results he was getting.

His studios were always to die for.I remember visiting three of them over the years, two here in Nevada City and his last one is Santa Monica.He was a Spacious Artist – he painted in all sizes but mainly large and bold.He was massively prolific — every studio had many rooms chock full of prints, paintings, drawings…he worked in many media… sculpture too. And his range of talent and skill was crazy.He had major classical drawing chops as well as the eye to transform what he saw with original vision.He created the most inviting vibrant living/working spaces.In Santa Monica each room was a different color (he loved the deep reds) and he was particularly proud of the long narrow closet/crawl space he’d made into painting storage.He lived up above a tire repair shop and had parties on the roof.All this activity attracted a crew…assistants, friends, fans… along for this great adventure.Going out to dinner with Tommy and crew felt somewhat glamorous, and he was always so inclusive of whomever his guests happened to be.

I told him on the phone once that I’d seen his artwork in the movie Reality Bites (Winona Ryder –it’s on the stage behind the band) and he said, “What’re you watching a movie like that for?”He went on to say that he had moved on to bigger things, the director of Like Water for Chocolate was interested in his paintings and he had a large scale commission in the works.But I always had the sense that he was a bit above – or outside- it all.He’d be living the artist’s life for real, working the scene, money ebbing and flowing, but even when he was “starving” he had brie with his salad.I saw it myself.He had an interview with one of the most famous art dealers in LA.Evidently the dealer was quite interested in Tommy and wanted to look at his portfolio for a second time.The dealer was eating lunch while they met, a French dip roast beef sandwich with au jus dripping all over his hands, licking his fingers.Tommy just took his art and walked out.I guess that path wasn’t for him.He was more comfortable painting in the street, which he did everyday for years in Santa Monica.

Just after he died in 2001, I had a dream that Tommy stopped to visit with us before setting off on another journey.His entourage piled out of the back of his tiny car, everyone jostled and happy, looking forward to their next destination.