Window, 1953

Mark Tobey is considered a leader of the Northwest School, a group of artists working in the Seattle area who were influenced by both the nature of the Pacific Northwest and East Asian philosophy. In his late twenties, Tobey became fascinated by haiku, Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, and mysticism, and he subsequently converted to the Baha’i World Faith. He believed that there could be no break between nature, art, science, religion, and one’s personal life. The unity in his personal worldview manifests itself in Tobey’s signature painting style, which he called “white writing”: densely packed calligraphic symbols overlaying an abstracted field. Resembling lacey spiderwebs, this textured mass of lines animates the painting, giving a sense of vibration within the image and simultaneously evokes a window that one is unable to fully see through. Though Tobey was more interested in contemplation than action, his layered and rhythmic use of line can be understood in dialogue with Jackson Pollock’s Lucifer, also on view in this gallery.

-Linden Hill, PhD candidate in the department of Art & Art History

From Left of Center, opened Sept 20, 2019

Although he has frequently been linked to Jackson Pollock and other New York School painters because of his abstract, all-over pictorial style, Tobey put himself and his work at a geographic and philosophical remove. In the paintings he made after converting to the Baha’i faith in 1918, Tobey sought to convey the sense of unity preached by his religion. He explained, “I’ve tried to decentralize and interpenetrate so that all parts of a painting are of related value. Perhaps I’ve hoped even to penetrate perspective and bring the far near.”

Tobey was based for much of his career in Seattle, what he thought of as a gateway to the Pacific Rim, and drew aesthetic inspiration from Asian cultures and travel. Window features his signature “white writing,” a delicate, labyrinthine network of luminescent lines, here encased in an irregular frame. Though its title evokes the idea of the painting as the archetypal window onto the world, the intensely worked surface encourages one’s eye to move across, rather than through, the composition.