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 Mark Tobey  (1890 - 1976)

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Lived/Active: Washington/New York/Wisconsin / Switzerland      Known for: abstract imagery, mural, illustrations

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Mark Tobey
from Auction House Records.
WHITE AND ROSE
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A painter of small abstract works with underlying religious themes as well as illustrator and muralist, Mark Tobey remains known primarily for his "white writing" paintings that give the impression of being expansive and much larger than they actually are.  Tobey is sometimes categorized with the Abstract Expressionists, but in fact he was isolated spiritually and physically from its New York founders because of his immersion in Asian religion and major time spent in Europe and the Pacific Northwest.

Encountering the Bahai World faith in 1918 and later Zen Buddhism was pivotal to Mark Tobey's life and work in which he expressed themes of oneness and progression. As a result of his obvious commitment to spiritual aspects of painting, he has had a prestigious reputation as a modernist but is perhaps more appreciated in Europe and Asia than in America. Of modern American art, he said: "There have been 32 isms since the advent of cubism, . . . we have just been confused by the storm. . . we forget that there are today great men in the religious field with as much to offer. . .religion like science must be balanced to bring men to a state of equilibrium and that and that only will bring peace." (Herskovic 338)

Mark Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin, and raised in the Midwest, lived in Indiana and Chicago where he briefly attended the Art Institute School. He worked as a commercial illustrator, and from 1911 to 1922, worked in New York City where he did fashion illustration and caricature for McCalls magazine and other publications. He also took private lessons from Kenneth Hayes Miller.

With a keen interest in philosophy and religion, especially beliefs of the Orient and Middle East, Mark Tobey's official affiliation with non-western religions began in 1918 when he converted to the Bahai faith and joined their World Church. Then between 1923 and 1931, he lived in several places including Seattle, Paris, New York City and Chicago. In Seattle, Tobey studied Chinese brush-work with Teng Kuei. From 1931 to 1938, he lived in England, where he was resident artist at the progressive school, Darlington Hall, near the town of Darlington. After that, until 1960, when he moved to Basel, Switzerland, Mark Tobey lived in Seattle where he was close to persons of Asian culture.

His painting subjects included portrait and genre scenes, but after 1935, he developed his signature technique of "white writing", described by scholar Matthew Baigell as a "tangle of thin, continuous linear strokes" linked to Oriental calligraphy and created from his desire not to be bound to realistic form. "For him, the white lines symbolized light as a unifying idea which flows through the compartmental units of life." He avoided focal points in his paintings and let the lines blur so that the overall canvas became a symbol "of the unity of forms and movements in the universe rather than an example of traditional organization hierarchies in which dominant elements brought lesser ones into subordination." His paintings reflect substance but not solidity, a sense of "cosmic wholeness, suggesting matter, space with nonspace and indivdual stroke with the totality of the pictorial field".

Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art, pp. 354-355
Marika Herskovic, Editor, American Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s


Biography from RoGallery.com:
Although he was not immediately recognized, Mark Tobey was the pioneer in blending elements of occidental and oriental art in his low-key, mystical, calligraphic paintings, which he termed "white writing." For all their quiet unpretentiousness, his works had an impact on much of what followed in modern American art-in particular, the explosive energy of abstract expressionism.

Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin in 1890. As a young man he went to Chicago and worked as an illustrator by day, attending the Chicago Art Institute by night. In 1911, he moved to New York's Greenwich Village and took up portrait painting. He gave it up after a time, however, and instead turned to decorating lamps and screens.

A key event in Tobey's life was his conversion in 1918 to the Baha'i World Faith. This, along with his later study of Zen Buddhism, formed the philosophical basis for most of his work.

In 1923, he went to Seattle to teach art and continued painting in his early, semi-realistic style. Although he was a restless traveler for most of his life, Seattle became his home. It was there that he was first exposed to the elegant grace of oriental calligraphy.

From 1931 to 1938, while artist-in-residence at Dartington Hall, a progressive school in England, he met such intellectual leaders as Aldous Huxley and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian mystic. In 1934, he went to the Far East, first studying brush-painting in Shanghai and then going on to Japan. A month-long stay in a Zen Buddhist monastery, meditating and studying calligraphy, proved to be the turning point in his artistic thinking.

He came home convinced that "we have to know both worlds, the Western and the oriental." To build a bridge between the two, he developed his white writing-calligraphy that looped skeins of light paint against a dark field, with lines that formed neither letters nor recognizable subjects, yet filled the space with a sense of movement and depth. Like the surrealists, he tried to "penetrate the mind and clear away all rational processes in an effort to get at the inner recesses of experience."

Despite the fact that he disliked cities, it was the urban congestion of New York City that Tobey interpreted in his earliest white-writing compositions. In Broadway (1935, Museum of Modern Art), for example, he attempted to compress the motion, cars, people and excitement of the area into a relatively small, densely linear canvas.

Once Tobey had found his artistic mode of expression, he never wavered from it. Although many thought him isolated from the mainstream of American art, he was not, and in his later years his influence became more and more apparent. In 1960, he moved to Basel, Switzerland, living and painting there until his death in 1976.

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, S-Z):
Born in Centerville, Wisconsin, in 1890, Mark Tobey began his career in Chicago as an illustrator before moving to New York. He had his first solo exhibition of portrait drawings at Knoedler Gallery in 1917, before a period of artistic experimentation and world travel in the 1920s. Tobey accepted an invitation to teach in England in 1930 and remained there for eight years.

Around 1935 Tobey began experimenting with a new technique, which he described as “white writing” when it debuted at his 1944 solo exhibition at Willard Gallery, New York. Networks of thin, repetitive brushstrokes, these abstract compositions establish balance between opposing forces—line and space, movement and serenity—and reveal the artist’s understanding of Zen principles and of Asian art.

Tobey’s work is at the center of controversy over the mid-century origins of all-over composition, because Jackson Pollock debuted his methods around the same time. In fact, Tobey’s Willard Gallery exhibition predated Pollock’s display of his own all-over paintings. Tobey’s and Pollock’s techniques originated in distinct processes: Pollock’s action painting derived from full-body engagement with the canvas, while Tobey’s white writing resulted from the artist’s meditative exploration of space and optical rhythm.

After relocating to Seattle in 1938, Tobey continued to develop his white writing technique through the 1940s while experimenting with other styles. From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Tobey maintained a painterly style influenced by calligraphy, although his palette assumed a darker, more somber tone. White writing re-emerged in the mid-1950s.
In 1960 Tobey moved to Basel, Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1976. Previously associated with work on an intimate scale, he began producing monumental canvases in the 1960s.

© Copyright 2008 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from Art of the Northwest:
Mark Tobey is widely considered the most important of the “Big Four” artists from the mid-20th century’s Northwest School of painting. Born in Centerville, Wisconsin, Tobey took to art at a young age. By 1911, at only twenty years old, the artist was already working as an illustrator for McCall’s magazine in New York. Soon, Tobey was exhibiting throughout the city.

In 1922, he moved to Seattle, where he studied Eastern art and philosophy as he began to explore what would become his signature style of abstract expressionism, which he called “white writing.” Along with artists Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, and Morris Graves, Tobey founded the Northwest School – recognizable for its rich use of the region’s iconography, mixed with Asian and Native American stylistic elements, combined to form a unique aesthetic of rhythmic abstraction.

Since the early 20th century, Tobey’s work has been exhibited around the world, including the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum, and Paris’ famed Louvre. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including First prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh; The Venice Biennale Painting Prize; The Guggenheim International Award; and the title of Commander, Arts and the Letters of the French Government.

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Mark Tobey is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Abstract Expressionism



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