Mark Tobey, “Untitled,” 1971

Student Zach Miller wrote a research paper on our Mark Tobey lithograph for ART 3683: History of Twentieth Century Art last fall. This blog post is excerpted from his paper.

Mark Tobey’s untitled 1971 lithograph evokes a sense of static illusion. It’s primarily made up of 5 colors: red, yellow, blue, beige, and black. The piece was likely made from 5 different lithographic plates, one for each color. The mark making in this piece is made of short angular intersecting lines that all blend together, forming a texture similar to static on a television, or of words- disassembled and intermingled into a large conglomerate mass.

Mark Tobey (American, 1890-1976). "Untitled," 1971. Lithograph, 26 1/4 x 18 3/4 in (image). Gift of Smith and Nancy Holt, 07-0012.

Mark Tobey (American, 1890-1976). “Untitled,” 1971. Lithograph, 26 1/4 x 18 3/4 in (image). Gift of Smith and Nancy Holt, 07-0012.

When I saw Untitled in person I was surprised by the size of the piece, it seems much smaller when viewing it on a computer screen. It is 18 ¾ by 26 ¼ inches, which in the context of printmaking is fairly large. Tobey used a style in his work that is known as “all over” mark making. This kind of drawing and painting gives the entire composition an equal amount of attention. From a distance one might suggest that it represents an abyss, celestial fog, or city map, but up close the illusion dissipates. Tobey’s frantic hatch marks are revealed and the array of colors one may have thought they saw at a distance is reduced to the dominant colors, beige and black. What could his exclusive use of line and line only possibly mean? What could Tobey’s use of repetitive mark making imply about the artist’s philosophy?

Mark Tobey created Untitled in 1971 at the end of his career and five years before his death in 1976. His life and art can be understood through his association with the Seattle art scene, travel to the Orient, and religious ideologies influenced by Buddhism and Taoism as a result of those travels, along with his lifelong dedication to the Baha’i faith. After World War II, with the beginnings of the atomic bomb and the cybernetic age, man began to question traditional western theology and philosophy. Zen and Tao thought provided new concepts, which were particularly intriguing to the entire art community in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Mark Tobey was a middleman for the entrance of eastern influence on the modernist western art scene of the United States.

In 1922 Mark Tobey first moved to Seattle from Wisconsin where he was born and raised. Seattle was home to the Northwest School, and located at a midway point between the East and West. It was there that Tobey was introduced to and benefitted from a group of “local socialites whose cultural elitism had an Orientalist tendency.” Tobey also befriended a student at the University of Washington named Tend Kuei in 1923. Kuei introduced Tobey to Asian brushwork, which led Tobey to embark on his first and only trip to East Asia where he studied calligraphy in 1934.

Mark Tobey, "Untitled," 1971, detail. Photo by Zach Miller.

Mark Tobey, “Untitled,” 1971, detail. Photo by Zach Miller.

During his travels Mark Tobey spent an entire month at a Kyoto Japan Zen monastery called Enpuku-ji. He spent time meditating and studying Zen painting which led him to adopt a style of “writing” that can be seen throughout his artistic career. This style of art making allowed Tobey to construe a pictorial matrix from brush strokes without dissolving the expressive integrity of the strokes themselves. In other words, it allowed Tobey to form a pictorial space built solely by lines and without blending or shading. This technique allowed his viewers to observe every gestural stroke as an individual element that contributed to the whole.

Mark Tobey’s travels also sparked an interest in Asian cultural and religious ideologies. Philosophical speculations on the Void and an understanding of the relationship between man and nature as a continuum may have informed Tobey’s tendency to scatter his draftsmanship evenly throughout his visual field, an innovation which eliminated the figure/ground duality that had long been conventional in Western art.

In 1957 Tobey stated, “I live in Seattle because I don’t like to get too far away from Eastern culture—especially the Japanese.” Ironically, it was his ties with the east that likely kept him from gaining fame and recognition from the modernist critics of the time that were associated with the New York art movement. Tobey was aware of his outlying position from New York modernism; he once said, “I know Kline exists and Pollock, but I have another note.”

Mark Tobey was a member of the Baha’i faith from 1918 onward. Baha’i arose in the late 19th century in the Middle East and stems from Islam. Its literature is “filled with radical anti-nationalism, prophesizing future global unity, a single world state and, indeed, one world language.” Tobey’s interest in writing and language may not have stemmed solely from his travels in Asia—he may have felt that he actually was writing his feelings in a universal visual language. Even more, the viewer is not limited to a beginning and end to his writing; the all over style leaves the beginning or end of Tobey’s work to be explored subjectively by each individual participant. This non chronological style of composing his images only reinforces the influence of eastern thought associated with his work, for Zen and Taoism hold a cyclic philosophy concerning the passage of time, as does Tobey’s Baha’i faith.

Mark Tobey’s Untitled of 1971 is an accumulation of his learned experiences in art and life. He writes it out very carefully for us to see, and learn from for ourselves. It reminds us to maintain awareness of all the parts that make up the whole, and of the void that lies outside it. Tobey’s philosophy and beliefs about art could arguably be one of the most overlooked subjects within art history, for he held true alongside many superstars of art yet remains highly unrecognized by many.


Further Reading:

Clarke, David. “Teng Baiye and Mark Tobey: Interactions between Chinese and American Art in Shanghai and Seattle.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly , Vol. 93, No. 4 (Fall, 2002), pp. 171-179.

Freeman, Michael Russell. “’The eye burns gold, burns crimson, and fades to ash’: Mark Tobey as a critical anomaly.” Dissertation, Indiana University, 2000.

McGonigle, Marianne Nadler. “Elements of Buddhism in the works of Mark Tobey and Agnes Martin.” Dissertation, Texas Woman’s University, 1993.

Winther-Tamaki, Bert. “Mark Tobey, White Writing for a Janus-Faced America,” Word & Image vol.13, no.1 (January-March 1997), pp.77-91.


About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in permanent collection, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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