American painter. In 1893 the family moved to Jacksonville, TN, but because of the poor educational facilities there they returned a year later to Wisconsin. Moving again in 1906 to Hammond, IN, Tobey attended high school and on Saturdays travelled to Chicago to study the techniques of watercolour and oil painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, this being his only formal art training. In 1909 the family moved to Chicago where, because of his father’s illness, he was forced to give up his studies and find employment. After various jobs he eventually became a fashion illustrator. During this period he discovered the great art of the past, first through reproductions and then by visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. He was especially attracted to Italian Renaissance paintings and to works by a variety of artists including Frans Hals, John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.
In 1911 Tobey moved to New York, where he worked as a fashion illustrator for McCalls magazine. Returning in 1912 to Chicago, in 1913 he saw the Armory Show at the Art Institute, though he learnt little from it. From 1913 to 1917 he divided his time between New York and Chicago, still working as a fashion illustrator and developing a reputation for his portrait drawings in charcoal. Numbering the singer Mary Garden, Muriel Draper and Anthony Drexel Biddle among his sitters, he showed his portraits at his first one-man exhibition in 1907 at the Knoedler Gallery in New York. Reluctant, however, to follow this career, he started working as an interior designer while pursuing independent studies in his spare time.
In 1918 Tobey converted to the Bahai faith, to which he had been introduced by the portrait painter Juliet Thompson earlier that year. His adherence to the faith, which took as its central tenets a belief in the unity of all religions and mankind and in the progressive revelation of God through a series of prophets, was profound and permanent. Although its link with his painting took some while to develop fully, it lies behind all his succeeding works. At this time he saw the works of William Blake in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York; under that influence and that of Michelangelo he painted the violent watercolour Conflict of the Satanic and Celestial Gods (1918; Seattle, WA, priv. col., see Dahl and others, p. 60), which points to the danger of ignoring the Bahai quest for unity.
After moving in 1922 to Seattle, where he taught at the Cornish School, Tobey came to understand Cubism. In 1923 he met the Chinese painter Deng Kui, who taught him techniques of Chinese calligraphy. This period was one of great experimentation for Tobey; one of the few surviving works of this period, a pastel Self-portrait (early 1920s; Seattle, WA, H. M. Hathaway priv. col., see 1959 exh. cat.), reveals his adoption from Cubism of overlapping planes. In 1925, dissatisfied with his work, he travelled to Europe, staying first in Paris. There he met Gertrude Stein, visited the Louvre and produced such works as a portrait in conté crayon of the pianist Paul McCool (1925; Seattle, WA, A. Mus.). The following year he travelled to Spain, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. On his return to the USA he divided his time from 1926 to 1930 between New York, Chicago and Seattle, while still working at the Cornish School.
Tobey’s teaching job came under threat with the onset of the Depression, and in 1930 he accepted an invitation to teach and paint in England at Dartington Hall, Devon. He remained based there until 1938, meeting, among others, Bernard Leach, Rabindranath Tagore and the novelists Aldous Huxley and Pearl S. Buck. During his time in England he regularly travelled abroad: in 1931 to Mexico; in 1932 to Haifa and Acca, visiting Bahai sites; and with Leach in 1934 to Hong Kong and other parts of China, where he again studied calligraphy with Deng Kui in Shanghai, and to Japan, including a stay at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Kyoto. On his return to England he began using a technique of ‘white writing’ in works such as the Broadway (tempera, 1936; New York, Met.). In this painting, alluding to the colour and activity of New York, he used swift calligraphic brushstrokes, mostly in white, on a variously coloured background.
In 1938 Tobey returned to Seattle via New York. Throughout the 1940s he developed ‘white writing’ in such frenetic works as Red Man, White Man, Black Man (1945; Seattle, WA, A. Mus.). The vast mass of individuals that formed E Pluribus Unum (1942; Seattle, WA, A. Mus.) was designed to suggest the latent unity between them, in keeping with the Bahai faith. He continued also to paint in other styles, as in Still-life with Egg (1941; Seattle, WA, A. Mus.), which again suggests the influence of Cubism, especially of Juan Gris. Furthermore, in keeping with the Bahai belief in the validity of other religions, Tobey occasionally addressed Christian themes, such as Deposition (1947; Seattle, WA, G. Miyake priv. col., see 1974 exh. cat., pl. 13), which consists of highly simplified forms.
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s Tobey tended to paint his works in dark, sombre colours, as in Biography (1948; Stanford, CA, U. A.G. & Mus.), though he retained something of his calligraphic style. His ‘white writing’ soon re-emerged, however, in such classic works as the Edge of August (1953; New York, MOMA). Here, a mass of fine white brushstrokes covers almost the whole of the canvas, showing the full development of this technique. In 1954 he moved to New York and painted the serene Meditative Series (e.g. Meditative Series VIII, 1954; priv. col., see Dahl and others, p. 89). In 1955 he visited Europe, where he exhibited with avant-garde artists such as Georges Mathieu and Wols. In 1957 he produced a number of paintings using Japanese black ink, for example Sumi I (1957; Stanford, CA, U. A.G. & Mus.), and in the following year he was awarded the Grand International Painting Prize at the Venice Biennale, confirming his reputation in Europe.
After a brief visit to Seattle Tobey decided in 1960 to settle in Basle, where he remained until his death. His style remained constant during the 1960s, although in response to museum pressure he increased the size of his paintings. Among his later works is the monumental Sagittarius Red (1963; Basle, Kstmus.), often claimed as his masterpiece, in which he used densely packed brushstrokes in ink and other media on a red background. He continued to work almost until his death, in spite of being dogged by ill-health in later life, producing such pictures as Coming and Going (1970; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.).
Tobey’s paintings have often been described as intimate versions of the paintings of Jackson Pollock, because of their elegant gestural quality and small size. In origin, however, they are quite dissimilar, founded not on the artist’s individual psyche but on a universalist religion. The comparison, furthermore, suggests that Tobey’s style grew out of Pollock’s, when in fact the relationship between the two artists was much more reciprocal. In spirit, if not in style, Tobey’s paintings are closer to a European tradition of abstract painting that includes the impersonal calm of Mondrian’s work. While enjoying great critical support in Europe, notably from Michel Tapié, Tobey’s reception in America was somewhat cooler. More specifically his contribution to American art was frequently marginalized by influential New York critics, perhaps because of a lack of sympathy for his religious beliefs and because of his rejection of the substance of Abstract Expressionism.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press