Abstract Impressionism

| Home | Articles | Gallery | Contact |

Mark George Tobey

Mark George Tobey, the senior of the 'mystical painters' was born in Centerville, Wisconsin on the 11th of December 1890. He was author of densely structured compositions differing philosophically from most Abstract Impressionist painters. His work was widely recognized throughout the United States and Europe. Senior in age and experience, he was a friend and mentor. Tobey was mostly self-taught after early studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. Tobey lived in the Seattle, Washington area for most of his life before moving to Basel, Switzerland in the early 1960s with his companion, Pehr Hallsten.

Tobey was the youngest of four children. His parents were George Tobey, a carpenter and house builder, and Emma Cleveland Tobey. The father carved animals from stone and sometimes drew animals for young Mark to cut out with scissors. In 1893, the family settled in Chicago where Tobey studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1906 to 1908, but like others of the Northwest School, was mostly self-taught. In 1911, he moved to New York City where he worked as a fashion illustrator for McCall's. His first one-man show was held at Knoedler & Company in lower Manhattan, in 1917.

The beginning of his lifelong travels occurred in 1925 when he left for Europe, settling in Paris where Tobey met Gertrude Stein. He spent a winter at Châteaudun, and also traveled to Barcelona and Greece. In Constantinople, Beirut and Haifa, he studied Arab and Persian writing.

After 1927 Tobey became sufficiently interested in three-dimensional

form and carved some 100 pieces of soap sculptures. Next year, Tobey co-found the Free and Creative Art School in Seattle with Edgar Ames, and in autumn, he taught an advanced art course at Emily Carr's Victoria studio.

In 1929, he participated in a 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 1930 exhibition: Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans.

Tobey and his friend Bernard Leach in 1931 traveled to Mexico and then in 1932 to Europe. Then, in 1934 France and Italy, then they sailed from Naples to Hong Kong and Shanghai, Where Tobey alone visited his old friend, Teng Kuei, before departing for Japan where Japanese authorities confiscated and destroyed an edition of 31 drawings Tobey had brought with him from England to be published in Japan. No explanation for their destruction has been ever noted. In early summer, he studied Hai-Ku poetry and calligraphy at a Zen monastery outside Kyoto before returning to Seattle in autumn.

Tobey was expected to return to teaching in England in 1938, but the mounting tensions of war building in Europe kept him in the US. In 1945, he gave a solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Arts Club of Chicago held solo shows of his work in 1940 and 1946. Tobey showed at New York's Whitney Museum in 1951.

In 1952, the film “Tobey, Mark: Artist” debuted in the Venice and Edinburgh film festivals.

On September 28th, 1953, Life magazine published an article on Tobey called "Mystic Painters of the Northwest" which placed them in the national limelight. In 1958, he became the second American, after James Abbott McNeill Whistler, to win the International Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale.

Tobey and Hallsten immigrated to Basel, Switzerland in the early 1960s. In 1961 he became the first American painter to exhibit at the Pavillon de Marsan in Paris. Solo exhibits occurred at MoMa in 1962, and at the Stedelijk Museum in 1966.

Tobey is most notable for his creation of so-called "white writing" - an overlay of white or light-colored calligraphic symbols on an abstract field. His series of “Broadway” realized at that time has a historical value of reference today. Mark Tobey became very important figure in abstract impressionism movement.

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, in 1973, the Australian government bought it for $2 million. A Pollock biographer wrote: "... 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.".

Mark George Tobey, the senior of the 'mystical painters' died in 1976.