The American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) was probably best known for his delicate, abstract works done in a style called "white writing."
Mark Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin, on December 11, 1890, the youngest of four children. Until 1906 the family lived in Tremplealeau, a small Wisconsin village situated on the Mississippi River. There Tobey led a life much like the legendary Tom Sawyer, commenting later that until he was 16 his whole life was "purely nature." His family were devout Congregationalists, and very early a religious sensitivity was instilled into the boy's life. His parents were hard working and creative, and to encourage Mark's artistic bent they sent him to classes each Saturday at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was the only formal art training that he would receive.
In 1909 the family moved to Chicago, where Tobey worked as a fashion illustrator. Two years later he felt confident enough to move to Greenwich Village in New York City where he found a job with McCall's Magazine. Until 1917 he travelled back and forth between Chicago and New York, well paid as an illustrator, interior designer, and charcoal portraitist. Through this last medium he gained recognition in elite social and theatrical circles.
His first one-man show was at M. Knoedler & Co. in New York, arranged in 1917 by Marie Steiner. It was Steiner who introduced Tobey to Juliet Thompson, a portrait painter for whom he agreed to pose. She was a follower of the Bahá' í World Faith, and through her Tobey gained an interest in, and in 1918 accepted, the faith that was to redirect and guide not only the rest of his life but his artistic development as well.
At this time a ferment seemed to take place in Tobey's approach to his art. He reacted against the "Renaissance sense of space and order" in his belief that forms should be free and dynamic. "I wanted to give the light that was in the form in space a release." Unfortunately, the works that illustrated this attitude are now lost. Encouraged by a friend, Tobey left New York for Seattle in 1922. He exchanged the cultural and intellectual stimulation of New York for the natural beauty, relaxed milieu, and diffused, almost Parisian, light of the western city. He was offered a teaching position at the Cornish School, an experience of which he always spoke with pleasure and satisfaction.
According to Tobey, it was at night, in a small and centrally lighted classroom, that he made his "personal discovery of cubism." He imagined a fly moving in every direction around him and the objects in the room. This movement, creating a complex of lines and imaginary planes and shapes, was to develop into the structural "animation of space, " the interpenetration of mass and void, that formed the basis for most of his mature paintings.
In 1923 Tobey met a young Chinese artist, Teng Kuei, and from him learned the technique of calligraphy. This enabled him to discover the freely moving brush with which he could assimilate his concept of animated space. He had become aware, in Seattle, of the closeness of the Orient, but had also found stimulation in the art of the Northwest and Alaskan Indians. His interest in and devotion to a marriage of Eastern and Western ideas was reinforced by his exposure to artists and intellectuals at Dartington Hall, a school and cultural center about 200 miles from London. Tobey taught here from 1930 to 1938, meeting Aldous Huxley, Pearl Buck, and Arthur Waley, among others. And it was here, after a visit to the Orient in 1934, that his distinctive style originated.
In Shanghai Tobey stayed with the family of his friend Teng Kuei. He was impressed with the energy, lines, and textures of the cosmopolitan city as well as with the characteristics of Chinese life, art, and culture. Later he travelled to Japan, spending a month in a Zen monastery. He practiced calligraphy and painting, wrote his own poetry, and attempted meditation. It was an experience which seemed to crystalize all of his accumulated ideas and impressions.
Back at Dartington Hall, Tobey began to experiment with a small picture, making up a mesh of whitish lines on a dark background, scattering in the maze small forms in blue and other colors. In a sudden flashback, the image he created was no longer Oriental at all, but was New York. "He realized that it was Broadway, with all the people caught in the lights." This painting (Broadway Norm, 1935), however modest, seems to separate his earlier works from his maturity. Tobey himself was shocked by his unplanned breakthrough. The work initiated the style which was later known as "white writing" and on which his early fame rests. Thus Tobey was nearly 45 years old before the diverse aspects of his art began to coalesce.
Tobey returned to Seattle in 1938, and during the following decade he developed further white writing, movable space, and moving focus (White Night, 1942). In 1943 he painted pictures based on three years of study of the Pike Place Public Market, Seattle, combining figurative work with the abstract-like maze of activity in the market. City themes, especially those of New York, followed in the 1930s and 1940s. These were continuous and central to his expression, and, rather than painted in oil, they were usually small works executed on paper with water soluble medium. The city paintings soon spilled over the confines of a specific locale to become a "universal city, " a world view of ultimate unity that was both theological and esthetic. Simultaneously, Tobey expanded his visual field, a development made possible by the concept of an aerial view (Transcontinental, 1946). In these works, the observer is drawn with willing mind and eye into an unknown space of meaning, form, and color.
The award of the Grand International Prize at the Venice Biennale of 1958 acknowledged the importance of Tobey's art. He was the first American painter since Whistler to achieve this honor. Possibly due to the acclaim he received in Europe, Tobey began to paint large pictures which invited the use of oil paint. Thus in the 1950s and 1960s his canvasses expanded with a delicate, refined abstraction which anticipated Jackson Pollack's all-over style. Sagittarius Red (1963) is thought by many to be his ultimate masterpiece.
In 1960 Tobey moved to Basel, Switzerland, a change he had long contemplated, as he sensed the atmosphere in America stifling for the work he felt was in his future. Curiously, while European critics and artists considered him the pre-eminent American painter, in the United States his work was treated with disdain, as were the honors bestowed on him abroad. Tobey was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1960, but declined the membership.
Tobey's paintings were exhibited frequently at select small shows, but the first major homage to his work was a one-man exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the modern wing of the Louvre, in 1960. Two years later a retrospective of Tobey's works was seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1974, possibly his crowning achievement was the exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., "Tribute to Mark Tobey." It was a testimony to his creativity and stamina at an advanced age and to his unique position in American art. He was a member of no school, follower of no master, largely self-taught, entirely self-defined.
Rather than confining his art to technical expression, Tobey's work represents a philosophical conclusion, spanning the dichotomy of East and West into the contraction and balancing of all forces of the globe into eye-range. For Tobey, in order for the world to avoid catastrophe it must find an equilibrium reconciling science and religion, the past and the future, the material and the spiritual. His move toward abstraction came from his search for this expression in artistic language.
Further Reading on Mark Tobey
Arthur L. Dahl, et al., Mark Tobey: Art and Belief (1984) is a collection of essays which relate Tobey's creative achievement and his practice of the Bahá' í faith. It also includes Tobey's own poetry and written thoughts on his art. William C. Seitz, Mark Tobey (1962) gives the development of Tobey's style and a particularly profound analysis of the impact of the Bahá' í faith on his art. This is the catalogue of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.