PRINT June 1962

Mark Tobey

THE WEST COAST LOOKS OVER over the Pacific and beyond to the Orient—and so a West Coast magazine of art begins by honoring Mark Tobey.

Study Tobey’s painting. At first glance it seems to suggest a group of haloed Gothic figures from the facade of a French cathedral, but then you look closer and begin to wonder. Those figures on their pulsating red ground—are they really Gothic or do they involve the memory of Byzantine icons, mosaics, and churchly frescoes? And still a third possibility presents itself, for one has seen Bodhisattvas assembled like that in more than one painted Tibetan heaven. Tobey’s composition in verticals reminds one that China and Japan read, not as we do, from left to right, but from top to bottom, and the white line by which Tobey directs vertical perception is as calligraphic as that of any Japanese scribe.

The ambiguity of his figures—Christian and Buddhist, European, Near Eastern, and Far Eastern all at once—is significant in view of the fact that Tobey is a member of the Baha’i movement, with its universalist philosophy and its reverence for all religious revelations. Tobey takes his universalism very seriously, in matters of artistic idiom as well as in religious content. He has studied Oriental brushwork in Shanghai, has lived in a Zen monastery in Japan, and practices all manner of Oriental techniques; he is, in fact, the greatest Oriental brush-man ever to be born in Centerville, Wisconsin, to be trained in Chicago and New York, and to live for long years in Seattle.

For all his Orientalism, Tobey is extremely responsive to the Western urban environment, and it is possible to trace his progress as an abstract artist in terms of ever-increasing intensity in the development of that response. He begins by painting the crowds and the bustle of Seattle’s public markets; then comes Broadway, a vertiginous, irresistible rush of movement and the dance of sky signs; finally, the calligraphic dance itself occupies the canvas, reminding one of Claude Debussy’s “vibrating atmosphere, with sudden flashes of light . . . luminous dust participating in the rhythm of all things.” In other words, so far as Tobey is concerned, abstract painting is a form of nature painting, and the aspect of nature which has stirred him to his most personal, original, and distinctive expression is the atmosphere of the big city. This is peculiarly American, and other American abstract artists, like Pollock, Kline, and De Kooning, owe some part of their creative energy to the same source.

Tobey, the master of “white writing” of the 1940s; has become a master of black writing in recent years, as he has turned toward sumi ink painting to discover new subtleties of nuance. He has always been in full command of nuance, regardless of the medium—this is one of the most strongly Oriental traits in his work—but in sumi ink he was able to create prodigies of power and of mysterious, floating space. Even more recently, if his retrospective exhibition of 1960 is any criterion, he has been concerned with quite small paintings in an effervescent, molecular style not unlike the old “white writing” in some respects, but more dependent on touch than on stroke and consistently more brilliant in color than anything he has previously produced.

Tobey refuses to cling to any one style or idea, and by now he may be off in totally new territory; he has not been in this country for two years, has been more or less isolated by his own wish, and his very latest works have not yet been displayed hereabouts. But of one thing you may be sure—no matter what the style of Tobey’s latest paintings, they will be remarkable for their serenity. In a time when so many artists excuse the turmoil of their works by pointing to the turmoil of the world, Tobey remains on the affirmative side. He also affirms that the artist is a mover and doer in the world, not merely a mirror of its moods, that he is a positive force and not merely part of the mass on which force is expended. His art is neither decoration nor entertainment, but is itself a positive power.

Alfred Frankenstein