Mark George Tobey (December 11, 1890 – April 24, 1976) was an American painter. His densely structured compositions, inspired by Asian calligraphy, resemble Abstract expressionism, although the motives for his compositions differ philosophically from most Abstract Expressionist painters.
His work was widely recognized throughout the United States and Europe. Along with Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and William Cumming, Tobey was a founder of the Northwest School.
Senior in age and experience, he had a strong influence on the others; friend and mentor, Tobey shared their interest in philosophy and Eastern religions. Similar to others of the Northwest School, Tobey was mostly self-taught after early studies at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Tobey was an incessant traveler, visiting Mexico, Europe, Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, China and Japan. After converting to the Bahá’í Faith, it became an important part of his life. Whether Tobey’s all-over paintings, marked by oriental brushwork and calligraphic strokes, were an influencer on Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings has been left unanswered.
Born in Centerville, Wisconsin, Tobey lived in the Seattle, Washington area for most of his life before moving to Basel, Switzerland in the early 1960s with his companion, Pehr Hallsten; Tobey died there in 1976.
Tobey was the youngest of four children in the Congregationalist family. His parents were George Tobey, a carpenter and house builder, and Emma Cleveland Tobey. The father carved animals from stone and sometimes drew animals for young Mark to cut out with scissors. In 1893, the family settled in Chicago.
He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1906 to 1908, but, like others of the Northwest School, was mostly self-taught. In 1911, he moved to New York City where he worked as a fashion illustrator for McCall’s. His first one-man show was held at Knoedler & Company in lower Manhattan, in 1917.
The following year, Tobey came in contact with New York portrait artist and Bahá’í Juliet Thompson—an associate of Khalil Gibran—and posed for her. During the session, Tobey read some Bahá’í literature and accepted an invitation to Green Acre where he converted to the Bahá’í faith. His conversion led him to explore the representation of the spiritual in art. In the following years, Tobey delved into works of Arabian literature and teachings of East Asian philosophy.
Tobey expected to return to teaching in England in 1938, but the mounting tensions of war building in Europe kept him in the US. Instead, he began to work on the Federal Art Project, under the supervision of Inverarity. In June 1939, when Tobey attended a Bahá’í summer program and overstayed his allotted vacation time, Inverarity dropped him from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. Tobey met the Swedish scholar, Pehr Hallsten (died 1965, Basel), in Ballard, in 1939 and they became companions, living together from 1940.
By 1942, Tobey’s process of abstractionism was accompanied by a new calligraphic experiment. Marian Willard of the Willard Gallery in New York had seen some of Tobey’s WPA paintings and gave him a show in 1944, which was considered to be a major success. In 1945, he gave a solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Arts Club of Chicago held solo shows of his work in 1940 and 1946.
He studied the piano and the theory of music with Lockrem Johnson, and, when Johnson was away, with Wesley Wehr, who was introduced to Tobey in 1949 by their pianist friend Berthe Poncy Jacobson. Wehr, an undergraduate at the time, happily accepted the opportunity to serve as a stand-in music composition tutor for Tobey and over time became friends with him and his circle of artists, becoming a painter himself, as well as a chronicler of the group.
Tobey showed at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1951. He also spent three months as guest critic of graduate students’ work at Yale University on the invitation of Josef Albers and had his first retrospective show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
In 1952, the film “Tobey, Mark: Artist” debuted in the Venice and Edinburgh film festivals. Acknowledging “academic responsibility” Hallsten enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington’s department of Scandinavian languages and literature in the early 1950s and, after receiving his master’s degree, Tobey began referring to him by the honorific, Professor.
On September 28, 1953, Life magazine published an article on Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, and Morris Graves entitled “Mystic Painters of the Northwest” which placed them in the national limelight. The four were considered founders of the Northwest School.
He held a solo show at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris in 1955, and traveled to Basel and Bern. He began his ink wash paintings two years later. In 1958, he became the second American, after James Abbott McNeill Whistler, to win the International Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale.
Tobey and Hallsten emigrated to Basel, Switzerland in the early 1960s. Tobey, who had been an incessant traveler in earlier years,(Etulain 1996, p. 134) concentrated on his art, while Hallsten felt restless and traveled through Europe, returning to Basel. In 1960, Tobey participated in the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, and in the following year, he became the first American painter to exhibit at the Pavillon de Marsan in Paris.
Solo exhibits occurred at MoMa in 1962, and at the Stedelijk Museum in 1966, the same year that he visited the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa. In 1967, he showed again at the Willard Gallery, and held a Retrospective show at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts the following year. Another major retrospective of the artist’s work took place at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts in 1974. Tobey died in Basel in 1976.
At least five of his works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Northwest Art. Tobey’s work can also be found in most major museums in the U.S. and internationally, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
There have been at least four posthumous individual exhibitions of Tobey’s work: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA, 1984; Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, 1989; Galerie Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland, 1990; and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain, November 11, 1997 – January 12, 1998 where the exhibition brought together about 130 works from some 56 different collections, covering the years from 1924 to 1975.
Anatoma tobeyoides, a species of sea snail, is named in honor of Tobey.