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Mark Tobey Photo

Mark Tobey

American Painter

Born: December 11, 1890 - Centerville, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Died: April 24, 1976 - Basel, Switzerland
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
Art Informel
"Art comes from art as men come from men and flowers from flowers. You just don't go to the country and paint - you learn from art and take that to the country with you. As Cézanne said, you have to bring much to nature."
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Mark Tobey
"Any painter who doesn't go through realism won't make it. My own so-called abstract paintings are the end result of a very long process that began in realism."
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"On pavements and the bark of trees I have found whole worlds."
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"To rediscover the past is to move forward...The future is carved with the implements we created before it was upon us."
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"When an artist starts to repeat himself and ceases to be engaged in the problem of equilibrium, of balance, then he is a career painter. When his problem is always vital and present, then he is an artist."
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"It is one thing to paint a picture and another to experience it; in attempting to find on what level one accepts this experience, one discovers what one sees and on what level the discovery takes place. Christopher Columbus left in search of one world and discovered another."
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"I felt keenly that space should be freer. As I remember, I really wanted to smash form, to melt it in a more moving and dynamic way."
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"'White writing' appeared in my art the way flowers explode over the earth at a given time."
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"I know very little about what generally is termed abstract. Pure abstraction would mean a type of painting completely unrelated to life, which is unacceptable to me."
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"I am accused often of too much experimentation but what else should I do when all other factors of man are in the same condition? I thrust forward into space as science and the rest do."
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"One must be in nature, awake and attentive. When we can find the abstract in nature we find the deepest art."
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Summary of Mark Tobey

One of the most highly respected American artists of the 1950s and 1960s, Tobey's name is associated first and foremost with his so-called "white writing" paintings; a calligraphic style characterized by a field of intricate and delicate overlapping pale lines. It was a form of gestural abstraction designed to inspire a "higher state of consciousness" in the spectator and it would bring the artist numerous international plaudits and awards. Although in the US Tobey's mindfulness was somewhat "outmuscled" by the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, his push for an "all-over abstraction" gave rise to a spiritual style that amounted to a wholly unique visual language; quite independent of any one international school or location. Indeed, Tobey was a legendary wanderer who travelled through the Americas, Europe and the Far East in search of the influences that would help him refine his highly personalized conception of abstract painting.


  • In 1918 Tobey was introduced to the non-sectarian Baha'i Faith and its idea of universal consciousness. Through its teachings, he developed a way to use meditation as a means of generating abstract shapes and gestures. The result was a distinctive visual language that could articulate a unified conception of life by combining Western art practices with the energy and wisdom of Eastern mysticism.
  • Tobey worked largely in water-based media, such as tempera and gouache, and on small-scaled canvases and paper. His all-over abstractions, permeated with a multitude of lines and fragmented forms, captured calligraphic rhythms and gestures that broadened the definition of mid-century American modernism.
  • From the very beginnings of his career, Tobey showed a passion for experimentation. Pushing the fixed rules of Cubism, he drew on more animate subject-matter using rich rounded shapes and a wider range of colour. The result was a form of "vitalism" that would push the great modernist experiment to look outside the realms of the physical world or any one of its great religions.
  • In later years, Tobey devoted himself to the study of Zen Sumi techniques. By "emptying his mind" of all extraneous thoughts, he found the ideal mental state in which to paint and became positively liberated. By letting "nature take control" over his work, he produced a series of splashed black ink abstractions that demonstrated how art might exist independently of any pre-given aesthetic preferences or ideological influences.

Biography of Mark Tobey

Mark Tobey Life and Legacy

Marking his opposition to Jackson Pollock, Tobey stated "I believe that painting should come through the avenues of meditation rather than the canals of action", and it was only through the meditative act that he felt able to truly "have a conversation with a painting".

Progression of Art


Dem Licht Entgegen (Toward the Light)

Dem Licht Entgegen shows Tobey's early interest in the relationship between painting and spirituality. Although not faith-specific, the painting's title and movement of the people towards the light expresses the theme of religious rapture or spiritual awakening. Three vividly coloured figures - as well as a more ghostly procession that is yet to move into the light - are drawn to a rising sun, blazing over hilltops. Rendered through expressionistic brushwork, the sun casts its rays into the sky and across the landscape where a monumental organic form effloresces in response to its radiance. In this painting, Seattle-based art critic Sheila Farr has noted Tobey's "attraction to the expressionistic brushwork of Van Gogh as well as a bent for spiritual symbolism that would become a hallmark of his mature work".

After a long period of working as a fashion illustrator, creating conventional portraits, landscapes and Cubist-style still lifes, Tobey's contact with American modernists, especially Marsden Hartley, inspired a marked change in direction in his painting. Like many of his contemporaries, Hartley was inspired by Kandinsky's proclamation that, "The mood of nature can be imparted ... only by the artistic rendering of its inner spirit". Following this maxim, Tobey, demonstrating a voracious appetite for experimentation, ventured to convey more organic themes with sensuous, swelling, curvaceous shapes, using thick outlines and an almost arbitrary use of colour. He was exploring here a kind of 'vitalism' in that the origins of life are dependent on a life-force that searches beyond the realms of the physical world. Toward the Light amounts to an expression of Tobey's attraction to the Bahá'í notion that all religions manifest the same light from one God. "When we wake up and see the inner horizon light rising", Tobey said, "then we see beyond the horizon [and] break the mould of men's minds with the spirit of truth. Then there will be greater relativity than before. This light will burn away the mist of life and will become very, very great".

Oil on canvas - University of Arizona Museum of Art


Cirque d'Hiver (Winter Circus)

This pastel drawing, created shortly before Tobey's "white-writing" breakthrough, consists of an intricate, gauzy web of lines that breaks the surface of the picture up into irregular geometric shapes, reminiscent of a shattered car windscreen. It contains intimations of tall spotlights casting a pale blue glow, and what could be the pitched roof of a big top marquee, arching over an arena of frenetic movement and activity, possibly swinging trapeze artists or figures on bicycles.

Cirque d'Hiver is a precursor to the calligraphic style in Tobey's art with the brown, tan and blue tonal quality of the early Cubism of Braque and Picasso. Tobey said, "like the early Cubists I couldn't use much colour at this point as the problems were difficult enough without this additional one [of color]". But, unlike the Cubists, this is not a picture that attempts to present simultaneous views of one subject, it adopts, rather, a more Futurist sense of dynamism and movement, and takes, one step further, Paul Klee's technique of "taking a line for a walk". There is a suggestion too of Tobey's enthusiasm for performance venues, just as New York City's Cotton Club had captured his imagination a decade earlier, in music, and in the visual representation of rhythm.

Pastel on INGRES JAC France laid paper - Seattle Art Museum


Rising Orb

In this study for a mural, reminiscent of a Renaissance fresco, Tobey depicts the commotion stirred in both the human and angelic realms of a new revelation from God into the world, symbolised as a rising sun at dawn. The formal arrangement of the stylised figures, rendered in warm, autumnal tones, is offset against a Cubist deconstruction and flattening of planes. The circling figures, whose rotation breaks up the horizontal geometry, forms a visual echo of the small and barely noticeable sun.

Tobey's acceptance of the Bahá'í teachings in 1918 led to the faith's themes frequently appearing in his work, including the "progressive revelation" of God to humanity, the forces of spirituality versus materialism, the quest to create unity between diverse elements, and the dominance of light over darkness. Tobey would later explain (in 1961) that the woman and man in the left of the painting represent "local time", and the orb that has broken its moorings signifies "solar time".

Tempera and gold paint on cardboard - Seattle Art Museum



In his breakthrough into "white writing", married with washes of pale blue, yellow and maroon, Tobey called upon his training in Oriental brushwork with the Chinese painter Teng Baiye to translate his memory and personal experience of the nightlife in New York's "big white way" into a swirling, pulsing calligraphy. The dominant white lines of the image are overlaid on a brown ground which fades to a dark green at the top of the painting. The sheer perspective of the thoroughfare, viewed from a high vantage point, cuts through the middle of the painting, the traffic emerging from a side street at the centre and appearing to move towards the viewer. At the bottom of the painting, the brushstrokes are thick and boldly rendered, suggesting traces of taxi lights, trams or buses. In the lower-left-hand corner, a crowd is gathering outside, or pushing past, a cinema. The lines quite clearly define people, with the only red in the painting highlighting a woman in a coat and hat. White circular lightbulbs are scattered throughout the image, while in the sky, the mesh of marks is less intense, the brushstrokes more spaced out, suggestive of the curves and loops of a Coney Island rollercoaster, or, perhaps, flashing neon signs. On the upper right, finally, there is the evocation of lettered billboards, a pair of eyes, an image of a bottle, and the word "coffee".

Broadway has not yet reached all-over abstraction; the border is roughly painted and irregular, and left raw, acting as a window onto this vibrant, noisy scene. The historian Patricia Junker, in her survey of modernism in the Pacific Northwest, describes this web of white lines as demarcating the "massive force field emanating from human minds and hearts, an aggregate energy so palpable and so powerful that it could almost glow in the dark". For his part, Tobey stated that he had had no conscious plan to create a calligraphic painting. "I've painted Broadway which I must say astonishes me as much as anyone else," he wrote to friends. "Such a feeling of Hell under a lacy design - delicate as a [Jean-Antoine] Watteau in spirit but madness". The fact that Tobey mentioned Watteau, the early eighteenth-century French painter whose works prompted a revival of interest in colour and movement, showed that his knowledge of European art still remained deeply entrenched, which was locked in a struggle for dominance with his latterly acquired Oriental sensibilities.

Tempera on paper board - Metropolitan Museum of Art


Edge of August

The theme of Edge of August existed in Tobey's mind for ten years before he felt able to paint it successfully. Minute, calligraphic marks shimmer like a waterfall through a pale tonal spectrum to evoke the ineffable feeling of transition between summer and fall; perhaps even between East and West, or one era and another. The greenish light of summer fades out into a nearly empty autumn in a potent depiction of the changing seasons. "Edge of August is trying to express the thing that lies between two conditions of nature, summer and fall", said Tobey, "It's trying to capture that transition and make it tangible. Make it sing. You might say it's bringing the intangible into tangible".

While his mature painting has invited comparisons with Jackson Pollock, Tobey's art was anything but "action painting". It was rather a supremely controlled and deliberate approach to painting that asked viewers to immerse themselves in higher dimensions that might exist beyond the physical world. As the art historian Mario Naves observed, "Tobey's art shares pivotal commonalities with Abstract Expressionism [such as] a basis in Surrealism, all-over compositional strategies, and gestural mark-making (albeit on a miniaturist scale)". But, whereas the "chest-thumping verities of The New York School made a noise heard 'round the globe [...] the noise made by Tobey was decidedly more muted". For Naves, this amounted to something of an injustice given Tobey's much greater range and breadth of experience: "He was thirteen years older than Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock's senior by twenty-two years [and] had been around the block long before The New York School experienced its triumph. How many Action Painters had experienced the Armory Show of 1913 first-hand [as Tobey had]?" he wondered.

Casein on board - Museum of Modern Art, New York


Untitled Sumi

Tobey was an artistic alchemist who never settled on a single approach to picture making. In the spring of 1957, he put himself through intensive training in Japanese Sumi techniques, using opaque black ink thrown and splashed in a controlled way onto paper. His teacher, the Zen master Takizaki, told Tobey, "Let nature take over in your work" and he came to the realization that "State of Mind is the first preparation and from this action proceeds". From this teaching came a heightened sense of mental clarity; what Tobey claimed was "perhaps the ideal state to be sought for in the painting and certainly preparatory to the act". Tobey described the creation of the Sumi works, of which he could paint up to 30 in one evening, as "a kind of fever, like the earth in spring or a hurricane [...] I could say I painted the Sumis to experience a heightened sense of living". If he liked the finished work he would sign it, if not, he would just tear up the painting and throw it away.

With his spontaneous Sumi works, Tobey had upended the painstaking deliberation of his white writing. The tradition offered the artist another form of expression that could be brought into the modernist canon. After he had produced more than 100 such paintings, he informed his New York gallery that he wanted "an all black and white show [...] Takizaki here says no one in Japan has done what I have done. I know that Kline exists and Pollock, but I have another note". Art historian Debra Bricker Balken has written, "Tobey may have wanted to investigate the spirited skeins of paint and predominantly black color scheme that Pollock had utilized, through the intermediary of Japanese convention. But action painting was never Tobey's goal, its emphasis on the existential plight of the artist a part of neither his aesthetic approach nor his mind-set".

Seitz had observed that Tobey preferred the Japanese aesthetic to the Chinese, and placed great value the idea of shibui: "that which doesn't look like anything, but in time discloses its jewels". He had embraced the idea of chance and the freedom of the "flung" style, which he employed through his sumi series. Tobey was committed to the "idea that forms could migrate from Orient to Occident just as they previously had in the opposite direction". Indeed, for Tobey, Bahá'í and Zen remained his two most important spiritual influences but, he said, Bahá'í "found him," whereas it was he who sought out and found Zen. "I could never be anything," he finally conceded, "but the occidental I am".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Mark Tobey
Influenced by Artist
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Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Mark Tobey Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 03 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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