Centerville, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Summary of Mark Tobey
One of the most highly respected American artists of the 1950s and 1960s, Tobey's name is associated first and foremost with his so-called "white writing" paintings; a calligraphic style characterized by a field of intricate and delicate overlapping pale lines. It was a form of gestural abstraction designed to inspire a "higher state of consciousness" in the spectator and it would bring the artist numerous international plaudits and awards. Although in the US Tobey's mindfulness was somewhat "outmuscled" by the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, his push for an "all-over abstraction" gave rise to a spiritual style that amounted to a wholly unique visual language; quite independent of any one international school or location. Indeed, Tobey was a legendary wanderer who travelled through the Americas, Europe and the Far East in search of the influences that would help him refine his highly personalized conception of abstract painting.
- In 1918 Tobey was introduced to the non-sectarian Baha'i Faith and its idea of universal consciousness. Through its teachings, he developed a way to use meditation as a means of generating abstract shapes and gestures. The result was a distinctive visual language that could articulate a unified conception of life by combining Western art practices with the energy and wisdom of Eastern mysticism.
- Tobey worked largely in water-based media, such as tempera and gouache, and on small-scaled canvases and paper. His all-over abstractions, permeated with a multitude of lines and fragmented forms, captured calligraphic rhythms and gestures that broadened the definition of mid-century American modernism.
- From the very beginnings of his career, Tobey showed a passion for experimentation. Pushing the fixed rules of Cubism, he drew on more animate subject-matter using rich rounded shapes and a wider range of colour. The result was a form of "vitalism" that would push the great modernist experiment to look outside the realms of the physical world or any one of its great religions.
- In later years, Tobey devoted himself to the study of Zen Sumi techniques. By "emptying his mind" of all extraneous thoughts, he found the ideal mental state in which to paint and became positively liberated. By letting "nature take control" over his work, he produced a series of splashed black ink abstractions that demonstrated how art might exist independently of any pre-given aesthetic preferences or ideological influences.
Biography of Mark Tobey
Marking his opposition to Jackson Pollock, Tobey stated "I believe that painting should come through the avenues of meditation rather than the canals of action", and it was only through the meditative act that he felt able to truly "have a conversation with a painting".
Important Art by Mark Tobey
Dem Licht Entgegen shows Tobey's early interest in the relationship between painting and spirituality. Although not faith-specific, the painting's title and movement of the people towards the light expresses the theme of religious rapture or spiritual awakening. Three vividly coloured figures - as well as a more ghostly procession that is yet to move into the light - are drawn to a rising sun, blazing over hilltops. Rendered through expressionistic brushwork, the sun casts its rays into the sky and across the landscape where a monumental organic form effloresces in response to its radiance. In this painting, Seattle-based art critic Sheila Farr has noted Tobey's "attraction to the expressionistic brushwork of Van Gogh as well as a bent for spiritual symbolism that would become a hallmark of his mature work".
After a long period of working as a fashion illustrator, creating conventional portraits, landscapes and Cubist-style still lifes, Tobey's contact with American modernists, especially Marsden Hartley, inspired a marked change in direction in his painting. Like many of his contemporaries, Hartley was inspired by Kandinsky's proclamation that, "The mood of nature can be imparted ... only by the artistic rendering of its inner spirit". Following this maxim, Tobey, demonstrating a voracious appetite for experimentation, ventured to convey more organic themes with sensuous, swelling, curvaceous shapes, using thick outlines and an almost arbitrary use of colour. He was exploring here a kind of 'vitalism' in that the origins of life are dependent on a life-force that searches beyond the realms of the physical world. Toward the Light amounts to an expression of Tobey's attraction to the Bahá'í notion that all religions manifest the same light from one God. "When we wake up and see the inner horizon light rising", Tobey said, "then we see beyond the horizon [and] break the mould of men's minds with the spirit of truth. Then there will be greater relativity than before. This light will burn away the mist of life and will become very, very great".
This pastel drawing, created shortly before Tobey's "white-writing" breakthrough, consists of an intricate, gauzy web of lines that breaks the surface of the picture up into irregular geometric shapes, reminiscent of a shattered car windscreen. It contains intimations of tall spotlights casting a pale blue glow, and what could be the pitched roof of a big top marquee, arching over an arena of frenetic movement and activity, possibly swinging trapeze artists or figures on bicycles.
Cirque d'Hiver is a precursor to the calligraphic style in Tobey's art with the brown, tan and blue tonal quality of the early Cubism of Braque and Picasso. Tobey said, "like the early Cubists I couldn't use much colour at this point as the problems were difficult enough without this additional one [of color]". But, unlike the Cubists, this is not a picture that attempts to present simultaneous views of one subject, it adopts, rather, a more Futurist sense of dynamism and movement, and takes, one step further, Paul Klee's technique of "taking a line for a walk". There is a suggestion too of Tobey's enthusiasm for performance venues, just as New York City's Cotton Club had captured his imagination a decade earlier, in music, and in the visual representation of rhythm.
In this study for a mural, reminiscent of a Renaissance fresco, Tobey depicts the commotion stirred in both the human and angelic realms of a new revelation from God into the world, symbolised as a rising sun at dawn. The formal arrangement of the stylised figures, rendered in warm, autumnal tones, is offset against a Cubist deconstruction and flattening of planes. The circling figures, whose rotation breaks up the horizontal geometry, forms a visual echo of the small and barely noticeable sun.
Tobey's acceptance of the Bahá'í teachings in 1918 led to the faith's themes frequently appearing in his work, including the "progressive revelation" of God to humanity, the forces of spirituality versus materialism, the quest to create unity between diverse elements, and the dominance of light over darkness. Tobey would later explain (in 1961) that the woman and man in the left of the painting represent "local time", and the orb that has broken its moorings signifies "solar time".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Mark Tobey
- Mark Tobey | Teng BaiyeBy Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker & Scott Lawrimore
- Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics & Western MasculinitiesBy Christopher Reed
- Northwest Mythologies: The Interactions of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy AndersonBy Sheryl Conkelton & Laura Landau
- Mark Tobey: Art and BeliefOur PickBy Arthur L. Dahl
- Sounds of the Inner Eye: John Cage, Mark Tobey and Morris GravesBy Wulf Hurzogrenrath & Andreas Kruel
- The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern ArtistsBy By Katharine Kuh
- Feininger and Tobey: Years of Friendship 1944-1956By Lyonel Feininger, Mark Tobey, Peter Selz, Achim Moeller
- Mark Tobey: Threading LightOur PickBy Debra Bricken Balken
- Mark Tobey: Tobey or not to be?Our PickBy Jean-Gabriel de Bueil, Véronique Jaeger, Emmanual Jaeger & Stanislas Ract-Madoux
- Mark TobeyOur PickBy Kosme de Barañano & Matthias Bärmann
- The Roundhouse of International SpiritsBy Sebastiano Barassi
- Tobey's 80: A RetrospectiveBy Betty Bowen
- Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical - Masterworks from the Seattle Art MuseumBy Patricia Junker
- Mark Tobey: The World of a MarketBy Mark Tobey
- Mark TobeyBy Colette Roberts
- Mark TobeyBy Wieland Schmied
- Mark TobeyBy William C. Sietz
- Mark TobeyBy William C. Seitz
- "Mark Tobey: Threading Light" at the Peggy Guggenheim CollectionBy Mario Naves
- Mark TobeyBy John Russsell / Vogue / November 1, 1965
- Tribute to an American loner - A new Mark Tobey exhibitionBy John Canaday / The New York Times / June 30, 1974
- Mark Tobey, Abstract Artist, 85, diesBy John Russsell / The New York Times / April 25, 1976
- The Days with Mark TobeyWorld Order / Spring 1977
- How painter Mark Tobey changed the course of modern art in the Pacific NorthwestBy Marsha Lederman / The Globe and Mail / July 1, 2014
- The forgotten father of Abstract ExpressionismBy Rob Weinberg / Apollo / May 12, 2017
- Inside the Spectacular Rise and Fall of an Artist's LegacyBy James Tarmy / Bloomberg / November 12, 2018
- Mark TobeyExperimental documentary made by Robert Gardner in 1952 featuring Tobey's own script and piano compositions.
- Mark Tobey AbroadIn 1973 Robert Gardner returned to visit Mark Tobey in Basel, Switzerland, where he lived for the last years of his life.
- Mark Tobey: Threading LightExhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice in 2017
- The Awakening of Spirit: Mark Tobey and the Evolution of White WritingIllustrated lecture by Robert Weinberg for the Wilmette Institute
- Tobey RememberedInterview with Arthur and Virginia Barnett regarding their friendship with Mark Tobey, includes music by Tobey
- Mark Tobey: Between East and WestAn exhibition at Moeller Fine Art Berlin in 2013