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Mark Tobey (1890-1976)

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Untitled, 1950 tempera on paper 12 3/4 x 19 inches...

Untitled, 1950
tempera on paper
12 3/4 x 19 inches

Untitled, 1953 chalk, crayon and gouache on paper...

Untitled, 1953
chalk, crayon and gouache on paper on paperboard
23 7/8 x 17 3/16 inches
signed and dated

Untitled, 1957 sumi ink on paper 24" x 34&quo...

Untitled, 1957
sumi ink on paper
24" x 34"

Untitled, 1957 sumi ink on washi paper 21 1/2"...

Untitled, 1957
sumi ink on washi paper
21 1/2" x 29"

Untitled, 1968 watercolor on paper 12 5/8 x 15 3/8...

Untitled, 1968
watercolor on paper
12 5/8 x 15 3/8 inches


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For me, the road has been a zig-zag into and out of old civilizations, seeking new horizons through meditation and contemplation. My sources of inspiration have gone from those of my native middle west to those of microscopic worlds. I have discovered many a universe on paving stones and tree barks. I know very little about what is generally called “abstract” painting. Pure abstraction would mean a type of painting completely unrelated to life, which is unacceptable to me. I have sought to make my painting “whole” but to attain this I have used a whirling mass. I take up no definite position.  Maybe this explains someone’s remark while looking at one of my paintings: “Where is the center?”[1]

Best known for a visual language inspired by Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, Mark Tobey was born in 1890 in Centerville, Wisconsin. In 1909, his family moved to Chicago, and in 1911, Tobey left for New York to become a fashion illustrator. He soon returned to Chicago, and in 1913, he studied at the Art Institute. Back in New York a while later, Tobey had his first solo exhibition at Knoedler & Co. Gallery in 1917. In 1918, he converted to the Baha’i faith. Its teachings, emphasizing the oneness of all religions, all people, and all aspects of the world, had a profound effect on his work. In 1923, Tobey took a job teaching art at the Cornish School and moved to Seattle, where he met and befriended Teng Kuei, a Chinese student at the University of Washington. Through him, Tobey learned about Chinese calligraphic and painting techniques, and his interest developed into an artistic passion. Tobey spent the second half of the 1920s traveling in Europe and the Middle East; he returned in 1929, just in time to be included in Alfred Barr’s Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans exhibition at MoMA.

In the 1930s, Tobey again left the United States, taking a resident artist position at Darrington Hall in Devonshire, England from 1931 to 1938. During these years, he also traveled extensively in Asia and the Middle East, visiting Colombo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Palestine, and Japan. The art he saw in China had a particularly strong influence on Tobey, affecting how he understood the world he saw around him, “When I looked at a tree,” he once explained, “it became a flame of rhythmic lines bursting out of the ground.”[2] He returned to New York in 1938 for what was supposed to be a brief stay, but the impending war in Europe prevented him from leaving the country. After settling back in Seattle, Tobey spent the next several years refining the “white writing” style he had devised while in Devonshire. He also developed his key concepts of “multiple space” and “moving focus.” In order to destroy the “hole in the wall” effect of Renaissance perspective (a description offered by Teng Kuei), Tobey conceived of the canvas as a series of spaces, each of which had its own focal point. Together, these multiple spaces formed a compound composition, one unified by calligraphic forms scattered across the canvas. Tobey was thus able to avoid the potential monotony of all-over compositions while also presenting an analysis of space that offered a radical departure from even the shifting planes of cubism and expressionism.[3]

A 1944 show at Willard Gallery brought Tobey national recognition, and his work began to appear in numerous venues. MoMA included him in the 1946 Fourteen Americans exhibition; he represented the United States at the 1948 Venice Biennale; the Whitney organized a traveling retrospective of his work in 1951; and that same year, he participated in the São Paulo Biennale. In 1953, he was part of a spread in Life Magazine devoted to artists in the Pacific Northwest. The 1956 American Painting exhibition at the Tate Gallery—which included work by Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell, Pollock, Rothko, and Still—brought Tobey’s work back to England, where some of his most important developments had begun.

Not content to simply repeat a successful formula, Tobey turned to Sumi ink as a medium in 1957. He saw the choice of black forms as a logical complement to his previous use of white. In 1960, he participated in Documenta II in Kassel, Germany and then settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Despite his life of constant travel, Tobey’s affiliation with the Northwest School helped to establish the region as an important art center in the United States. Through his ties to the Willard Gallery, his work was often viewed alongside and studied in the context of abstract expressionism. Like Richard Pousette-Dart, Tobey’s spiritual optimism and physical distance from New York City set him apart from his abstractionist contemporaries, but his interest in the expressive potential of the painted gesture echoed their own artistic concerns.

[1] Extract from a 1955 letter cited in Arthur L. Dahl, Mark Tobey: Art and Belief (Oxford: George Ronald, 1984), 36. (accessed July 2009).

[2] “Mystic Painters of the Northwest,” Life Magazine (September 20, 1953), 84. (accessed October 2012).

[3] William Chapin Seitz, Mark Tobey, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art (New York), Cleveland Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago (1980: Ayer Publishing), 27.