Mark Tobey: Painter of the Humane Abstract

Through the month of April and the first week of May [1951], the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is showing a comprehensive exhibit of the work of Mark Tobey. It is a very large show, one of the largest I have ever seen devoted to a contemporary American painter. With a small background exhibit of Chinese calligraphy, it fills just half the museum. This is a lot of painting, and it makes it possible to come to some fairly definite conclusions about Tobey, his influence, his development, his significance.

As I left the show, I came on a little case with a tatter of ancient Peruvian cloth, two tones of dim, worn red crossed with angular lines of white. For hundreds of years it had lain close to the body of a Peruvian woman while the processes of final mortality seeped through it. It seemed to be saturated with the pathetic fallacy of life itself. The white threads meandered like withering thoughts over once fleshy reds now almost grey. From a little distance it looked so exactly like a Tobey that I thought some of the show had overflowed into an outer corridor.

There are many objects like that in Tobey’s studio. Certain painters, writers, philosophers, a religious temper of life, other big things, have given his art its form and inner meaning. Objects, artifacts, like this one, have given it its tone and superficial appearances. His later pictures “look like” things made with a draftsman’s sensuality, but worn and broken, the colors all faded to white or dulled to grey except the blurred mineral reds.

Of important artists today Tobey is one of the most completely self-educated. For this reason he is independently, widely, and seriously educated, at home in those provinces of art and thought, distant in time or space, which interest him. He has assimilated only what he wanted, but he has wanted much, and he has been thorough about it. His influences may, until recently, lie off the mainstreams of modern artistic ancestry, but they are completely part of him.

Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin, December 11, 1890. At twenty he went to New York and had his first exhibitions, at Knoedler’s and Romany Marie’s, of portrait drawings. For a few years he alternated between New York and Chicago. Then he went out to Seattle to teach at the Cornish School. In those days Seattle was still in the flush of a regional awakening which was sparked by the intellectuals around the I.W.W. Figures like Jimmy Chaplin, Charley Ashleigh, Ted Abrams, Morris Pass, flamboyant characters from the last frontiers who read Ernest Dowson and Carl Sandburg, admired Beardsley and Van Gogh, rode boxcars, soapboxed, got shot at and put in jail, were the leaders of a bohemian radicalism that was certainly closer to actual “workers on the march” than the proletarian aesthetes of the depression period. The Wobbly Preamble, Free Verse, The New Art, Free Love, and lots of straight whiskey . . . they were not enough to found the new society which then seemed just around the corner, but they were plenty for a short-lived, boisterous renaissance. Those years were formative. I met Tobey then in Seattle. He was painting skidrow figures, migratory workers, lumberjacks, and sailors. They were not very good pictures. Twenty-five years later, he is still painting the same kind of models. They are very good pictures. I don’t want to suggest that he is a proletarian artist. He is about as far from it as possible. But his art is not just abstract, “forms and dispositions of places and positions,” as Gertrude Stein said of Cubism. It is also humane. It started being that way, however clumsily, at the beginning.

In 1925-26 Tobey traveled in Europe and the Near East. In those days he must have started looking long and hard at paintings whose influence was to show up many years later. In 1927 he returned to Seattle. From 1931 to 1938 he taught at Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon, England, and traveled extensively in Europe, Mexico, and the Far East. In 1934 he was in China and Japan. He became deeply interested in Chinese calligraphy, and his present style began to take form. Since 1938 he has been back in Seattle.

The earliest Tobeys are not in this show. It starts with some simple landscapes and still lifes, and other exercises, of value chiefly for showing how little the young Tobey was touched by the sophisticated taste of that time. They are careful, honest, and clumsy. Then come some typical early American abstractions, like 1920 Chicago, or the post-Armory explosion of half a generation earlier. They are notable for their modest color in a day when, in America, “modernism” meant “loud.” Considerably later come some studies of wave motion. Space is considered as being defined by moving forces rather than occupied by volumes. The impact of the picture is carefully muted; range of color, value, hue, all the elements are reduced and quieted. There is just the beginning in the smoky reds of Modal Tides of the influence of Tintoretto. This was the right track, if only the beginning. There would be divagations and side experiments, but the field of a very special sensibility had been found.

Sometimes in those years of travel Tobey must have stood a long time in the Doge’s Palace and the Scuola San Rocco, looking finally and longest at things many people do not consider important — the interplay of gauzy drapery, blades of low lit grass, rippling water and light — the cobwebbed space in the Annunciation — the black and white chinoiseries of the other St. Marys — the batlike silhouettes (due to faulty retouching) which plunge through the Paradiso; and even at paintings which most people consider dull — the studio jobs of battle scenes, mostly the work of Aliense, that well-named man, and the younger Robusti — vast dull red paintings, filled with rigging and spars, hedges and waves of spears, beams and bars of dark and light, fire and smoke, and, lacing all the spaces, serried flights of arrows. He must have absorbed, too, some of the peculiar space of Tintoretto, which, though not rushing infinitely up and away like the ceilings of later Counter-Reformation Baroque, seems to have no limits, no bottom or top or end — only an inexhaustible ruddy vastness. There are other Venetian echoes — the desolate, simple faces of Longhi, the splashing brush work of Guardi, even Tiepolo could have contributed something, the calligraphic Tiepolo of the half-transformed Actaeon and the other black background pictures in the corridor of the Academia.

After the studies of wave motion come some texture paintings, then some stiffly-placed still lifes in tones of grey, and some dark, transparent Cubist ones, rather like Tamayo or Gris, essentially volumes in space — accomplished, but not Tobey’s m├ętier, and then back to filled space. At first the space is filled with tumbling volumes, for instance in Pinnacles, which gives something of the impression of a Pontormo drawing, or of Tobey’s colleague, Kenneth Callahan, and finally the emergence of a fully calligraphic style.

The first calligraphic pictures are organized along poles in three dimensions, usually swaths of bright color, the calligraphy widely spaced, sparkling black or very dark lines, sometimes outlined with a glow, on white or neutral backgrounds. This is abandoned, probably as too confined, still too close to the painting of objects. The backgrounds get dimmer and smokier and their almost invisible modulations create shifting depths which are only variations of indefinitely expanding monochrome.

With Broadway Norm in 1935, the lines become predominantly white; the “white writing” now identified with Tobey has appeared. The darker lines and the background create a movement in deep space which is caught and defined and, as the eye travels, continuously molded by the overlapping nets of pale grey and white. The first of its kind, Broadway Norm is formally a rather simple picture, small, a first step.

This major change follows the year spent in the Far East. Is this new turn Chinese in any very complete sense? I think not. I have a feeling that the great art of China is too much for Tobey. It was a determinative influence in the change itself, the deliberate adoption of calligraphy, but the Sung landscapists and their Zenist descendants in Japan are a great deal more than calligraphers. I am afraid their scope, and the capacity and conditions for their inexhaustible peace — an ontological peace — are gone from the world. For all Tobey’s openness to Oriental influence, he is still another Western Man, like the rest of us, troubled and doomed. His ancestors are in Venice, the West’s window on the Orient in the crucial centuries, and his cousins are the later Turner and Odilon Redon. Seattle today, of course, like San Francisco, has a commercial position analogous to Renaissance Venice, and its Museum contains some of the better works of the former Eumorfopoulos Collection of Far Eastern art. I suspect that Tobey, who was in England at the time of the sale, may have had something to do with this purchase.

This brings up another influence which must be mentioned. Before the Eumorfopoulos purchase there wasn’t very much art in Seattle of any importance, except the work of the Northwest Indians. Tobey has spent much time in Indian villages, owns several fine examples of their work, has purchased much for others, and has steered his students toward careful study of Northwest Indian motives and methods. Some of his paintings, notably Eskimo Idiom in this show, use these motives directly. In this instance the forms of masks, ivory carvings, and implements are built up as on a shield. The first impression is rather like that of analytical Cubism. Then a sense of transparency and interpenetration comes as a sharp surprise after the picture has been seen for a while, and at last the forms resolve themselves into calligraphic vectors, directions of tensions. In other pictures the idiom of Northwest woodcarving and textiles is immediately resolved into pure calligraphy. Incidentally, it should not be forgotten that this idiom is so close to that of primitive Japan, Ainu, and Shang bronze that critics like Fenollosa have postulated the existence of a Pacific Basin primitive formal endowment, a plastic “culture complex” as pervasive as that of La Tene in Europe.

I think, actually, this Northwest idiom shows most strongly in a group of massed figure paintings, of which The Gathering (1944) is a good example. The faces have the same masklike quality, the bodies the same tense stiffness, wooden but dynamic. But there are other aspects too, ultimately more important. The overall color is one of dirty flesh, as crowded as Rowlandson, and again, like him, calligraphic, but in Tobey’s case not the War of the Fat and the Lean, but a more fundamental conflict. Possibly this particular painting is an artists’ ball. The effect is that of a skidrow mission on Christmas Eve, crowded with ungainly movement, busy with aimlessness and embarrassment. Here and there expectant, bemused faces stare into the air above the spectator’s head, so that he feels “overlooked” with incomprehension — unemployed shepherds watching the caroling angels as cripples watch skywriters. It makes no difference, artists’ ball or hoboes’ feast, the judgment is the same.

In two slightly variant paintings, Skidrow Figures (1948), studies in isolated silhouette, rather like Morris Graves, this judgment is intensified. The figures slip away from human into reptilian or birdlike forms. One central one rises into a kind of supplication, a Gethsemane of the gutter.

Similar in tone are the paintings of city streets, Flow of the Night, Broadway, many others, saturated complexes of calligraphic light filled with little people. An electron model spins; lines of women move away on an escalator; an aged whore stands like a verger at the door of an English cathedral; a desolate flophouse room, inhabited by a sinister little vortex, floats in space; ears bloom in the air; a nude is hung up by the heels; and everywhere, men with the wise, battered, hopeless faces of aging migratory workers wander, eyes lost in space, not even bothering to ogle the girls’ legs.

Finally come the pure calligraphic abstractions, Chrysalis, City Radiance, a whole series of paintings which are the culmination to date of Tobey’s art. City Radiance is a complete crystallization of space, straight lines meeting mostly in acute angles and equilaterals, with rectangles traveling across like sonorous pedal notes, the whole volume doubly folded, envelope-wise, on itself and, across the fold, a form, defined by rising lines, somewhat like Brancusi’s birds, and like them, ineffably soaring. These pictures are the other side of the coin, the religious affirmation which supersedes the mordant analysis of the mind of benighted cities. After all, the title is City Radiance. The pictures of this group may be abstract, but their calm and order and purity grow technically and personally, and even representationally in a sense, out of knowledge of suffering and disorder and brutal ignorance. This is compassion. In these paintings Tobey touches the tradition of the Zen landscapists. He is a humane painter.



This essay originally appeared in Art News (May 1951) and was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1951. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays