Texts about Mark Tobey

John Cage

in: Marion Boyars, For the Birds. John Cage in conversation with Daniel Charles. Boston and London 1981


One day we were taking a walk together, from the Cornish School to the Japanese restaurant where we were going to dine together - which meant we crossed through most of the city. Well, we couldn't really walk. He would continually stop to notice something surprising everywhere - on the side of a shack or in an open space. That walk was a revelation for me. It was the first time that someone else had given me a lesson in looking without prejudice, someone who didn't compare what he was seeing with something before, who was sensitive to the finest nuances of light. Tobey would stop on the sidewalks, sidewalks which we normally didn't notice when we were walking, and his gaze would immediately turn them into a work of art. He was attentive to the slightest detail. For him, everything was alive. He had an extraordinary sense of the presence of things. His work was unbelievably diverse. He is often compared to Picasso. He was our own, an American Picasso! Then, of course, there are a lot of his works which don't interest me. But I believe I was fascinated by those I liked more than by any other paintings. Since then, perhaps I have never again quite had the same feeling. (Yes; at Basel, this year, in front of one of his works.- John Cage: footnote of 1972) The ones I prefer of them all are his White Writings. (And of these, I prefer those which contain no figurativeelement.- John Cage: footnote of 1972) These are white paintings from the Thirtees which give the impression that each brushstroke bears a specific quality of white. In my opinion, they surpass Pollock's canvases. Pollock's colors seem to come out of buckets, and if you have five colors, that's all you get. While with Tobey, you can't count them all. Tobey is nature!


Keith Haring

in: John Gruen, Keith Haring, Die autorisierte Biographie. München 1991


Und ich begann mich mit Jackson Pollock auseinanderzusetzen, besonders mit seinen frühen abstrakten Sachen, und mit Paul Klee, mit Alfonso Ossorio und Mark Tobey - und plötzlich sah ich mich mit dem ganzen östlichen Kunstverständnis konfrontiert, das einen tiefen Eindruck hinterließ. Nicht, daß ich mich im entferntesten als gleichrangig empfand, doch hatte jeder dieser Künstler Aspekte in seinem Werk, die auch ich erforschte, und deshalb habe ich sie intensiv studiert, um herauszufinden, wer sie waren, und mir auf diese Weise klarzuwerden, wer ich war - und wo ich herkam. (S.28)


Ich nahm oft die Subway, wenn ich Museen oder Galerien besuchte, und mir stachen nicht bloß die großflächigen Graffiti an der Außenseite der Waggons ins Auge, sondern auch die faszinierenden Schriftzeichen im Innern. Ihre Kalligraphie erinnerte mich an das, was ich über chinesische und japanische Kalligraphie gelernt hatte. Hier spielte auch die Unmittelbarkeit einer Zeichengestik hinein, die ich bei Dubuffet, Mark Tobey und Alechinsky entdeckt hatte - der spontane Impuls, der aus dem Kopf direkt in die Hand fließt. (S.43)

Julia and Lyonel Feininger

in: Mark Tobey. Exhibition catalogue Willard Gallery, New York 1945


Mark Tobey's pictures are not optical in the traditional sense of paintings; they do not catch the eye through vivid color. Tobey himself speaks of his latest works as „white writing", but it is the handwriting of the painter, a painter who, for the tales he has to tell in his pictures, has created a new convention of his own, one not yet included in the history of painting. Though there may arise in the mind of the beholder associations of ideas with hieroglyphs, runes, or the script in Chinese paintings, there is no relationship whatever, for it is a completely different spirituality which dominates Tobey's work. His highly sensitive technique captures something of the fleeting values of our life; it is an expression adequate for times like ours, where old-accustomed stability has given way to changed concepts of space, where boundaries are almost non-existent, and in which time itself has acquired new definitions; in which the intricacies of existence overlay the fundamentals of life, and man as never before has to struggle for a way out.

Like poetry and music, his pictures have the time element, they unfold their contents gradually. With an active imagination they have to be approached, read, and their symbols interpreted. They reveal their tenor if one listens with the inner ear, „the ear of the heart", as Jean Paul calls it. (...)

With an unusual intensity Tobey builds up these worlds of his visions. Deeply inclined towards religion, philosopher and sage, he knows the truth of the saying of Meister Eckhart: „If you seek the kernel, then you must break the shell. And likewise if you would know the reality of Nature, you must destroy the appearance, and the farther you go beyond the appearance, the nearer you will be to the essence".

Naum Gabo

In: Mark Tobey. Between worlds. Opere 1935-1975, Museo d'Arte, Mendrisio/Museum Folkwang, Essen 1989


Mark Tobey's art is unique among us so-called abstract artists. He resembles no one in his work.

Inasmuch as music is the highest and purest form of abstract art, Mark Tobey's is nearer to music than anyone elses in the field of abstract art. A musical composition can be perceived and felt only by following the continuation of the basic motif and the guiding rhythm of change upon which the whole work is built. Similarly, the work of Mark Tobey can only be entirely felt and absorbed when one grasps the basic motif and follows th rhythm of change in the waves upon which the whole structure is based. When I look at any painting of his I always feel something cosmic in the structure of its everchanging phrases, which I would call visual counterpoint. At the same time, I feel the beating of the pulse of real life in the intensity with which he sustains in his work the changing chain of colors in his compositions.

Mark Tobey's painting can be fully felt and appreciated when one perceives with all one's senses the flow of the inner web of his basic design and rhythm. The reason is that the element of time is always present, and the flow and continuity of its rhythm both in the design and in the color is vying with musical composition.

This is how I look and this is what I see in Mark Tobey's paintings. This is why I love them.


John Cage

in: Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage. Limelight Editions New York 1988


And though I loved the work of Morris Graves, and still do, it was Tobey who had a great effect on my way of seeing, which is to say my involvement with painting, or my involvement with life even. I remember in particular a walk with Mark Tobey from the area of Seattle around the Cornish School downhill and through the town toward a Japanese restaurant - a walk that would not normally take more than forty-five minutes, but on this occasion it must have taken several hours, because he was constantly stopping and pointing out things to see, opening my eyes in other words - which, if I understand it at all, has been a function of twentieth-century art: to open our eyes; not to do as the Surrealists wish, that is to say, to make us less guilty perhaps, or something like that. (174)

Now I don't remember the exact date of it, whether it was in the early or middle forties, but there was an exhibition at the Willard Gallery

which included the first examples of white writing on the part of Mark. I liked one so much that I began buying it on the installment plan. I've since, unfortunately, sold it. It was a painting that had no representation in it at all, though his paintings including his write writing paintings frequently do have representational elements. This one had nothing. It was completely, so to speak, abstract. It had no symbolic references. It was a surface that had been utterly painted. But it had not been painted in a way that would suggest the geometrical abstraction that interested me, so it brought about a change. And also that walk to the Japanese restaurant brought about a change in my eyes, and in my relation to art, so that when I left the WillardGallery exhibition, I was standing at a corner on Madison Avenue waiting for a bus and I happened to look at the pavement, and I noticed that the experience of looking at the pavement was the same as the experience of looking at the Tobey. Exactly the same. The aesthetic enjoyment was just as high. Now this didn't keep me from buying the Tobey, and painfully buying it. So, you have a change then in my view. Now this change, that was really the result of my involvement with Tobey, naturally opened my eyes to Abstract Expressionism, not to its intentions, but to its appearance. (...)


What you have in the case of Tobey, and in the case of the pavement, and in the case of much Abstract Expressionism, is a surface that in no sense has a center of interest, so that it is truly distinguished from most art, Occidental and Oriental, that we know. The individual is able to look at first one part and then another, and insofar as he can, to experience the whole. But the whole is such a whole that is doesn't look as if the frame frames it. It looks as if that sort of thing could have continued beyond the frame. It is, in other words, if we were not speaking of painting, but speaking of music (...). (174/75)

But I was familiar with Tobey, and Pollock's work looked easy in relation to Tobey's work which looked far more complex. It was easy to see that, from observing a large canvas of Jackson Pollock's, he had taken five cans or six cans of paint, had never troubled to vary the color of the paint dripping from the can, and had more or less mechanically -with gesture, however, which he was believing in- let this paint fall out. So the color couldn't interest me, because it was not changing. Whereas if you look at the Tobey, you see that each stroke has a slightly different white. And if you look at your daily life, you see that it hasn't been dripped from a can either.

- But what about the pitch of intensity, the exitement?

Oh, none of those aspects interested me. They're precisely the things about Abstract Expressionism that didn't interest me. I wanted them to change my way of seeing, not my way of feeling. I'm perfectly happy about my feelings. In fact, I want to bring them, if anything, to some kind of tranquillity. I don't want to disturb my feelings. I don't want to spend my life being pushed around by a bunch of artists.

I see something I hadn't noticed before. This is also the case for me with the work of Mark Tobey, which I loved very much; so that these, in a sense, are my response to the work of Mark Tobey. In another sense, all of my work is a response to the work of Mark Tobey.

Lyonel Feininger

Letter to Mark Tobey, December 2nd 1950.


in: Feininger and Tobey. Years of Friendship 1944-1956. The Complete Correspondence. Ed. Stephen E. Hauser, Achim Moeller Fine Art, New York 1991. P. 75/76


And now, dear Mark, we saw your latest work, showing chiefly linear expression, which has always been the vehicle of your especial gift: that of calligraphy. We reacted at once strongly #and happily to your delineations of aerial presentation of vast terrestrial expanses as experienced optically, imaginatively, from great heights. We feel that with one great stride you have achieved a spatial vision which is at once satisfactory and at the same time convincingly logical, and which I should place far and away beyond anything I have knowledge of by contemporary painters. At the same time, they are breath-takingly expressive and beautiful. Man dear! I wish you joy of this years work. I know of no comparison, excepting with your own previous stages of development leading to this last manifestation. Although in its way each drawing is happy, I might mention a few which struck a deep resonance, chiefly the unicolor line drawings, in my receptive spirit. I mention The AerialCity, Canal of Cultures, -a beauty that!- Tattowed Space, Nomadia, Destillation of Myth, Mists of History, and Indian Country - this one entirely different.

Imprint & Disclaimer