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Mark Tobey

Flight Over Forms, 1966

18 1/2” x 26 1/2”
Signed, dated & numbered in pencil 187/200
Printed by Kurt Meier, Basel, Switzerland

Museum purchase, 1974

Mark Tobey (1890-1976) was a leading figure in the Northwest School of painters who flourished in Seattle in the 1930s and 40s. Tobey, along with fellow artists Morris Graves and Guy Anderson, to name but two, were interested in the ways Eastern philosophy, art and literature explored the interconnectedness and spontaneity of the natural world and the mind.

A key moment in Tobey’s personal and artistic life came in 1918 when he embraced Baha’i spirituality, which developed in Persia and the Middle East in the 19th century. Baha’i faith centers on the essential worth of all spiritual pursuits, with particular emphasis on the unity of God, religions and humanity. Following his turn to Baha’i faith, Tobey developed a keen interest in Arabic and Persian writing while travelling to Constantinople, Beirut and Haifa in the 1920s. He also traveled to China and Japan in the 1930s, where he studied Zen philosophy, painting, poetry, and calligraphy. These interests helped Tobey develop a contemplative pictorial language to express his spirituality in a new artistic form which could, like Mark Rothko’s color field paintings, help awaken the spirts of his viewers.

According to art historian Elizabeth Kornhauser, upon his return from Japan in 1935, “Tobey began experimenting with a new technique he later described as ‘white writing’—using swift, calligraphic brushstrokes, often in white, over a colored background. . . . This technique of meandering, abstract lines painted over an initial composition was largely influenced by . . . Oriental brushwork and calligraphy. . .” (189).

These “white paintings” debuted in New York in a solo exhibition at the Willard Gallery in 1944, marking an important moment in art history when the post-war East Coast was introduced to the West Coast. The younger Abstract Expressionists became familiar with the elder artist’s work through Willard’s show. Indeed, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston (all of whom are represented in the WFMA’s permanent collection) were brought together by the gallery owner to write an essay to accompany Tobey’s show to help distinguish it from the abstract work being produced on the East Coast. While similarities exist between the work of Tobey and, for example, Pollock and de Kooning, direct influential connections are difficult to pinpoint. Broadly speaking, Tobey’s mature style can be distinguished from that of the younger East Coasters in that his is more contemplative than it is emotional, more meditative than dynamic, and more writerly than action-oriented. That is not to say that it is better or more refined; its genesis is just more spiritually-oriented, a trait distinguishing much of the arts on the West Coast, especially post-war poetry. 

Flight Over Forms (1966) is a prime example for exploring the diverse influences Zen philosophy, Baha’i spirituality, and calligraphy had on Tobey’s work. Here we see a complex network of images layered over a muted, porous-looking organic brown ground. Tobey’s unique visual language weaves together a mesh of white, red, blue, black, and tan lines that imbue at one and the same time—depending on the viewer’s own inner eye—either a feeling of frenzied scatteredness or a sense of interconnectivity and unification. As we work our way across the lithograph looking for some recognizable images to grasp ahold of to help us better understand it, we are instead confronted with the seemingly random play of zigzags, squiggles, spirals, lines, scrapes, circles, closed and open forms, and geometric shapes—some shaded, some traced over, some overlapping, some barley touching. They’re not competing for dominance; rather, this mishmash of figures is operating in the realm of mutual co-dependence, like the minute invertebrate fossil patterns found in geological specimens. Tobey’s work has a refined delicacy that represents a coming together of East and West; it reconciles the ethereal and material worlds, engendering our search for the harmony at the core of existence, lessons Tobey learned from Buddhism and his Baha’i faith. 

Until recently, like a majority of the female artists working during the post-war era, Tobey has been all but written out of the art historical discourse, deemed a mere West Coast footnote, particularly by influential art critic Clement Greenberg who worked tirelessly to promote the work of the Abstract Expressionists, especially Pollock. Luckily, that did not stop art museums from collecting his work. Along with this lithograph held in the permanent collection of the WFMA, Tobey’s paintings and prints are found in the collections of the Tate Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in DC, and the Dallas Museum of Art to name a few.


Works Consulted

Acton, David. Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints. Worcester Art Museum, 2001.

Dahl, Arthur. Mark Tobey: Art and Belief. Oxford: George Ronald, 1984.

Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. American Moderns on Paper: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art. Yale UP, 2010.

Seitz, William C. Mark Tobey. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1962.

Flight Over Forms from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

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