Mark Tobey (1890-1976)
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.