Mark Tobey, best known for his calligraphic “white writing” style, became one of the best known and internationally respected American artists during the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Wisconsin in 1890, Tobey was predominantly self-taught despite attending some classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. After moving to Chicago in 1909, he was employed as a fashion illustrator, a profession he continued when he moved to New York two years later. While in New York, Tobey worked as an artist for McCall’s magazine and had some success as a portrait painter. From 1913 to 1917 he divided his time between Chicago and New York, where he secured his first one-person show of charcoal portraits in 1917 at Knoedler Gallery. Around 1918 Tobey was introduced to the Bahai World Faith, a religion that promotes universal consciousness and a faith that ultimately changed his art.
Bahai belief—that all humanity is interrelated, all religions are prophetic of a single world faith—manifested itself in both the themes and style of Tobey’s art. While his subjects were often spiritual and multi-faceted, his technique revealed his focus on the unity of the image, rather than its separate parts. Tobey created complex allover compositions with no focal point. Networks of fine white lines painted against a dark ground characterize his mature “white writing” style, which he established in the mid-1940s. This calligraphic style was Tobey’s visual manifestation of the interrelationship between man and the universe. His white lines, a result of his experiments with Chinese calligraphy, connote vibrating movement and light; they energize and link the parts of his compositions.
In both his life and work, Tobey expressed an interest in mystical states of mind. In 1923 he moved to Seattle to teach art, and that is where he learned Chinese calligraphy. This experience coupled with numerous trips to Europe and the Near East played a pivotal role in connecting Tobey with the Orient and Oriental art, sources from which he developed his signature allover calligraphic style. From 1930 to 1938 he taught at in Devon, England, taking a break in 1934 to study Oriental philosophy and art in China and to live in a Zen monastery in Japan. Upon returning to Seattle in 1938, Tobey began working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1941, Tobey began studying piano, music theory and music composition, disciplines that greatly influenced his work. Through the 1940s and 1950s his international reputation grew; in 1958 he became the second American, after Whistler, to win the International Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale. Tobey moved to Basel, Switzerland in 1960, remaining there for the rest of his life, making summer trips to the United States. Tobey died in Basel in 1976.