Texts from Mark Tobey

Mark Tobey: Selected Notes


The old Chinese used to say: „It is better to feel a painting than to look at it.“ So much today is only to look at. It is one thing to paint a picture and another to experience it; in attempting to find on what level one accepts this experience, one discovers what one sees and on what level the discovery takes place. Christopher Columbus left in search of one world and discovered another.


The cult of space can become as dull as that of the object. The dimension that counts for the creative person is the Space he creates within himself. This inner space is closer to the infinite than the other, and it is the privilege of a balanced mind - and the search for an equilibrium is essential - to be as aware of inner space as he is of outer space.


My whole experience until I was sixteen was just purely nature. Not the mind at all, just nature.


Artists don’t repeat but always change as nature does.


At a time when experimentation expresses itself in all forms of life, search becomes the only valid expression of the spirit.


I am accused often of too much experimentation, but what else should I do when all other factors of man are in the same condition? I thrust forward into space as science and the rest do. The gods of the past are as dead today as they were when Christianity overcame the pagan world. The time is similar, only the arena is the whole world.


We’re in the age of denial of everything but physical existence.The thing we’ve got to fight for is humanism - it’s the highest thing we know; we can’t mechanize ourselves out of existence.


No doubt I did them because I am an American painter. I cannot be indifferent to the swarming crowds, multitudes, neon signs, movie theatres, to the noises that I hate of modern cities. (Concerning city paintings)


Of course when I did Broadway I did it because I loved it, because I had experienced it. It was in my bones, but I could paint it best when I was farthest from it.


I have lived all over America except the South; [...] actually lived these damned streets on Sunday where not even a cat is seen. [...] It’s that kind of a life that can live without extensions. Isolationism. But not isolated by continents and water - isolated from spiritual currents.


There is no such thing as a distinctly original artist. Every artist has its patron saints whether or not he is willing to acknowledge them. When an influence is strong enough, give in to it.


When I was a young man, I never heard of Byzantine art. [...] Now, above the horizon has come the beauty of Byzantine art - not only that, but the art the coloured people have, and the art of the Coptics, and all of the Orient and everything that has flooded the world.


Now it seems to me that we are in an universalizing period. [...] If we are to have world peace, we should have an understanding of all the idioms of beauty because the members of humanity who have created these idioms of beauty are going to be a part of us. And I would say that we are in a period when we are discovering and becoming acquainted with these idioms for the first time.


[...] universal marshland, wherein lie forms of ancient ideas and cultures apparently unrelated to us but only waiting for time to reveal themselves upon the arc of our consciousness. […]


You see when I did all of these things nobody was doing them, and I had no support so I didn’t know where I was, you see. And yet I had to do it, and I had a hard time, out of my love of figures, not to carry that along, because I like figures and I like people.


While in Japan sitting on the floor of a room and looking over an intimate garden with flowers blooming and dragonflies hovering in space, I sensed that this small world almost under foot, shall I say, had a validity all its own [...] which must be realized and appreciated from its own level in space.


Above and floating free above matted grasses, delicate thread-like structures rise and float, wind-blown as the summer passes. (Concerning Drift of summer, 1942)


Edge of August is trying to express the thing that lies between two conditions of nature, summer and fall. It’s trying to capture that transition and make it tangible. Make it sing. You might say that it’s bringing the intangible into the tangible. [...] The painting is written. I built up the wall of fog in minute, rather than structural stroke.


Turner is greater than the Impressionists [...] he dissolved everything into light.


I don’t care if it’s a picture eight feet high or eight inches high; to me it should have scale [...] if it doesn’t have that, then it’s a repetition of experiences that are the same.


Can the human be seen in the abstract? Saint Francis is a vertical. Humanism is not just figuration. The „return to the figure" does not make you a humanist. It may make you an anti-humanist.


An artist must find his expression closely linked to his individual experience or else follow in the old grooves resulting in lifeless forms.


[...] my whole idea of my painting is experiencing my life in paint.


To me an artist is one who [...] portrays the spirit of man in whatever condition that spirit may be. We can’t expect too much of him when the rest is negligent of spiritual values such as today.


The development of my work has been I feel more subconscious than conscious. I do not work by intellectual deductions. My work is a kind of self-contained contemplation.


New seeds are no doubt being sown which mean new civilizations and, let us hope, cultures too. If I do anything important in painting some age will bring it forth and understand. One naturally looks forward to the time when absolutes will reign no more and all art will be seen as valid. [...] Shall we, as we view the increasingly darkening sky, not hope for a Byzantium, some spot to keep alight the cultural values? For what else shall we live?


[...] the lights, the electric cables on the trolleys, the human streams directed by, through and round prescribed limits.


Threading Light: White lines in movement symbolize light as a unifying idea which flows through the compartmented units of life bringing a dynamic to men’s minds, ever expanding their energies toward a larger relativity.


Over the past 15 years, my approach to painting has varied, sometimes being depend on brush-work, sometimes on lines, dynamic white strokes in geometric space. I have never tried to pursue a particular style in my work. For me, the road has been a zigzag into and out of old civilizations, seeking new horizons through meditation and contemplation. My sources of inspiration have gone from those of my native Middle West to those of microscopic worlds. I have discovered many a universe on paving stones and tree barks. I know very little about what is generally called „abstract“ painting.


Pure abstraction would mean a type of painting completly unrelated to life, which is unacceptable to me. I have sought to make my painting „whole“, but to attain this I have used a whirling mass. I take up no definite position. Maybe this explains someone’s remark while looking at one of my paintings: „Where is the center?“


I try to make of each picture a world in itself, and perhaps this one seems uninteresting however much one looks at the variations in the relations of lines and in the accents of touch which I have used in the center. A much vaster world can be found here than would appear at first glance. The use of many entwining rhythms indicates my search for height and depth. One must search while one is contemplating or else there will be no reward.


I have used some of the identical forms in improvization similar to the musicians using a motif by earlier or contemporary musicians. I did not have any specific painting in mind, rather more or less the feeling of these paintings upon and into which I built a modern complex structure.


I didn’t want finalities anymore, I wanted the endless extensions. I couldn’t stand the seperation between space and figures anymore. I had to demolish it in some way with moveable lines and vortexes. My idea is to have one plane with different dimensions within that plane.


Offhand, I really don’t know how I began this period - it happened one day, a suggestion of a brown-black painting which I felt could be carried on in blacks. How long I had this Sumi paintings in cold storage or had the delayed-unrealized desire to paint them I don’t know. It was a kind of fever, like the earth in spring or a hurricane. [...] I could say I painted the Sumis to experience a heightened sense of living.


I have been meditating which painting to send you and have about decided to send you New Crescent. It is different than your others but carries a color and light harmony which makes it a top one as far as I am concerned. It is very much less programmatic but has the same spirit. [...] I made it this last early summer. [...] This, Arthur, is one of my best from my point of view but it takes some looking. I think it contains the spirit of the more figurative ones you have but it’s less easy on the eye. Anyhow, I send it as I feel it’s very representative of my work now. [...] I have tried for radiance and very subtle space changes, reflections etc.


I look forward to some quiet place to live and work but I don’t see it anywhere as yet.


I feel I’m challenged as never before to find something greater in my work and feel the next year will probably be the most difficult. [...] I have the hardest work to do now to find just what I can say and do and do it. Therefore the withdrawal I feel is necessary. (1955)


I am sixty-five next month - my things are scattered with friends and my work calls for greater concentration and contemplation than ever before, I feel [...] there are many inner as well as outer difficulties - it is not easy being an artist these days - much easier twenty-five years ago. I feel I must draw in now more than ever if I am to keep up any kind of a standard - but where? (1955)


 My plans are very uncertain. I love the land up here - and it seems either this or New York. The stimulus is in New York, that is, one can concentrate and get more work done, but all my religious paintings were made here or in England. New York excites my mind and given almost any place to paint I can manage up to a point, but I have rarely ever had decent working conditions in New York. England was fruitful as regards Baha’i work all around and I had many ideas there as regards Baha’i subjects. (1956)


I am still at 6’s and 7’s what to do - it seems my best audience is in Paris or Tokyo [...] somehow I think I should return - as I could, I am sure, make some kind of a living there [...] I can’t just paint for money or to please. (1956)


A long time has elapsed since I heard from you and my only excuse is the health and the doggoned „business“ of being a famous artist. The demands for lectures, ideas, suggestions, recommendations for scholarships is growing sickening. (1957)


I feel I must strike new ground - regardless of declining years. It’s difficult but I guess can be done. (1957)


Art comes from Art, as men come from men and flowers from flowers, and there is a Pacific Art which seems to be rising, although first noticed in Paris, and myself named as originator, which I feel is true. Art, if Pacific, must have roots either in the Orient or the American Indian as no environment per se gives „Art“. The language of Art comes from man and migrates as man does. As Malraux said: „Giotto didn’t learn to paint by looking at sheep - but by looking at Cimabue.“ (1956)


I presume <current painting> must be looked at for what the Orientals would admire - the original energies. This is so much admired in calligraphy. (1957)


I remember when I saw a water spider and it brought down a bubble of air and placed it over its nest - a magical and fantastic thing.


Oriental fragments - charakters which twist and turn drifting into Western zones forever speaking of the unity of man’s spirit. (Concerning Extensions from Bagdad)


I really could touch space [...] it became a kind of living thing [...] like a sixth sense.


Three-dimensional space consciousness is a real type of consciousness to me; but if you got in a fourth-dimensional space consciousness it would be something quite different, and then I don’t think you would have the time sense between spaces.


[...] the dematerialization of form by space penetration. [...] I made lines into mass [...] I want vibration in it so that’s why it takes so long to build this up; because I want it to have air pockets. [...] Before I get to the actual painting I have to build up mass of line.


I cover my surface completely and I put my plastic elements into motion up to the four corners. Everything stirs, everything moves, everything becomes animated.


That type of painting in which you are not allowed to rest on anything: you’re bounced off it or you have to keep moving with it. (Concerning Drift of Summer, 1942)


Multiple space bounded by involved white lines symbolizes higher states of consciousness.


Like the early cubists, I couldn’t use much color at this point as the problems were complicated enough without this additional one. (Concerning the begin of white writing)


Every artist’s problem today is „What will we do with the Human?“


I wanted to smash this image that was in space and I wanted to give the light that was in the form in space a release. [...]


I really wanted to smash form, to melt it in a more moving and dynamic way. [...]


<forms> should be freer and not so separated from the space around them. (Concerning the years 1919-1921)


That’s the only time I was ever lost in fog. Whatever I did that entire day I haven’t any idea but I know what it is to have no consciousness at all and be in a fog. [...]


Then the Armistice came and World Peace at last. It happened about eleven o’clock one morning; at two A.M. the next morning I found myself dancing in the streets; it was the one time I was completely integrated with the mass spirit. (Concerning the end of World War II)


Of course I can give many reasons, that they <sumi ink paintings> were a natural growth from my experience with the brush and sumi ink in Japan and China, but why did I wait some twenty years before doing them? There are so many suggestions on this question I could fill a book. Perhaps painting that way I freed myself or thought I did. Perhaps I wanted to paint without too much thought. I don’t think I was in the void, that rather popular place today. But then maybe I wanted to be - it’s difficult to be faster than thought. Which screen of ourselves comes first - the inner when one wants to state an inner condition, knowing it has to take flesh to be understood and knowing also that, because of the outer covering, it will be side-tracked and sit there for ones understood as a symbol without reality? Already I have gone too far, but I feel I have kept the problem in view.


How can I state in an understanding way why I did the Sumi paintings? Then, too, why after white writing should I turn to black ink? Well, the other side of the coin can be just as interesting, but to make myself simple I should remain a coin with only one side showing the imprint of man. It wouldn’t be necessary to turn me over then - no need to order or compare. Ibsen expressed it very well when he said, „Where I was ten years ago, you are now there but I am not with you.“


The Nude descending the Staircase looked to me like an explosion in a shingle mill, which I thought was the right kind of reasoning to settle it for all time. But later, after the blaze of Bellows and Henri, I saw it again in the painter’s studio, thinking this time what a wonderful abstraction.


Many times my ship has almost floundered, many times the sky has been too dark to know where art was going. The 1920’s were enough to turn any creative heart into an organ without blood. Then I saw the Nude again in Hollywood. It seemed full of the sorrows of the Son of Man. It’s the Crucifixion, I thought. I have never seen it since.


(Concerning Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912)


That day we went to Colmar [...] and I saw at last the great Grünewald Altarpiece. I can’t tell you how impressed I was. [...] The Christ’s body, mutilated to a state of horror, suggested all the Nazi camps one could imagine. His body growing heavier and heavier, all human life practically gone except in John the Baptist - serene and pointing, a witness with a consciousness beyond human drama, a vision undisturbed which knows the light-dark spinning of the earth, and human drama is only a covering for the truth which is deathless.


I keep very much to myself. I hate the avantgarde-stuff, except for Mark Rothko, but he makes things so big and just color and space. The Pollock show (at Janis) was awful as far as I am concerned. [...] I feel and want to be left alone. I have my own dreams. (March 1954)


I am no more a Northwest painter than a cat.


I have been influenced by the Baha'i religion which believes there has been but one religion which renews itself under different names. The root of all religions, from the Baha'i point of view, is based on the theory that man will gradually come to understand the unity of the world and the oneness of mankind. It teaches that all the prophets are one - that science and religion are the two great powers which must be balanced if man is to become mature. I feel my work has been influenced by these beliefs. I’ve tried to decentralize and interpenetrate so that all parts of a painting are of related value. Perhaps I‘ve hoped even to penetrate perspective and bring the far near.


Mine are the Orient, the Occident, science, religion, cities, space, and writing a picture.


[...] Japanese vision which takes into account such small forms of life - gives them the dignity of a kakemona [...] it is this awareness to nature and everything she manifests which seems to charakterize the Japanese spirit. An awareness of the smallest detail of her vastness as though the whole were contained therein and that from a leaf, an insect, a universe appeared. (1934)


Am in San Francisco - here ten days painting hard. [...] The town is incredibly beautiful - more so than any other I have ever seen anywhere. [...] I feel strangely in space since returning [...] somehow more complete than ever, more concentrated and more quiet. (1934)


I used to go and look at light with people going into it and coming out of it. It made a light focus [...] they wanted light. [...] Those foci of light are highly magnetic. (Paris 1925/26)


[...] sirens, dynamic lights, brillant parades and returning heroes. An age of confusion and stepped-up rhythms. (Remembering the 20’s)


[...] the most revolutionary sensations I have ever had in art, because while one part of me was creating these two works, another was trying to hold me back. The old and the new were in battle. It may be difficult for one who doesn’t paint to visualize the ordeal an artist goes through when his angel of vision is being shifted. (Concerning Broadway and Welcome Hero, both 1935)


But then when the crowds came, there were so many people I began to paint crowds, because they flooded the markets, and they flooded the streets, and they worked all night. That's when I made all the crowd pictures you know. And then of course it gave me a chance for interlacing of small forms also. This abstract form of agitation of points in space and so on and so forth. This gave me a chance to do the same thing with figures. (Concerning Seattle at night)


There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark. It is what started the artist off, excited his ideas, and stirred up his emotions. Man is the instrument of nature, whether he likes it or not. I didn’t copy the light of the Dieppe cliffs, nor did I pay any special attention. I was simply soaked in it.


 [...] those fellows painted light - they took light and they congealed it to planes. So they had a light plane and they had a dark plane. They had medium planes but they were working in notan: black, white, and gray. (Concerning cubism)


People say I called my painting „white writing“. I didn’t. Somebody else did. I was interested in an idea - why couldn’t structures be in white? [...] I painted them in white because I thought structures could be, should be light. What I was fundamentally interested in at the time was light.


When I play the piano for several hours, everything is clarified in my visual imagination afterwards. Everything that exists, every human being is a vibration.


Since I try to make my paintings organic, I feel that there is a relation with nature. In Drift of Summer for instance, I wanted to experience through the medium of paint a feeling of the movement of grass and floating seeds. To achieve the rhythmic impact of such I had to build the body of painting by multitudinous lines.


I often think of Chopin when I work. From time to time I have ideas, sometimes I don’t have any at all. Ideas come to me in the course of my creative work. A composer, once he has as his point of departure a series of sounds he can compose an entire symphony.


For a long time I had wanted to unite cities and city-life in my work. At last I now felt that I had found a technical approach which enabled me to capture what I was specifically interested in. Lights, threading traffic, the river of humanity [...] chartered and flowing through and around its self-imposed limitations not unlike chlorophyll flowing through the canals in a leaf.


I wanted a picture that one felt more than one looked at. [...] The Chinese always talked about this feeling that exudes from a painting, you know; and I for a long time wanted something to come slowly to you. This thing has to be established between the painting and you. You can go up to it, looks like the dullest thing on earth as though no color at all. And you stand there a while and that color will come out to you.


America, my land with its great East-West parallels, with its shooting-up towers and space-eating lights - millions of them in the vast night sky.


Our ground today is not so much the national or the regional ground as it is the understanding of this single earth. The earth has been round for some time now, but not in man’s relations to man nor in the understanding of the arts of each as a part of the roundness. As usual we have occupied ourselves too much with the outer, the objective, at the expense of the inner world wherein the true roundness lies. [...]


Ours is a universal time and the significances of such a time all point to the need for the universalizing of the consciousness and the conscience of man. It is in the awareness of this that our future depends. [...] America more than any other country is placed geographically to lead in this understanding, and if from past methods of behavior she has constantly looked toward Europe, today she must assume her position, Janus-faced, toward Asia, for in not too long a time the waves of the Orient shall wash heavily upon her shores.


All this is deeply related with her growth in the arts, particularly upon the Pacific slopes. Of this I am aware. Naturally my work will reflect such a condition and so it is not surprising to me when an Oriental responds to a painting of mine as well as an American or a European. (1946)


I have no system - I never know when I can paint; I just have to arouse myself - get into a state and forget all things if possible to make a union with what I am doing and the less I think of it - the paintings and myself, the better the result. There is a famous Zen or Tao verse - in translation thus:


Behind the technique, know


that there is the spirit (ri)


It is dawning now;


open the screen,


and lo, the moonlight is


shining in.


I think this poem and Zen and the art of archery is all one needs to know and go ahead and paint - and paint and paint and let out and then judge - if possible. This poem comes from Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture.


We hear some artists speak today of the act of painting, but a State of Mind is the first preparation and from this the action proceeds. Peace of Mind is another ideal, perhaps the ideal state to be sought for in the painting and certainly preparatory to the act.


[...] „writing“ the painting [...] became a necessety. I often thought of my way of working as a performance in that it had to be achieved all at once or not at all. (c. 1954)


I believe that painting should come through the avenues of meditation rather than the canals of action. (From the 60’s)


Work towards and away from that critical moment which takes place in a kind of trance, where solutions happen undreamed-of by conscious mind - the moment when everything fuses.


The artist no longer copies nature. He is interested in what he feels about it.


I like best to see in nature what I want in my painting. When we can find the abstract in nature we find the deepest art.


My main problem in painting is, I believe, rhythm and plasticity, often the sensitivity of touch which one calls a feeling for texture. Because I don’t have any fixed ideas, I should say, no philosophical affinity which conceived methods, my work is obviously in a state of constant flux or at least that is how it seems to me.


Always in movement - that is how the Greek philosophers saw the essential being of the soul - so, I have tried to tear out just a few scraps of that beauty which makes up the miracles of the Cosmos and which is in the multi-facetedness of life.


Some critics have criticized me for being what they called an Orientalist and for using Oriental models for my work. But they were wrong. Because when I was struggling in Japan and China with Sumi-ink and the brush, trying to understand the calligraphy of the Far-East, I became aware that I would never be anything other than the Westerner that I am. But what did develop there was what I call the calligraphic impulse that has opened out new horizons for my work. Now I could paint the turmoil and tumult of the great cities, the intertwining of the lights and the streams of people caught up in the mesh of their net.


What can we really ever do with anything we have if we have no consciousness of it and no relations to it; if that subtle but powerful essence with binds all things together and makes them all children of itself is to find no place in our hearts and in our minds!


 All things are easily explained if persons will take the trouble to see. Just as the new music of today needs a new ear, the new art needs a new eye. I can’t teach most people to paint, but I can help them to see what I have seen. The writing style is not an abstraction. Each line has a purpose and a meaning important to the whole. And here I must emphasize it is the whole which is important. Contemporary painting is a total conception no part of which is valid without the other.


When man leaves his native place the forms which he has created follow him. They go with him and their style becomes modified in the new environment. These forms appear in the pictures, in turn being displaced and establishing themselves in the fresh surroundings.


The moving white lines symbolize the light, the unifying thought which flows across the compartments of life, and these give strength to the spirit and are constantly renewing their energies so that there can be a greater understanding of life. (Concerning Agate World, 1945)


The only thing worse than moving is staying where you are.


Artists learn only from other artists and from art.


No young artist can grow unless he emulates someone bigger than himself.


A painting has to exude more than an effect.


The Pacific Ocean, that great block which for so long has kept the oriental as a slant-eyed mystery, is breaking down. Since the last world war we can now perhaps see the orientals as human beings, as ourselves, with a cultural background as great as that of European countries. That it was not tapped long ago was due no doubt to the fact that those who migrated to the Pacific Coast areas came without a religious background which allowed for any appreciation of the oriental and his great cultural recources. Who could doubt that the center of their truth, the Christ, would have thought so? The challenge of man today in my part of the world is to accept the weaning process away from the limitations of his past with its accompanying nationalism and regionalism.


What can we hope out of the confusion of modern life that this so called modern age is the beginning of a new world or at best an age of transition to a better one. That the material benefits are great cannot be denied nor that the discoveries are far reaching and manifold with promise of a better world. Man seems to have discovered everything to make a brave new world but has and is neglecting himself. If we are to escape from the imminent dangers it is to a renewal of spiritual powers or rather that man shall awake from the depths of materialism with which he has surrounded himself. In his belief in materialism he can but continue along old lines and these outworn modes of thought will sink him deeper and deeper in troubles for the very essence of the materialistic is competition, mistrust and unbelief. Man’s true world is his thought and his thought is reflected in art as well as everything else he does.


What art will be if man ever finds fundamental values as lasting structures for living freed from wars he will have to find those values in the realm of the spirit and not in more knowledge of the moon, nay even the sun. He can go on splitting atoms but unless he claims his birthright which is of the spirit he is doomed. Without the healing powers of the spirit he remains sick with antagonisms, fears and hatreds which degrade him to a station below that of animals.


Man today is challenged to extend his mental and spiritual horizons. Geographical barriers have given way before the light of science, invention and psychology. The great inventions that have demolished the former sense of special difference must await a new man who will use them positively. But this new will have seen a great light which burns away the barriers of prejudice and religious antagonism. The art of the future cannot germinate in antagonism and national rivalry but will spring forth with a renewed growth if man in general will grow to the stature of universal citizenship.


If art is the mirror of man he must have in this day cracked the mirror before he gazed upon himself. There are certainly many evidences that he is sick of his reflection.


The prophet is never abstract. I have no use for impersonality. There has to be something behind the retina - associations in the mind before art can start.


The artist has to exaggerate. He has to de-form in order to make form move.


I want to paint what nobody else sees. The ignored and forgotten things. The unregarded.


First of all I want the desire to create; for therein lies the will to continue to live in a new way - to add to your house more vistas of being. For I believe that back of all great achievement is a richness of being. [...] What I am seeking in you, and endeavoring to help as much as I can, is the furthering towards the realm or identity of being; so that we maybe better equipped to know of what a real unity is composed - not uniformity, but unity of related parts.


Without subconscious faith, St. John of the Cross would not have started the journey. His quest leads him toward where he knows not by a way he knows not. It does not necessarily follow that the quest is, or is not, fulfilled - the quest being an inner condition related to subconscious faith. What matters most is keeping the eyes open for experience in new directions. Perhaps the Orient is inclusive what we term the accidental. The accidental can lead one back toward the conscious again if accepted and used; it can lead to art.


[...] the simplest form of teaching is to start a person on the plane of his imagination. This discloses his powers - or lack of powers - of observation. His consciousness or lack stimulates his observation, which in turn stimulates his retentive memory, and unites with imagination in the next attempt. This approach to teaching would appear very slow but it is a much truer path than the recipe methods taught by lazy teachers.


(Notes selected from: Arthur L. Dahl (ed.), Mark Tobey. Art and Belief, George Ronald, Oxford 1984; 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; Mark Tobey. Paintings from the collection of Joyce and Arthur Dahl, Stanford University, Stanford Art Gallery 1967/68; William C. Seitz, Mark Tobey, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1962; Mark Tobey. Paintings 1920-1960, Yoshii Gallery, New York 1994; Eliza Rathbone, Mark Tobey. City Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington 1984; Northwest Traditions, Seattle Art Museum 1978; Mark Tobey. Tempera, Gouaches, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, Erker-Galerie, St. Gallen 1986/87; Mark Tobey. Between worlds. Opere 1935-1975, Museo d’Arte Mendrisio/Museum Folkwang, Essen 1989; Tobey’s 80. A Retrospective, Seattle Art Museum 1970; Tobey. Exhibition on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday, Galerie Beyeler, Basel 1970/71; Mark Tobey, Editions Beyeler, Basel 1971; Mark Tobey, The Dot and the Circle. In: World Order, A Baha’i Magazine, Wilmette/Ill., Spring 1977; Colette Roberts, Mark Tobey, Grove Press Inc.,

New York 1959)

Excerpts from the correspondence of Tobey to Marian Willard


I have always felt that New York, your New York, was my major painting of the whole white-writing series and would think so 'till Doomsday. Fortunately, I am not alone. The other paintings are varying attempts at a type of modern beauty I only find in the delicate structures of airplane beacons and electrical transformers and all that wonderful slender architecture connected with a current so potent and mysterious. On a hill outside Portland there is a nest of them in red and silver and something to see. Broadway, like New York, was an experience. This cannot happen very often and certainly not so much, being isolated as I am.


I can only seek parallels in Klee ... Picasso ... for any just excuse as it is still all in all an experimental time for many artists. (September, 1946)


About the time people want my maze of white-writing I won't want to do them any more. Am painting as hard as I can but it's terrific how little seems to appear after so much effort. (June, 1947)


Don't know how much longer I can keep on white-writing as it's too nervous a style - too exacting for a nervous man. (June, 1947)


Yesterday I sent the last painting called Day of the Martyr. I know that martyr subjects aren't popular but there it is and I believe I achieved what I wanted in space with content. Gothic though it may look, still one never saw this kind of space in the Gothic. (October, 1947)


I am glad Barr likes the Five Dancers. This was painted in the spirit of Zen - shouldn't say method; that is, the doing and idea are simultaneous - not just action. As the brush moves on the surface the idea reveals itself. It is much more difficult than an onlooker might imagine. I also did Awakening Night the same way but when I did them I had not read of this in Zen literature. (November, 1947)


A letter from Barr of the Museum of Modern Art with invitation to the recent acquisitions. Remote Field, which will bring it into the light more and more as it is seen, I believe will hold up as a good painting of the war period and much more war, as it is felt, in it - more than all the reporting done by Life artists. (January, 1948)


Am very absorbed just at present in painting back of the plane surface while keeping the outer plane solid. It is a problem but the only one that interests me. (June, 1948)


San Francisco is a rather bottle-infested town with the most exhilarating lights in the world and a constant shifting of light and shadow; practically treeless except for a few remarkably beautiful parks - its climate alternates between brillant lights and drifting fogs and the hills are glorious.

I'm filling up hoping to paint better when I return to the rainy shores of the Northwest where even seagulls don't know why they are seagulls and the Great Vacuum shifts and moans, not knowing what to do. But this has its values also. (July, 1948)


[...] we must consider the time element. (February 19, 1949)


Frank Lloyd Wright was contradictory - prima donnaish - damning, etc., etc. but after it's all over I remember him the most and feel his force the greatest even if this force was not always understood. He said nothing that I agreed with really but he has a spiritual force and I remember him. He threw all the photos of the paintings exhibited on the table and said „Rubbish". The next day he retracted because he said he hadn't seen mine ... but then added, „Tobey isn't modern." (June, 1949)


God! What a wealth of aesthetic and grandeur of forms await that day when we catch up with ourselves and the Orient begins to take its true meaning in our lives. It is certainly as rich as Europe; richer in many ways - more sense of general relationships anyway in their philosophy only now finding small but firm foothold in interiors and architecture, especially in the Pacific area.

I've done over my inner room - a poem of quietness - one antennae always in space until one dwells in imaginary boundaries - mostly supposition yet the latter may build it after all. (November, 1949)


Just returned from a much needed vacation, three weeks in San Francisco, where I stuck my nose into all the Oriental art I could find; to say nothing of the wonderful Velasquez and Rembrandt's and Titian's in the Austrian show, plus the Melanesian room of wonderful primitives.

Velasquez is a painter - I sometimes wonder where painting has gone - blown out of the universe! Braque and Picasso - blown back to design. One can only tackle the wilderness wondering if the earth is still fertile enough to produce. (September 29, 1950)


I am thinking hard to paint anew. I don't want to carry a lead role in American painting, I want to paint, that's all. Dreaming of something large longer time and well organized.

I have nearly finished my new studio - it is west light and the view is of dreary suburban houses but a church tower rises timidly beyond the skies flushed golden at sunset and the nights star-studded, sometimes are beautiful. I have been drunk within since New York where I had a wonderful time but alas, came home with no inspiration from modern painters except dear Lyonel (Feininger) for I felt with what I had seen that I had touched upon all their endeavors within the last decade. (January 7, 1952)


I had some good moments up to the vacation in the mountains in Canada in August - since return am attempting to paint. I have washed out all but one large one - my rougher side but beautiful in color and freedom. I am always astonished at the night ones and I don't feel myself that way. It's related to Tundra and Tropicalism but different as the form floats in a blue-green and green maze but I believe functions. Delta - was painted fast and furiously.

I do have, I believe, two top ones. The voyage of the Saints - and no one likes saints these days [...]. (November, 1952)


As to Voyage of the Saints, I believe it is a top of its sort [...]. I did manage open forms by lines and yet held substance. (January, 1953)


I wouldn't mind revisting the old beauties of Europe although my tendencies tend toward the Orient, or if in Europe, in the Medieval where the two strains and attitudes meet in the abstraction of the human and the divine ideas. Bodhisattvas and Saints, of Gothic so similar in conception - not super-human, as an oriental said, but non-human, yet not mechanical. (February, 1953)


Much has seemed to stop with me and a new me has to be found. (April 6, 1953)

Am convinced we moderns haven't anything to say because we don't seem to have life to live as he (Lautrec) did and the others. Of course there is always nature but there has been a breakdown there, or so I think. (May, Chicago 1953)



As usual, upon returning from the east I went into a funk - but have painted like a dog and am sorry to say that with the exception of one large one, The Edge of August, I have not been successful except in my ability to wipe off all but the one mentioned. The painting is on masonite, 48x28, the largest so far. Perhaps I am wrong but the way it changes color with light is a miracle. I only noticed it this afternoon when I came downstairs; it had turned to all the lunar colors one sees around the moon. The composition is strange and the brushstrokes multitudinous. (July, 1953)


Truly, I should not have come back so soon - I cannot, nor have I ever been able to paint otherwise than in relation to how I live. As I live and feel, I paint. (August, 1953)


I have painted but got stuck on a big one - so much preparation usually before I can begin to operate from the inside. (January, 1956)


I want an all black and white show. Dan's intuition as to something new on the horizon, when I sent the small ones, materialized and I think I now have the cumulation of the Eastern influences brought to a focus and quite exciting. If not, I shall stop showing. Takizaki here says no one in Japan has done what I can and have done. I know Kline exists and Pollock, but I have another note. (Juli, 1957)


Standing as I am here between East and West cultures, I sometimes get dizzy as I find I can't always make a synthesis and also that I admire both paths which should and will, I suppose, merge. My old friend, Takizaki, to whom I owe much, says that the new work is something never seen before, even in Japan, and at least has historical importance. [...]

With things as they are I can't say much for life - success as one considers it here is difficult for the artists I feel, and fairly killing. Seems to me we Americans are losing contact with our subconscious; things are too mapped and our mail piles up and there are far too many demands from Museums and Galleries, etc. about things they should decide themselves. I wouldn't want to be Picasso from what I've heard. What and where the answer is I wouldn't know. Then too, I can't help but feel that modern art has not fulfilled it's great promise and that what is turned abstract is at a dead end. (August, 1957)


Alas, no more meditations; they were a New York product under very good conditions. (March, 1958)


I don't know what to do about going (to Venice). I'm hard to move sometimes. Now I have to get at Income Tax and resort my things. Well, all hail to San Marco and Ye Gods, let's hope my work will not be too below Rothko's.

I think he is the very best of all the boys in New York City. It will be hard for me to see all my differences along side his continuity. (March 24, 1958)


Of course I would like to be there. I guess we need a little excitement and then to get a line on myself if that is possible. Anyway, I don't resemble anyone but have some kin to Klee. I get pretty depressed with modern art. Nothing can grow that is watched too much, nor does the kettle boil either. (May, 1958)

Poems by Mark Tobey





My picture window

Gazes at the sun

As it goes down

At evenfall.

A dark white wave

Came lapping

At my wall

At evenfall.

Surge and resurge,

A resurrection of the world

When I return from work

At evenfall.




Overhead the sun


Beyond, the galaxies

Ad infinitum ...

Which means

That all that man

Can reach

Is but as

A grain of sand

Upon this beach.






Your leaf,

My leaf.

All leaves

Under the sun


Making shade.

All different,

One side up,

One side down.

The Wind-Lord came

And danced them

Downside up.

Excerpts from the Correspondence of Tobey to Lyonel Feininger


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


I must say I don’t see much future for the white-writing. It has been interesting but I often wonder about its themes which in someways must be - perhaps I refuse to accept its limitations and make something of them but I do still like to paint a good leg-thigh or some part of the human organism. (May 15, Seattle 1945)


I am trying not to paint all summer hoping for a deeper attitude later on. […] hear Spring is in New York. Often wish I were and then again I don’t. Not until the seething humanity settles a little. (April 2, Seattle 1946)


Alas I didn’t sell but one after my show I am, I realize too far from the center. […] Such a lonely road - this painting in America. [...] Don’t know much - the weather here been so rainy and dark. I am afraid I spend much too much time with Scarlatti, Bach and Debussy. (April 7, Seattle 1948)


Chinese calligraphy will be looked up for some time. I dare not think of the future. Well our spirits are only time - and - space bound if we so wish. (December 21, Seattle 1948)


I haven’t painted much - felt confused and up an alley but hope to come out of it this summer. Must have more content. Guess I’m only really interested in religious subjects as far as my experience goes. I know I need more out of doors. (May 27, Seattle 1949)


I am trying to relax a little must do it on my own - mostly piano playing - Schumann - Scarlatti - Debussy - early English music - Blow some Lully and still earlier ones. This not accomplished but oh! to move in sound! Guess thats Heaven! Dematerialize myself into some flaring notes. (October 14, Seattle 1949)


I did try to return to portrait but after a few sensitive pastels - I have only one desire to pound a surface to pieces. What this is I don’t know. Perhaps I want paint and paper to sound who knows! [...] a new young thing I am with an old face. [...] I must paint again I feel but what except this damned textural urge - nothing to say really! (April 9, Seattle 1952)


I presume you have seen the Rembrandt show - alas I miss so much, so much and particularly my beloved Rembrandt - a record of Mozart thrills me and when I hear Schuberts Quintet - two cellos I bless his life but a reproduction of Rembrandt is a pain in the neck - I want to be close - close to the paints as in the Louvre - close to his hand really - near his shoulder like his son - close to his soul altho I know that he is great enough to be everywhere - anywhere almost. (November 28, Seattle 1952)


Of course there is always the excuse - that we are so young - but is there an excuse then for our decadence and materialism. I would insult the word decadence because it can not be when something great is relaxing leaving great monuments to form reality I thought. Materialism has spread its hasty sheets on us and we are content it seems - just another gadget! For delight. (September, Paris 1954)


I have been to see the 7th to 12th centuries illuminated manuscripts in their Bibliotheque Nationale and it was good to see an art all on one theme. I have been to Chartres twice and reveled into the windows and magnificent structure. - The color of the glass on the beautiful greywalls and huge pillars is some I shall try to do. I believe my next painting bout will be based on color! [...] Every moment of living seems mysterious and and and! (October 5, Paris 1954)


The days are dark - no sun - little rain - no sun - the museums are mostly unlit by electricity so one goes there no more. I can’t go into modern exhibitions there is so little reward. Everything has become a „thing“ and the possessions are without value - without concept - and while techniques whirl and twist to fascinate us - there is no voice hidden there that I can listen to and feeling - grace and the humanities have, it seems to me, been exiled. (December 20, Paris 1954)


The snow flurries are beginning. I have many new ideas for lights. I will paint only lights at night. (August 10, Seattle 1955)


What a vision I’ll have. I shall compete with the color organ. Saw one of the eight sets last night - truly - a wonderful new art I feel, wonderful space with the blue lifting one above into other space activities.


„But why in Hell didn’t you paint in 7 by 4 feet. I only buy large ones." Make them so big they can’t breath anymore - just lifeless relics! (August, Seattle 1955)

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