December 11, 1890 – Mark Tobey:
“According to one critic, my works looked like scrapped billboards. I went to look at the billboards and decided that more billboards should be scrapped.”
Famed painter Jackson Pollock saw Mark Tobey’s work in 1944 and described Tobey as the “exception” to the rule that “real” American painting took place only in New York. Soon, Pollock unveiled big, new all-over drip paintings that became a sensation. Historians battle over how much credit Tobey should get for ideas popularized by Pollock. I’m sympathetic to the West Coast underdog story.
I lived in Seattle for 20 years (1981-2001) where Tobey was sort of the patron saint of Pacific Northwest painting. The Seattle Art Museum has a large selection of his work and his paintings are ubiquitous in important Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks executives’ collections. I even know of one in a hotel lobby and a bar, albeit a swank place. Seattle is privileged to have at least four internationally known gay artists: Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and composer, John Cage.
Ever since a 1953 LIFE magazine article anointed Tobey, Graves and Anderson, “Mystic Painters of the Northwest,” they have become local legends. Never mind that by the time the article appeared, they were barely on speaking terms. The label stuck. Rightly or wrongly, the mystics are still the city’s painterly icons.
And yet, they are surprisingly elusive in their own city. There are no plaques on their houses; no snapshots on the mirrors of bars or cafes; except for Pike Place Market, which Tobey sketched over and over, hardly any recognizable urban landmarks or vistas that they claimed as their own. Tobey is usually the one associated with the Pike Place Market. He visited often to sketch the food stalls and the rush of humanity. Tobey:
“Every day in the Market was a fiesta. It has been for me a refuge, an oasis, a most human growth, the heart and soul of Seattle.”
All of that group of artists loved the Market. The Husband and I lived there for a short time in the mid-1980s; we were so in love with the energy and colors of the place. We only moved because a large parking structure was being constructed outside of the single large window of our loft.
Tobey donated 30 lithographs to the Friends of The Market. The sale of the art works went to funding a 1971 a public initiative that was approved by the citizens of Seattle, creating and preserving the Pike Place Market Historical District.
Tobey was urbane, goateed, fiercely professional, and a veteran of the New York and Paris art scenes when he returned to Seattle in the late 1930’s. By the end of the 1930s, something about Chinese calligraphy and the nervous energy of the young Seattle hoisting itself out of the Depression fused in Tobey’s imagination and he made the great breakthrough of his “white writing”, an all-over web of white scribbles over a vaguely recognizable urban iconography. A painter of small abstract works with underlying religious themes as well as illustrator and muralist, his “white writing” paintings give the impression of being expansive and much larger than they are. He said that his work was an answer to the music of the universe. He had looked very closely at nature, and even the most ethereal of his abstract paintings often turned out to be the memory of a moment in a particular place.
Graves, secretly but intensely ambitious, was intrigued by Tobey’s work. Tobey:
“He used to come here night after night and lie on the floor, asking me to show him my work, and pore over my paintings. Study them. Then stole them.”
The rift between Tobey and Graves triggered “incredible scenes” all over the city, causing scandals in their wake.
Finding the Bahai World Faith in 1918, and later Zen Buddhism, was essential to Tobey’s life and work, with themes of oneness and progression. His commitment to spiritual expression in painting gave Tobey a renowned reputation as a modernist but he was always more appreciated in Europe and Asia than here in the USA.
“There have been 32 isms since the advent of cubism, we have just been confused by the storm. . . we forget that there are today great men in the religious field with as much to offer. . . religion like science must be balanced to bring men to a state of equilibrium and that and that only will bring peace.”
Born in Centerville, Wisconsin, the beginning of his lifelong travels commenced in 1925 when he left for Europe, settling in Paris where Tobey met Gertrude Stein. He also traveled to Barcelona and Greece. In Constantinople, Beirut and Haifa, he studied Arab and Persian writing.
Upon returning to Seattle in 1927 he was hired by Nellie Cornish, a respected piano teacher, to build a visual arts department for her namesake school, then primarily admired for its music and dance programs. Tobey shared a live-in studio near the Cornish School of the Arts with the teenage artist, Robert Bruce Inverarity, who was 20 years younger. Inverarity was a blonde, six-and-a-half feet tall, pipe-smoking artist who had already achieved a degree of local notoriety. A 1928 newspaper profile described him as:
“…one of the most unusual people in Seattle, no matter how you look at him. He’s Seattle’s youngest recognized artist. He’s taking an active part in introducing ‘modern art’ to a city that knew him as a school boy.”
Tobey lived in the Seattle area for most of his life before moving to Basel, Switzerland in the early 1960s with his lover, Swedish painter Pehr Hallsten.
Tobey worked as a commercial illustrator, and from 1911 to 1922, he lived and worked in New York where he did fashion illustration for McCall’s magazine and other periodicals.
Living in Seattle, he worked closely with artists in the city’s large Asian community and studied Chinese brushwork. He developed his signature “white writing”, inspired by the Asian calligraphy. His paintings reflect substance but not solidity, suggesting space with non-space and strokes of spirituality of the cosmos.
He was probably the first painter of the Pacific Northwest School to achieve international fame. He was also an irritable, irascible man with many difficult relationships and only a few close friends.
A man of his time, he was not fully out of the closet, but his gayness was an open secret. He was with his Hallsten for 20 years, and in 1960 they moved to Switzerland with his secretary Mark Ritterm living as a “thruple”. Tobey continued to live with Ritter, after Hallsten’s death in 1966.
Even as an old man, Tobey had the physical energy to do large-scale paintings that astonished his admirers; and he retained his salty, uncompromising outlook on life to the end. He left this world in 1976 at 85 years old. Tobey is remembered as an authentic gay American original.
His works are in the permanent collections of Seattle Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, The Henry Gallery at University of Washington, and the Museum of Northwest Art. Tobey’s work can also be found in most major museums internationally, including: Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Guggenheim in Venice, Tate Gallery London; the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Chicago Art Institute, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Phillips Gallery in Washington DC.