Painting Higher States of Consciousness with Light

in #art6 years ago (edited)

"A time there was, not so long ago, when the American painter most widely admired in Europe was Mark Tobey."

Mark Tobey Card.jpg
The above sentence was the opening line in a retrospective New York Times article about him in 1984. It wasn’t just Europe, he was also known to art lovers in America, for example, he appeared three times (1953, -57, and -59) in LIFE magazine. In the early age of TV, prior to the Internet, LIFE was a weekly magazine which reached tens of millions of people.

Indeed in the 50s and 60s when the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dave Brubeck was enthusiastically embraced by Europeans, Mark Tobey was riding the same wave in the art world. This despite the fact that he was by nature quiet and reclusive, and for the most part eschewed the New York art scene – instead he traveled the globe to work and learn.

From the International Art Magazine Apollo

In 1958, alongside Rothko, he represented the USA at the 29th Venice Biennale where his painting Capricorn was awarded the City of Venice painting prize. Not since Whistler’s Little White Girl – Symphony in White, No. 2 triumphed at the first biennale in 1895, had an American artist won the gold medal. Three years later, a major retrospective of Tobey’s work was held at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre, an unprecedented achievement for a living – and American – artist. One French critic wrote in 1952 that Tobey’s importance could ‘never be stressed enough,’ describing him as one of ‘those all too rare individuals of authentic value.’

Mark-Tobey-Campo-selvatico bahai teaching org.jpg Mark Tobey, Campo

Mark Tobey has been called the father of Abstract Expressionism, but it’s probably more accurate to note that his art is visually similar to that style and predates it, but his approach, philosophy, and inspiration were unlike most abstract expressionists. His inspiration came from light, balance, harmony, contemplation, consciousness, inner-space, and unity.

His was born in 1890 and grew up in Chicago, where as a teenager he attended the Art Institute of Chicago for a couple of years – although he was essentially self taught. At the age of 21 he moved to New York City and became a fashion illustrator for McCall. One of his close friends related an interesting story (on this video) that I couldn’t find in print.

Tobey had a courier job delivering packages and when he was in the fashion department at McCall magazine, he looked at the illustrations around the office and said, “I can do better than that.” An editor gave him a pad and pencil and said, “Let’s see.” He gave him a job and Tobey later said it almost killed his art career because he was making such a good living as a fashion illustrator.

He eventually moved on and worked for a while with some success as a portraitist, and had his own show in lower Manhattan in 1917.

A Life Changing Encounter

In the same New York Times article quoted above the writer noted that Mark Tobey:

… was known to be a follower of the Bahá’i Faith, and when he told people that he was striving for what he called ''dimensionless dimension'' they looked at the paintings in question and found them the very epitome of sublimity…

The story of how that came about has an interesting connection to my previous post on Juliet Thompson and Khalil Gibran. In 1918 Mark Tobey met Juliet Thompson, another portraitist, and sat for her in her Greenwich Village studio pictured here.

bf Juliet Thompson in her studio-a-1 Colorized.jpg Juliet Thompson in her studio.
While there Tobey read some Bahá’i literature and after expressing interest she invited him to a lecture at a Bahá’i retreat in Maine, at which he decided to embrace the Bahá’i Faith. This, along with his study of Asian, Persian, and Arabic calligraphy were pivotal events in his artistic development.

Mark Toby in His Own Words

I have been influenced by the Baha'i religion which believes there has been but one religion which renews itself under different names. The root of all religions, from the Baha'i point of view, is based on the theory that man will gradually come to understand the unity of the world and the oneness of mankind. It teaches that all the prophets are one - that science and religion are the two great powers which must be balanced if man is to become mature. I feel my work has been influenced by these beliefs. I’ve tried to decentralize and interpenetrate so that all parts of a painting are of related value. Perhaps I‘ve hoped even to penetrate perspective and bring the far near. Mine are the Orient, the Occident, science, religion, cities, space, and writing a picture.

Some critics have criticized me for being what they called an Orientalist and for using Oriental models for my work. But they were wrong. Because when I was struggling in Japan and China with Sumi-ink and the brush, trying to understand the calligraphy of the Far-East, I became aware that I would never be anything other than the Westerner that I am. But what did develop there was what I call the calligraphic impulse that has opened out new horizons for my work. Now I could paint the turmoil and tumult of the great cities, the intertwining of the lights and the streams of people caught up in the mesh of their net.

Original b/w photo of Mark Tobey in his studio (1949). Courtesy Arthur Lyon Dahl. Photo by Larry Novak, effects by @roused

Mark Toby in His Own Words on Art and Technique

Over the past 15 years, my approach to painting has varied, sometimes being dependent on brush-work, sometimes on lines, dynamic white strokes in geometric space. I have never tried to pursue a particular style in my work. For me, the road has been a zigzag into and out of old civilizations, seeking new horizons through meditation and contemplation. My sources of inspiration have gone from those of my native Middle West to those of microscopic worlds. I have discovered many a universe on paving stones and tree barks. I know very little about what is generally called “abstract painting”.

mark tobey pinterest.JPG
Mark Tobey

Pure abstraction would mean a type of painting completely unrelated to life, which is unacceptable to me. I have sought to make my painting “whole”, but to attain this I have used a whirling mass. I take up no definite position. Maybe this explains someone’s remark while looking at one of my paintings: “Where is the center?”

I try to make of each picture a world in itself, and perhaps this one seems uninteresting however much one looks at the variations in the relations of lines and in the accents of touch which I have used in the center. A much vaster world can be found here than would appear at first glance. The use of many entwining rhythms indicates my search for height and depth. One must search while one is contemplating or else there will be no reward.

The cult of space can become as dull as that of the object. The dimension that counts for the creative person is the Space he creates within himself. This inner space is closer to the infinite than the other, and it is the privilege of a balanced mind - and the search for an equilibrium is essential - to be as aware of inner space as he is of outer space.

wikiart org Tobey sumi-1957.jpg
Mark Tobey, Sumi

The development of my work has been I feel more subconscious than conscious. I do not work by intellectual deductions. My work is a kind of self-contained contemplation.

People say I called my painting „white writing“. I didn’t. Somebody else did. I was interested in an idea - why couldn’t structures be in white? [...] I painted them in white because I thought structures could be, should be light. What I was fundamentally interested in at the time was light.
Since I try to make my paintings organic, I feel that there is a relation with nature. In Drift of Summer for instance, I wanted to experience through the medium of paint a feeling of the movement of grass and floating seeds. To achieve the rhythmic impact of such I had to build the body of painting by multitudinous lines.

Mark Toby in His Own Words on Music

(He studied music and collaborated with musical theorist and composer John Cage.)

When I play the piano for several hours, everything is clarified in my visual imagination afterwards. Everything that exists, every human being is a vibration.

Mark Tobey’s Rummage 1941.jpg Mark Tobey, Rummage

I have used some of the identical forms in improvisation similar to the musicians using a motif by earlier or contemporary musicians. I did not have any specific painting in mind, rather more or less the feeling of these paintings upon and into which I built a modern complex structure.

I often think of Chopin when I work. From time to time I have ideas, sometimes I don’t have any at all. Ideas come to me in the course of my creative work. A composer, once he has as his point of departure a series of sounds he can compose an entire symphony.

Brief video with paintings from Mark Tobey

White Writing

White writing is perhaps the best known aspect of Mark Tobey’s art. This description, and for that matter the article in “Art and Antiques Magazine,” is the best I came across:

Though many of art criticism’s standard phrases are more than a little awkward, “white writing” makes a good if not a perfect fit with Tobey’s quietly shimmering imagery. Strictly speaking, his thin streaks white paint are brushstrokes, yet they perform none of the brushstroke’s usual tasks. They neither generate an image of an object in pictorial space (as in realist painting) nor do they convey some personal attitude or quality of feeling (as in, for example, Abstract Expressionism). Closely spaced and often connected by angular zigs and zags, Tobey’s marks seem at once precise and utterly spontaneous. Filling the surface of a canvas edge to edge, his “white writing” creates a web one would call dense if it were not so airy. Filled with subtly modulated space, Tobey’s paintings are unquestionably pictorial, as are the marks of his brush. These works are in no sense written. Yet one senses in their linear inflections the artist’s lifelong immersion in calligraphy, and that justifies to some extent the critics’ talk of “white writing.” link

Brief but insightful video about Mark Tobey

Mark Tobey resided for many years in the Pacific Northwest and is considered one of the four founders of the Northwest School. In the 1960s he emigrated to Europe where he lived quietly with his partner in a modest home in the historic section of Basel, Switzerland, passing on there in 1976 in his 85th year.

If you'd like to learn more / Credits / Resources

This video linked, but not embedded above, is an older regional television program with interviews of some close personal friends of Mark Tobey who admit to being "artistic illiterates." It gives a wonderful insight into him as a person and artist relating to everyday people. The quality is only marginal, but it you are interested in Tobey it is worthwhile.

The site is a great resource for those interested in Mark Tobey, with a wealth of quotes (it's where I got the quotes used above.) There are also print details about his life and work, it would be especially useful for anyone who owns a Tobey painting, or is considering purchasing one.

An insightful article I particularly enjoyed and quoted above was in the Art and Antique Magazine. link

Here's an article from the New York Times link

Here's an informative article from the International Art Magazine Apollo


First photo: Mark Tobey b/w original found on Pinterest. Effects & brochure by @roused

Original b/w photo of Mark Tobey in his studio (1949). Courtesy Arthur Lyon Dahl. Photo by Larry Novak, effects by @roused

Original b/w photo of Juliet Thompson in her studio is from colorized by @roused

Paintings by Mark Tobey, photos from Pinterest


Thanks for this great (and well researched) article about an artist, that wasn't much on my radar yet. I especially love the 'Campo' painting. Will dig deeper into his works, when I find some time.

Thanks, it's interesting, when I was looking at his work there were several pieces that made me think of your work.

Thank you :-) I especially like all the details and I can see some parallels to what he says:

My work is a kind of self-contained contemplation.

Somehow his works also particularly reminds me of computer generated (generative) art.

I know Tobey, but not that he followed the Baha'i faith. Great collection of quotes. I tend to experience artists only through their works, and sometimes I am almost illiterate when it comes to the biography (just as the nice couple in the video are when it comes to art... they say). So what I know is often anecdotes I heard from other artists or simply because I incidentally have read a little bit, like this post. I didn't know that he worked with John Cage for example.

Funny thing is that the new insight from the quotes only complements the things I already knew from his paintings. The forties and fifties created an art that was solemn and abstract. All the pain of the world just had to distil into this introvert chase of beauty, truth and spirituality. No wonder they had this inclination... and the Baha'i faith fits quite perfect into this. The unity of mankind was a necessary dream.

I always though of Tobey and Henri Michaux together. The writing, the need to be there only as signature, as handwriting.

Thanks for a great post. Really made me think again - my brain has been in hibernation for the last week!

I didn't really know too much about Mark Tobey either, but after I discovered the Juliet Thompson connection I went on a deep dive. I enjoy these deep dives, it makes the people come to life for me.

I feel the same way you do, I'm artistically illiterate. Thankfully, it terms of music I had the opportunity to interview many of my heroes. The preparations, and the conversations themselves, expanded things for me musically. In terms of art, posting here on steemit gave me the motivation to dig deeper into a few artists whose work I truly admire -- I'm grateful to the steemit experience for that.

You might enjoy this article about John Cage:

Cage cited Tobey (1890–1976) as one of his major influences, going so far as to say, “In [a] sense, all my work is a response to Mark Tobey.” Known for his atmospheric, dynamic paintings bursting with gestural marks, Tobey was the globetrotting “father figure” of the Northwest School. In 1918, Tobey converted to the Bahá’í faith, whose followers believe in the unity of all religions and all beings...


Fascinating text which also introduced me to a new artist: Morris Graves. Really weird paintings he made. It is so very American that he refers back to nature in such a naive way while also taking in modernism. I will find some more of his works.

@roused, I like your posts.

Please, contact me on (vcelier) about a translation proposal.

Thanks @vcelier , so glad you enjoyed the post.

Sorry, I'm not on, but @shortcut can give you my contact info.

Just sent out your mail address to @vclier. Happy to see you connected!

Thank you, @shrtcut

Thanks! Yesterday was the holiday Thanksgiving in America, so this was a nice surprise to learn that this post might reappear in the language of Marquis de Lafayette ;-)

super! vive la liberté, l'égalité et la fraternité sur steemit !

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