Mark Tobey
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Painter.

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Mark Tobey (1890-1976)


Early Career
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
White Writing: Calligraphic Abstract Painting
Mature Career: Exhibitions
Tobey's Style of Art

Paintings by Mark Tobey are also
widely available online in the
form of poster art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

For other calligraphic-style pictures
similar to those by Mark Tobey, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


The unusual Abstract Expressionism of American painter Mark Tobey stands apart from the New York School because of its delicate Oriental and spiritual quality. Largely self-taught as an artist, he started as an illustrator working in Chicago and New York. In 1918 he converted to the Baha'i faith, which offers a synthesis of world religions. About the same time, he made contact with New York-based modern artists including Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), although his own artistic ambitions were still unclear. In 1922 he moved to Seattle where he learned calligraphy and then spent the new few years travelling Europe, staying mainly in Paris. In 1930 he showed at an exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and then moved to England where he taught art and philosophy until 1937. During those years he continued to travel widely, spending time in a Zen monastery in Japan. Although he started off as an exponent of representational art, while in England he developed his White Writing method of abstraction, painting white marks on tinted or darkened canvas and paper. By the mid-1940s he was exhibiting throughout Europe and America and showed at the Venice Biennale in 1948 and 1958. By now, he was recognised as a key exponent of abstract expressionism, although his signature calligraphic markings were an unusual contribution to the movement. In particular, his work differed on account of its delicacy: there is a feeling of silence and emptiness in his abstract paintings, which reflects his skill in somehow being able to fuse ancient and modern cultures. His mature style typically displays an elaborate build up of tiny calligraphic signs which are both serene and luminous in appearance. Now seen as one of the most innovative of 20th century painters, examples of his paintings include New York (1945, private collection), Edge of August (1953, MoMA, New York), White Journey (1956, Beyeler Collection, Basel), and Northwest Drift (1958, Tate, London). For another artist who is noted for a similar abstract calligraphic style of painting, see: Cy Twombly (1928-2011).



Early Career

Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin, and his family moved to Seattle when he was three. His formal artistic training was restricted to a series of Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago between 1906 and 1908. He moved to New York in 1911 and worked as a fashion and interior designer, and then in Chicago until 1917. He attended the famous 1913 Armory Show which introduced Americans to the latest modern art from Europe. The show contained more than 1,250 examples of the latest painting, decorative art and sculpture by over 300 European and American avant-garde artists. Around the same time he met Marcel Duchamp, a pioneer of Dada, whose Futurist/Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art) created a huge scandal. Tobey also met Marsden Hartley, the modernist painter later known for his abstract work Portrait of a German Officer (1914, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). At this point Tobey was still unclear about his own artistic ambition and direction. In 1917 he had his first solo exhibition in which he exhibited a number of charcoal drawings. In 1918 he met the portraitist Juliet Thompson (1873–1956), a disciple of Abdu'l-Baha and Baha'i painter. In the following months Tobey became a convert to the Bahai faith which led him to explore spiritual representation in art. In 1923 he met a Chinese student from the University of Washington who introduced him to the ancient craft of Chinese calligraphy.


Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)

Tobey spent the next few years travelling in Europe, spending time mostly in Paris. In 1922 he returned to America and settled in Seattle until 1930. He associated briefly with the Cornish College of Arts, founded in 1914 and now considered one of the top arts colleges in America. In 1929 he had his first solo exhibition at the Marie's Cafe Gallery in New York. Here, he was spotted by a junior curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York, who selected several of his works for the museum's Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans exhibition, which opened in 1930. However, times were financially tough. It was the beginning of the Great Depression in America, so Tobey accepted a teaching position at Dartington Hall, Devonshire, England.

White Writing: Calligraphic Abstract Painting

In England he created several fresco paintings for the school and became friends with the studio potter Bernard Leach CBE (1887–1979). Leach was born in Hong Kong and had spent many formative years living in Japan. In 1934 the two travelled together through France, Italy, Naples, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan. Tobey spent a few months in a Zen monastery outside of Kyoto studying poetry and calligraphy. He was gradually moving towards a personal form of Abstract art. His artistic development was closely related to his growing knowledge of oriental culture, especially calligraphy and Japanese woodcuts. His painting Broadway (1936, Metropolitan Museum) shows his art at a transitional stage. The traffic and buildings are still possible to make out but the strongly textured calligraphic style is already beginning to absorb the forms into abstraction. This style would become known as White Writing. This work represented his visualisation of energies of the modern city at night, of human activity and of an individual’s intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.

Mature Career: Exhibitions

On the outbreak of World War II, Tobey returned to Seattle. He worked on the Federal Art Project, the visual arts arm of the New Deal program of public works, set up by the Government in response to the Great Depression. It operated until 1943 and reputedly resulted in more than 200,000 artworks, including posters and murals. As Abstract art movements and styles had not yet gained public acceptance, this program was a way for emerging artists like Tobey and Jackson Pollock (1912-56) to earn an income. By the mid 1940s, Tobey's transition to Abstraction was complete. He had solo exhibitions at the Willard Gallery New York and the Portland Art Gallery. By the 1950s he was considered an important figure in the Abstract Expressionist painting movement. His works were on view at the 1948 and 1958 Venice Biennales and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1951. There were solo exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art in 1962 and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1966. In 1956 he won the Guggenheim International Award and in 1961 the Carnegie International. More influential in Europe than America, Tobey made important contributions to Art Informel (the European version of Abstract Expressionist painting) and Tachisme. He died in 1976.

Abstract Expressionists
For more abstract expressionist painters, see: Mark Rothko (1903-70), Willem De Kooning (1904-97) and Robert Motherwell (1915-91).

Tobey's Style of Art

Although Tobey's White Writing style was one of his most important artistic developments, his mature career displays an astonishing array of colours and scales. At first glance his paintings may look like rather flat and monotonous, but careful study shows that they are multi-layered with lustrous depths. If you look long enough, you can find yourself easily being pulled into the painting, almost into another dimension. What his paintings share is a common feeling of silence and emptiness: they seem to fuse ancient and modern cultures in a singular form of mystical art.

At first glance, some of his works bear a superficial resemblance to the action-painting compositions of Jackson Pollock. However the ideas behind them are quite different. Pollock was interested in the actual process of painting particularly its involuntary elements. Tobey on the other hand was motivated by a spiritual goal, and saw painting as a form of meditation rather than action. Although a late starter - think of him as a contemporary of Picasso rather than Pollock - he remains a distinct and influential artist.

Paintings by Mark Tobey can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For details of significant abstract art movements, see: History of Art.
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