Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Mark Tobey: Threading Light
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
From 6 May to 10 September 2017
Mark Tobey: Threading Light is the first comprehensive retrospective of the American artist’s work in twenty years in Europe, and the first in Italy. Opening May 6, 2017, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the exhibition traces the evolution of the artist’s groundbreaking style and his significant yet under-recognized contributions to abstraction and mid-century American modernism. With 66 paintings spanning the 1920s through 1970, Mark Tobey: Threading Light surveys the breadth of Tobey’s oeuvre and reveals the extraordinarily nuanced yet radical beauty of his work.
Image courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Solomon Byron Smith and Barbara Neff Smith
One of the foremost American artists to emerge from the 1940s, a decade that saw the rise of abstract expressionism, Mark Tobey (1890–1976) is recognized as a vanguard figure whose “white-writing” anticipated the formal innovations of New York School artists such as Jackson Pollock. When Tobey’s small paintings composed of intricate, pale webs of delicate lines were first exhibited in New York in 1944, they generated much interest for their daring “all-over” compositions. His unique calligraphic renderings largely invoke the city—its dizzying, towering architecture, thoroughfares, and pervasive whirl of electric light.
Image courtesy of Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris
As the New York School emerged in the aftermath of World War II, Tobey was only marginally integrated into the movement because he was averse to the cultural nationalism and “American-ness” of the rhetoric imposed on its paintings. Unlike the brasher, more aggressive pictorial statements of Jackson Pollock and others, Tobey’s quiet, inward-directed work could not easily be folded into the new critical discourse intent on the formulation of a national identity for American art. Tobey rejected scale and monumentality to create “microscopic” worlds and intimate compositions, based on an intense observation of nature, the city, and the flow of light. His signature “white writing” or labyrinths of interconnected marks and lines evoked the spiritual.
Image courtesy of Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, Bequest of Edward Wales Root
While he had always led a nomadic life, Tobey spent more time in Paris during the 1950s, and in 1960 he made his home in Basel, Switzerland where he set up a studio. He participated in numerous international exhibitions, and in 1958 he was awarded the City of Venice Prize at the Venice Biennale. During the last phase of his life, Tobey enlarged the scale of his painting, producing epic works that expanded on his signature concept of “white writing.” Like the inventive features of his earlier works, these larger canvases extend an aesthetic of transcendence and ethereality.
Image courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation
As Tobey stated, his work was not bound by a geography or a country but aimed for a “higher state of consciousness.” Innovative and distinct in its influences and beauty, Tobey’s work bridges the international dimensions of midcentury modernism, a connection that has been previously unexplored in the discourse on postwar art. Mark Tobey: Threading Light re-examines and re-contextualizes the work and influence of this important painter, weaving in the rich but occluded histories of the global intersections of late modern art that have evaded many of the interpreters of culture in United States.