Mark Tobey (1890-1976) was at root an exceptional painter, though he also created works in stone and in music as well. As an artist, he was also remarkably innovative and will forever be known for two major artistic accomplishments: co-founding the Northwest School of art and creation of the painting technique called “white writing.” Through these, he has been credited with changing the course of modern art in the Pacific Northwest.
The Northwest School of art broke new ground in the 1930s and 40s because it was the first art collaborative in the northwest to go beyond the traditional reliance on northwestern Native American tribal arts. Originating out of Skagit, WA in the Puget Sound area, the “big four” artists who defined this approach – Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey – combined the visual elements, light, and tones of the Puget Sound natural environment with the aesthetics of the Pacific Asian cultures to create a novel and distinctive style across a range of media, including painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking. Among these four, Tobey was most experimental, using more abstract imagery, soft pastels to capture the environment rather than “natural” objects, and dark mist chroma for lighting effects within the works. He would also work in other aesthetics, including cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism.
Over the course of his career, he would also create, perfect and teach a unique style of painting known as “white writing” – a style that can be seen in many of the works on display on POBA (for example, the Broadway works) . This technique used an overlay of white or light-colored calligraphic symbols on an abstract field that was itself composed of thousands of small and interwoven brush strokes. This technique recreated a trick of the eye on paper to give the appearance of fluid movement known in science as Brownian Motion. In other words, using this technique, Tobey used color, light, and brushstroke to give the mind’s eye (if not the actual eye) the impression of movement on the canvas. Others, like Jackson Pollock would emulate and extend this technique in their “all over” approach to painting.
Tobey was a student of penmanship in many cultures, first Chinese and Japanese, then Arabic, Persian, Greek, Turkish, and other forms of alphabets. He integrated these not only into his artwork but into his life philosophy and beliefs, as a devotee of and convert to the Baha’i faith in his early thirties. He traveled extensively because of these views and personal interests, and devoted himself thereafter to exploring spirituality in art. While he lived most of his adult life in the Seattle area, he lived the last 15 years of his life in Basel, Switzerland. He would, during that time, also become known for his ink washes and for prolific creation of paintings and other works. He also has other firsts: he became the first American painter, after James A.M. Whistler, to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennialle (in 1958) and the first American painter to exhibit at the Pavillion de Marsan in Paris (1960). He may also well be the only artist with this honor: the Anatoma Tobeyoiedes, a species of sea snail, is named after Tobey.
Tobey’s works are brought to us in collaboration with POBA’s partner, ArtsWA, the Washington State Arts Council.