Mark George Tobey (December 11, 1890 – April 24, 1976) was an American abstract expressionist painter, born in Centerville, Wisconsin. Widely recognized throughout the United States and Europe, Tobey is the most noted among the "mystical painters of the Northwest."
Senior in age and experience, Tobey had a strong influence on the others. Friend and mentor, Tobey shared their interest in philosophy and Eastern religions. Along with Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and William Cumming, Tobey was a founder of the Northwest School.
Tobey was the youngest of four children born to George Tobey, a carpenter and house builder, and Emma Cleveland Tobey -- his mother was over 40 when Tobey was born. The Tobeys were devout Congregationalists. Tobey's father carved animals of red stone and sometimes drew animals for the young Tobey to cut out with scissors. In 1893, his family settled in Chicago. As a youth, Tobey studied art for a brief period at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1906 to 1908, but like the others of the Northwest School, Tobey was mostly self-taught.
In 1911, he moved to New York where he worked as a fashion illustrator for McCall's magazine and made some money as a portraitist. His first one-man show was held at Knoedler & Company, in lower Manhattan, New York City, in 1917.
In the following years, Tobey delved into works of Arabian literature and teachings of East Asian philosophy with the consequence that he joined the Bahá'í Faith in 1918, which led him to explore the representation of the spiritual in art.
Career - Early years
Tobey's arrival in Seattle in 1922 was partly an effort for a new start following his short marriage and divorce. When the ex-wife found Tobey's address, she sent him a box of his clothes topped with a copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed.
In 1923, Tobey met Teng Kuei, a Chinese painter and student at the University of Washington, who introduced Tobey to Eastern penmanship, beginning Tobey’s exploration of Chinese calligraphy.
Tobey went to Europe in 1925, beginning his lifelong travels. He settled in Paris and met Gertrude Stein. His travels took him to Châteaudun, where he spent one winter, and to Barcelona and Greece. In Constantinople, Beirut and Haifa, he studied Arab and Persian writing.
When Tobey returned to Seattle in 1927, he shared a studio in the ballroom of a house near the Cornish College of the Arts with the teenaged artist Robert Bruce Inverarity, who was 20 years Tobey's junior. From a high school project of Inverarity's, Tobey became sufficiently interested in three-dimensional form to carve some 100 pieces of soap sculpture. The next year, Tobey co-founded the Free and Creative Art School in Seattle.
In 1929, Tobey was a juror for the Northwest Annual Exhibition. In the same year, he had the show that marked a change in his life: a solo exhibition at Romany Marie's Cafe Gallery in New York. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), saw the show and selected several pictures from it for inclusion in MoMA's Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans exhibition, which opened in 1930.
In 1931, Tobey sailed on the Britannia to England, to teach at Dartington Hall, in Devon. There, he was resident artist of the ‘’Elmhurst Progressive School.’’ In addition to teaching, he painted frescoes for the school. He became a close friend of noted potter Bernard Leach, who was also on the faculty. Introduced by Tobey to Baha'i, Leach also became a convert. Tobey's travels during this period included Mexico (1931), Europe, and Palestine (1932).
In 1934, Tobey and Leach traveled together through France and Italy, then sailed from Naples to Hong Kong and Shanghai, where they parted company. Leach went on to Japan, while Tobey remained to visit Teng Kuei, his old friend from Seattle, before going on to Japan. Japanese authorities confiscated and destroyed an edition of 31 drawings on wet paper that Tobey had brought with him from England to be published in Japan. No explanation for their destruction has been recorded; possibly they considered his sketches of nude men pornographic. Only a few sets remain in existence. Tobey spent late June and early July in a Zen monastery outside Kyoto to study Hai-Ku poetry and calligraphy before returning to Seattle that autumn.
In 1935, Tobey held his first solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. He yo-yoed from New York to Washington, D.C. to Alberta, Canada, back to England, and to Haifa to visit the principal shrine of Baha'i. Sometime in November or December, at Dartington Hall, working at night, listening to the horses breathe in the field outside his window, he painted a series of three paintings, ’’Broadway’’, ‘’Welcome Hero’’, and ‘’Broadway Norm’’, in the style that would come to be known as "white writing" (an interlacing of fine white lines).
Tobey expected to continue teaching in England in 1938, but the mounting tensions of war building in Europe kept him in the United States. Instead, he began to work on the Federal Art Project, under the supervision of Robert Inverarity, the young friend he met 11 years before.
In June 1939, Tobey attended a Baha'i summer school and overstayed his allotted vacation time. Inverarity dropped him from the WPA project. Fortunately, paintings he had done on the project were included in a Works Progress Administration (WPA) exhibition that August, where they were seen by Marian Willard, who operated a New York art gallery.
By 1942, Tobey's process of abstractionism was accompanied by a new calligraphic experiment. In 1944, Tobey’s show at the Willard Gallery, New York brought him success, the catalogue prefaced by Sidney Janis. In 1945, Tobey gave a solo exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art, Oregon. The Arts Club of Chicago held solo shows of Tobey’s work in 1940 and 1946.
Tobey studied the piano and the theory of music with Lockrem Johnson, and, when Johnson was away, with Wesley Wehr in 1949 introduced to Tobey by their pianist friend Berthe Poncy Jacobson. Wehr was just an undergraduate at the time, but he accepted the opportunity to serve as a stand-in music composition tutor for Tobey and over time became friends with Tobey and Tobey’s circle of artists, becoming a painter himself, as well as a chronicler of the group.
1951 was a busy year. Tobey showed at the Whitney Museum of New York; on the invitation of Josef Albers, Tobey spent three months as guest critic of graduate art students’ work at Yale University; and Tobey’s first retrospective was held at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
In 1952, the film “Tobey Mark: Artist” debuted in the Venice Film Festival and Edinburgh Film Festival. In 1955, Tobey traveled to Paris and presented a solo show at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris; then traveled to Basle and Bern.
In 1957, he began his Sumi-e ink paintings.
The artist settled in Basel, Switzerland in 1960, and in September took part in Vienna’s Congress of the International Association of the Visual Arts on the topic “The East - Occident”.
In 1961, he became the first American painter ever to exhibit at the Louvre's Pavillon de Marsan in Paris.
Solo presentations of Tobey’s work were held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1962, and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1966. In the same year, Tobey traveled to the Baha'i world center in Haifa, then visited the Prado in Madrid.
In 1967, Tobey shows at the Willard Gallery, New York. The next year, he had a Retrospective show at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.
Another major retrospective of the artist’s work took place at the National Collection of Fine Arts, a part of the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C. in 1974.
Tobey would have liked to remarry, but he didn't. He lived for 25 years with Pehr Hallsten, in Seattle and Basel. Hallsten died in Basel in 1965, while Tobey died there on April 24, 1976.
- 1968, "Commander, Arts and the Letters of the French Government".
- 1961, won first prize, Carnegie International, Pittsburgh;
- 1959 , became the first American since James McNeill Whistler to win the Painting Prize at the Venice Biennale
- 1956, elected at the National Institute of Arts and Letters
- 1956, Guggenheim International Award.
At least 5 of his works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Northwest Art. Tobey's work can be found in most major museums in the U.S. and internationally, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Influence on other artists
Helmi Juvonen, another Northwest School artist, was obsessed with Tobey. She was diagnosed as a manic depressive, and suffered the delusion that she and Tobey were man and wife, a point of misinformation which she shared with almost anyone.
Tobey's romantic friend Elizabeth Bayley Willis showed Tobey's painting Bars and Flails to Jackson Pollock in 1944. Pollock studied the painting closely and then painted Blue Poles, a painting that made history when the Australian government bought it for $2 million. Pollock's biographers write: "...[Tobey's] dense web of white strokes, as elegant as Oriental calligraphy, impressed Jackson so much that in a letter to Louis Bunce he described Tobey, a West Coast artist, as an 'exception' to the rule that New York was 'the only real place in America where painting (in the real sense) can come thru'" (Jackson Pollock). Jackson Pollock went to all of Mark Tobey's Willard Gallery shows in New York. Here, Tobey presented small to medium sized canvases, approximately 33 by 45 inches. Jackson Pollock would see them and go home and blow them up to twelve by nine feet, pouring paint onto the canvas instead of brushing it on. Pollock was never really concerned with diffused light. But he was very interested in Tobey's idea of covering the entire canvas with marks up to and including its edges. This had never been done before in American art.
Tobey is most famous for his creation of so-called "white writing" - an overlay of white or light-colored calligraphic symbols on an abstract field which is often itself composed of thousands of small and interwoven brush strokes. This method, in turn, gave rise to the type of "all-over" painting style made most famous by Jackson Pollock, another American painter to whom Tobey is often compared.
Tobey’s work is also defined as creating a vibratory space with the multiple degrees of mobility obtained by the Brownian movement of a light brush on a bottom with the dense tonalities. The series of “Broadway” realized at that time has a historical value of reference today. It precedes a new dimension of the pictorial vision, that of contemplation in the action.
His work is inspired by a personal belief system that suggests Oriental influences and reference to Tobey's involvement in the Bahá'í Faith. Four of Tobey's signed lithographs hang in the reception hall in the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing institution of the Baha’i Faith.