Mark Tobey was born on December 11, 1890, in
Centerville, Wisconsin. From 1906 to 1908 he attended Saturday classes at
The Art Institute of Chicago. In 1911 Tobey moved to New York, where he
worked as a fashion illustrator for McCall’s magazine. His first
one-man show was held at M. Knoedler & Co., New York, in 1917.
In 1918 Tobey converted to the Baha’i World Faith, which
led him to explore the representation of the spiritual in art. Four years
later he moved to Seattle and began teaching at the Cornish School of
Allied Arts. Also that year he began to explore Chinese calligraphy. The
artist went to Paris in 1925, beginning his lifelong travels. While in the
Middle East in 1926, he became interested in Persian and Arabic script.
Upon returning to Seattle in 1928, Tobey cofounded the Free and Creative
Art School. From 1931 to 1938 he was resident artist at Dartington Hall, a
progressive school in Devonshire, England. His tenure there was punctuated
with frequent absences for travel to Mexico, the United States, and the
Orient. Tobey spent a month in a Zen monastery outside Kyoto in 1934; the
following year he began his “white writing” paintings, which were shown
for the first time at the Willard Gallery, New York, in 1944. Tobey
exhibited regularly at the Willard Gallery thereafter.
Tobey returned in 1938 to Seattle where, in addition to
painting and teaching, he studied the piano and music theory. During this
period he executed several paintings inspired by Seattle’s open-air
market. The Arts Club of Chicago held solo shows of Tobey’s work in 1940
and 1946. He was given a solo exhibition in 1945 at the Portland Museum of
Art, Oregon. In 1951, at the invitation of Josef Albers, Tobey spent three
months as guest critic of graduate art-students’ work at Yale University.
Also that year the artist’s first retrospective was held at the palace of
the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. A solo show of Tobey’s work took
place in 1955 at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher in Paris. The next year he was
elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and he received a
Guggenheim International Award. In 1957 he began his Sumi ink paintings.
Tobey was awarded the City of Venice painting prize at the Venice
Biennale the following year. The artist settled in Basel in 1960, and
in 1961 he became the first American painter to be honored with a solo
exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Solo presentations
of Tobey’s work were held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1962,
and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1966. A major retrospective of
the artist’s work took place at the National Collection of Fine Arts in
Washington, D.C., in 1974. Tobey died in Basel on April 24, 1976.