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