mark tobey - portrait

Mark Tobey

(1890-1976)

Mark Tobey was an American painter greatly influenced by Asian philosophies and calligraphy. He developed a unique visual language consisting of a whirling mass of calligraphic marks. A pioneer of all-over painting, Tobey had a profound impact on Jackson Pollock’s work.

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Mark Tobey’s discovery of Eastern philosophies and calligraphy

Mark Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin, on 11 December 1890. The Tobey family moved to Chicago in 1893. Mark Tobey studied at the Chicago Art Institute from 1906 to 1908. In 1911, Tobey then moved to New York, where he worked for a time as a portrait painter and fashion designer.

The Knoedler Gallery in New York presented Tobey’s first exhibition in 1917. The following year, the artist converted to the Baháʼí faith, an Abrahamic and monotheistic religion teaching the spiritual unity of humanity. Tobey’s spirituality was inextricably linked to his artistic practice. Writing about Tobey, the painter William Chapin Seitz explained: “Like Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian, Tobey sees the highest reality as spiritual rather than physical.”

Tobey began teaching at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington, in 1922. It was around that time that he met the Chinese student Teng Kuei, who taught him calligraphy. The meeting between the two marked a crucial juncture in Tobey’s development as an artist. The exhibition Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings by Mark Tobey was presented at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1928, followed by a second exhibition at Romany Marie’s Café Gallery in New York in the same year.

The American art historian Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr.—also the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York—then invited Tobey to participate in the exhibition Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans, which was presented to the public in 1930. The Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York and the Harry Hartman Gallery in Seattle both organised exhibitions for the artist in 1931. Between 1931 and 1937, Tobey was artist-in-residence at Dartington Hall in Devon, United Kingdom, where he met the artists Pearl S. Buck, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Leach, Rabindranath Tagore and Rudi Shankar who, like him, had been strongly influenced by Eastern philosophies.

In 1934, Tobey travelled to Europe and Asia. Spending a month at a monastery near Kyoto, in Japan, Tobey studied Zen painting, meditated and studied calligraphy. It was there that Tobey found the “defining calligraphic impulse” that would lead him to what he termed his “white writing”: layers of white paint superimposed over calligraphic writings. This artistic development made Tobey a pioneer of what would become known as all-over painting.

Tobey’s first institutional solo exhibition was presented at the Seattle Art Museum in 1934. His works were also exhibited at the Fine Arts Gallery in London and the Paul Elder Gallery in San Francisco.

The emergence of Mark Tobey’s white writing

Returning to Dartington Hall in 1935, Tobey painted the works Broadway and Welcome Hero, in which he used “white writing” for the first time. Broadway was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941 at the Artists for Victory exhibition.

In 1944, Tobey’s work was exhibited for the first time by the Willard Gallery in New York, which would go on to present his work on a regular basis. This was the breakthrough moment for Tobey, who won national recognition during this period. Between 1945 and 1946, four major solo exhibitions of Tobey’s work were held at the Portland Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Arts Club of Chicago and the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Alger House. In 1948, Tobey took part in the Venice Biennale for the first time. He was represented at the Biennale again in 1956, 1958—when he won the International Grand Prize for Painting—and 1964.

A succession of gallery exhibitions followed, as well as a number of solo exhibitions in American museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Tobey took part in the São Paulo Biennale for the first time in 1951 and was presented there again in 1955.

In 1954, Tobey began work on his Meditative series. The Otto Seligman Gallery in Seattle represented Tobey’s works on the West Coast, under contract with the artist.

The painter Mark Tobey’s international recognition

Mark Tobey went on to win recognition in Europe, where art exhibitions dedicated to his work were held on a regular basis from 1955 onwards. His first European exhibition was presented by the Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris. A retrospective of Tobey’s work was also organised at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.

In 1956, Tobey took part in the American Painting exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, exhibiting alongside Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. In the same year, Tobey became a permanent member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in the United States. Tobey also began work on his Above the Earth series at around this time. He received the Guggenheim International Award and the American Institute of Architects’ Fine Arts Medal the following year. Tobey painted his Sumi ink works in 1957.

In 1958, Tobey took part in the exhibition 50 ans d’art moderne in Brussels. A touring retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work travelled between the Seattle Art Museum, the Portland Art Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Pasadena Art Museum and the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco during the period from 1959 to 1960. Tobey was also featured at Documenta II in Kassel in 1959 and then at Documenta III in 1964.

In 1960, Tobey was selected to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but he refused the nomination, moving to Switzerland in the same year, where he settled in Basel. A retrospective exhibition of Tobey’s work was organised at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in Mannheim, Germany. The following year, Tobey was awarded first prize at the International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. He also had his first exhibition at the Galerie Beyeler in Basel, where he was subsequently exhibited on a regular basis. A retrospective exhibition of Tobey’s work was presented at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1961, then at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

In 1966, a touring retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work travelled to the Stedeljik Museum in Amsterdam, the Kunsthalle in Bern, the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover and the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf.

Tobey was made a Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters in Paris in 1968 and went on to receive the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Award in 1970. On Tobey’s 80th birthday, the artist was honoured with retrospective exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum and the Galerie Beyeler in Basel.

The painter Mark Tobey died on 24 April 1976 in Basel. Numerous exhibitions were organised in tributes to his life, including Mark Tobey 1890 – 1976 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Writing about Tobey, the art critic Michel Ragon noted: “His art, though unassuming, is nonetheless a continual dialogue with the spirit. There are the Tablets of the Law whose indecipherable writing often moves us like messages from another world.”

© Diane de Polignac Gallery
Translation: Lucy Johnston

mark tobey - portrait atelier

Selected collections

Selected collections

Basel, Kunstmuseum

Basel, Fondation Beyeler

Baltimore, MD, The Baltimore Museum of Art

Bremen, Kunsthalle

Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Buffalo, NY, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Caen, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Chicago, IL, Art Institute

Cleveland, OH, Cleveland Museum of Art

Dallas, TX, Dallas Museum of Art

Davenport, IA, Figge Art Museum

Detroit, MI, The Detroit Institute of Arts

Devon, Dartington Hall Trust

Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen

Essen, Museum Folkwang

Greensburg, PA, Westmoreland Museum of American Art

Houston, TX, Museum of Fine Arts

Houston, TX, The Menil Collection

Indianapolis, IN, Indianapolis Museum of Art

Lakeland, FL, Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland

Lisbon, Museu Berardo

London, Tate Modern

Los Angeles, CA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Los Angeles, CA, Museum of Contemporary Art

Madrid, Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Madrid, Museo de Arte Thyssen-Bornemisza

Mönchengladbach (Germany), Museum Abteiberg

New York, NY, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, NY, The Museum of Modern Art

New York, NY, Whitney Museum of American Art

New York, NY, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Palm Beach, FL, Norton Museum of Art

Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou

Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris

Philadelphia, PA, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Portland, OR, Portland Art Museum

Raleigh, NC, North Carolina Museum of Art

Rome, National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art

Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen

San Francisco, CA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Seattle, WA, Seattle Art Museum

Seattle, WA, Frye Art Museum

Saint Louis, MI, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

Stockholm, Moderna Museet

Tehran, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art

Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Vienna, MUMOK

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art

Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art

Washington, D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum

Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution

Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Washington

Wilmington, NC, Delaware Art Museum

Winterthur, Kunstmuseum

Zurich, Kunsthaus

Selected exhibitions

Selected exhibitions

M. Knoedler & Co, Inc., New York, 1917, 1960, 1976

The Arts Club, Chicago, 1928, 1940

Paintings and Drawings by Mark Tobey, Romany Marie’s Café Gallery, New York, 1928

Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1921, 1930, 1942, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1960, 1970, 1976, 1978, 1990, 2007, 2013

Drawings and Watercolours by Mark Tobey, Harry Hartman Bookstore and Gallery, Seattle, 1931

Seattle Art Museum, 1934, 1940, 1942, 1945, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1963, 1968, 1970, 1978, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2014

Paintings and Drawings by Mark Tobey, Beaux Arts Gallery, London, 1934

Art Institute, Chicago, 1940, 1946, 1948, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1959, 1961

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1942, 1944, 1950, 1993

Willard Gallery, New York, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, 1957, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974

Annual group exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from 1945 to 1967; 1971, 1977, 1990, 2012

Touring solo exhibition, Portland Art Museum; San Francisco Museum of Art; The Arts Club of Chicago; Alger House, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1945–1946

Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1945, 1951

Tate Gallery, London, 1946, 1956, 1964

Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York, 1948, 1949, 1950

Venice Biennale, 1948, 1956, 1958, 1964

Margaret Brown Gallery, Boston, 1949, 1951, 1954, 1956

Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1950, 1951, 1954, 1967

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1950, 1956, 1960

Mark Tobey Retrospective, touring solo exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; the University of Washington; the Henry Gallery, Seattle and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1951

São Paulo Biennale, 1951, 1955

Otto Seligman Gallery, Seattle, 1954, 1957, 1962, 1965

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1955

Galerie Stadler, Paris, 1955, 1956, 1958

Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris, 1955, 1960, 1965, 1968, 2006, 2007, 2016, 2018

Retrospective, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1955, 1995

Cinquante ans d’art aux États-Unis, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1955

Peintres contemporains américains, Musée Galliera, Paris, 1957

50 ans d’Art Moderne, touring exhibition, Brussels, 1958

Orient – Occident. Rencontres et Influences durant 50 siècles d’Art, Cernuschi Museum, Paris, 1958

Mark Tobey. A Retrospective exhibition from Northwest Collections, Seattle Art Museum; Portland Art Museum; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; Pasadena Art Museum; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 1959–1960

Documenta II, Kassel, 1959, Documenta III, 1964

Tobey Retrospektive, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Mannheim 1960–1961

Art Contemporain, Galerie Nationale du Grand Palais, Paris, 1963

International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 1961

Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1976, 1980, 1989, 1990, 1993, 2002

Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, Paris, 1960, 1961

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1961, 1964, 1976, 2009

Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Phillips Collection, Washington, 1962

Mark Tobey. Retrospective: Paintings and Drawings 1925-1961, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1962

Retrospective, Cleveland Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, 1962

Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Gothenburg (Sweden), 1962

National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1963, 1973, 1984

Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1970

Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne, 1965, 1971, 1990, 2005

Mark Tobey: Works 1933-1966, Stedeljik Museum, Amsterdam; Kunsthalle, Bern; Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover; Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 1966

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1966, 1968, 1973

U.S.A. Art Vivant, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, 1966

Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1967, 1972, 1973

Retrospective, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, 1968

Works of Art of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Collected by Louise and Joseph Pulitzer Jr., City Art Museum, St. Louis, 1968

Betty Parsons’ Private Collection, Finch College Museum of Art, New York, 1968

L’Espace lyrique – L’action painting, l’abstraction lyrique et leurs environs : le signe, la tâche, le nuage … des années cinquante à nos jours, Centre d’Art Contemporain de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu, Ginals-Lexos (France), 1973

Tribute to Mark Tobey, Smithsonian Institution, National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington; Seattle Art Museum; City Art Museum, St. Louis, 1974–1975

Tobey. Rückblick auf harmonische Weltbilder, Retrospective, Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, 1975

Paris – New York, 1908-1968, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1977

Mark Tobey. Graphics, Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1979

The Contemporary Art Gallery, Seibu, Tokyo, 1985

Cinquante ans de dessins américains 1930 – 1980, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1985

Mark Tobey. Between worlds. Opere 1935-1975, Retrospective, Museo d’Arte, Mendrisio (Switzerland) and the Museum Folkwang, Essen, 1989

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 1989, 1997

Mark Tobey. Works on Paper from Northern California and Seattle Collections. Celebrating the centenary of the artist’s birth, Stanford University Museum of Art, Stanford Art Gallery, 1990

Jahrgang 1890. Mark Tobey, Kunstmuseum, Basel, 1990

Die großen Sammlungen – The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Von Cézanne bis Pollock, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1992

Les Nymphéas avant et après, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, 1992

Fundação Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva, Lisbon, 1995

The Exhibition of Swiss Private Collections, Hokkaido Museum of Art, Sapporo; Huis ten Bosch Museum of Art and Municipal Museum of Art, Kyoto; Mitsukoshi Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1995

Kurt Lidtke Galleries, Seattle, 1998, 1999, 2000

Die Nähe des Entfernten – Mark Tobey, curated by H. Hachmeister, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, 1999

Achim Moeller Fine Art, Berlin, 2000, 2011, 2013

Master drawings from the Smith College Museum of Art, The Frick Collection, New York, 2001

National Museum of Art Osaka, Osaka, 2001, 2006

Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles, 2003, 2016

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2009, 2017

Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne, 2009, 2013

Monet and Abstraction, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Marmottan Monet Museum, Paris, 2010

Contemporary Art and Calligraphy – At the Nexus of Painting and Writing, Seoul Calligraphy Museum, Seoul Arts Center, 2013

Approaching Infinity, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento (CA), 2013

In progress, Works from the MUMOK collection, MUMOK Vienna, 2013

Contemplating East Asia: Mark Tobey and Sam Francis, Ackland Art Museum (NC), 2014

American painters in Paris, Diane de Polignac Gallery, Paris, 2015

Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2016

Nymphéas. L’abstraction américaine et le dernier Monet, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, 2018

Selected bibliography

Selected bibliography

Portraits by Mark Tobey, M. Knoedler & Co. Gallery, New York, 1917

Paintings by Mark Tobey, Portland Art Museum/San Francisco Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts, 1945/1946

Fourteen Americans, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946

Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951

Mark Tobey Retrospective, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1951

Mark Tobey. Retrospective Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1951

Christian Zervos, Mark Tobey, in Cahiers d’Art 29/2, Paris, 1954

Mark Tobey, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1955

Contemporary Calligraphers – John Marin, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1956

Pierre Restany, Tobey, in Cimaise. Art et architecture actuels 5/4, Paris, 1958

Courtois, M., Mark Tobey. Des Pictogrammes indiens à l’écriture blanche, in Cahiers du Musée de Poche, Paris, 1959

Roberts, C., Mark Tobey, Le Musée de Poche collection, Georges Fall, Paris, 1959

Mark Tobey. A Retrospective exhibition from Northwest Collections, Seattle Art Museum, 1959

Roberts, C., Drawings by Mark Tobey, Grove Press Inc., New York, 1960

Choay, F., Mark Tobey, Peintres d’aujourd’hui collection, Fernand Hazan, Paris, 1961

Mark Tobey. Retrospective, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, Paris, 1961

Tobey, Konstsalongen Samlaren, Stockholm/Göteborgs Konstmuseum 1962/63

American Drawings, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1964

Mark Tobey, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1966

Mark Tobey. Werke 1933-1966, Kunsthalle Bern, 1966

Mark Tobey, Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 1966

Mark Tobey, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, 1966

Mark Tobey Retrospective, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1968

Tobey’s 80. A Retrospective, Seattle Art Museum, 1970/71

Muller, W.K., Prints and Multiples, in Arts 46, December 1971

Mark Tobey. Prints, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1971

Mark Tobey. A Decade of Printmaking, The Cincinnati Art Museum, 1972

Tribute to Mark Tobey, Smithsonian Institution, National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington/Seattle Art Museum/City Art Museum, St. Louis, 1974/1975

Mark Tobey. Rückblick auf harmonische Weltbilder, Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, 1975

Paris – New York, 1908-1968, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1977

Mark Tobey. Graphics, Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1979

Yao, M.-C., The Influence of Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy on Mark Tobey (1890-1976), San Francisco, 1983

Kelly, Edward Rulief, Mark Tobey and the Bahá’í Faith: New Perspectives on the Artist and His Paintings, PhD diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 1983

Mark Tobey. Between worlds. Opere 1935-1975, edited by M. Bärmann, Museo d’Arte, Mendrisio/Museum Folkwang, Essen, 1989

Mark Tobey. Works on Paper from Northern California and Seattle Collections. Celebrating the centenary of the artist’s birth, Stanford University Museum of Art, Stanford Art Gallery, 1990

Feininger and Tobey. Years of Friendship 1944-1956. The Complete Correspondence, Achim Moeller Fine Art, New York, 1991

Mark Tobey, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, edited by K. de Barañano/M. Bärmann, Madrid, 1997

McDonald, R., Histories of the Transcendental in Art. Romanticism, Zen and Mark Tobey, Canterbury (Thesis), 1999

Nymphéas. L’abstraction américaine et le dernier Monet, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, 2018