21 October 2013

Mark Tobey at Thomas Williams

Leaving the George Grosz exhibition at Richard Nagy, I went into the Thomas Williams gallery in the same building to look at an exhibition of works by Mark Tobey (1890-1976). New York Abstract Expressionism, which dominated US painting from the mid-1940s through the 1960s, is not something which I’ve posted about (except, in passing, on Lichtenstein), or have much appreciation of. But the gallery’s catalogue, written by Thomas Williams and Hannah Tuck, proved to be extremely informative, pointing out that a poll of leading art critics in 1966:
… put Tobey as one of the six most important living artists, with Picasso, Miro, Ernst, Chagall and Bacon.
They describe Tobey’s contribution to Abstract Expressionism:
There is no doubt that when he returned to the U.S. at the end of the 1930s, Tobey was far ahead of his contemporaries. The ‘white writing’ that he had developed in England in 1935 was the first realisation of 'all-over' painting, which later became a central tenet of Abstract Expressionism, and whose most famous exemplar was Jackson Pollock. 
… lt was Tobey who provided for Pollock the final piece of artistic information that enabled him to complete his own journey towards ‘all-over’ Free Form or Abstract Expressionism. His paintings had none of Tobey's careful and quiet descent from calligraphy, and their execution was violent and brash by comparison. Pollock made the significant choice greatly to increase the scale of Tobey's images, so that they were no longer easel paintings - an entry requirement for avant-garde art in New York in the late 1940s. Nevertheless, the revolutionary core of Tobey's work, the dramatic break from artistic norms of figuration, perspective, space, form or even the composition of abstract shapes, and their replacement with paintings that had neither focal point nor boundary - that dazzling step into a territory that even Picasso and Matisse had not dared to enter - was Tobey's achievement and Tobey's gift to Pollock, de Kooning and others who followed in New York and elsewhere.

The exhibition includes an example of ‘white writing’, Untitled 1954 (above), and the pieces on show all seem to be from that period or later, but it was the account of his time in England in the 1930s which interested me, particularly given the nominal pre-occupation of this blog. During this period Tobey was based at Dartington Hall (Devon, SW England) having been invited by the Elmhirsts to join their arts centre:
Once at Dartington, he was given a splendid teaching studio in the gatehouse of the Hall and became acquainted with the other residents. These included Henry Moore, Cecil Collins, Bernard Leach, a pioneering ceramicist … 
… Tobey also made forays to London, a journey of considerable inconvenience, where he was introduced to two of the most advanced and considerable English artists at that time, Ben Nicholson and his lover, Barbara Hepworth. 
… ln 1934 three new and extraordinary pupils arrived at Dartington, Lucian, Clement and Stephan Freud, the grandsons of Sigmund Freud. For the next four years Tobey was thus able to engage with the early artistic development of Lucian. 
… As the decade came to a close at Dartington, Ben Nicholson introduced him to another expatriate refugee, Piet Mondrian. Mondrian had fled the turmoil in continental Europe in 1938 and moved into the house next door to his friend Nicholson in Hampstead, north London where they formed an extraordinary working relationship. But the friendship was hardly begun when, in the summer of 1938, Tobey made a trip to New York, and being unable to return to England as he had planned, was obliged to stay there. …
Mondrian left for the US in 1940. I posted here about the exhibition at the Courtauld last year on Nicholson and Mondrian in London, and exhibitions of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth have been the subjects of several other posts. In none of these contexts has Tobey’s name come up, as far as I am aware*, so the Thomas Williams show, which continues until 2 November, will hopefully be a first step in raising awareness of Tobey’s significance in British art between the wars.

*Roger Berthoud’s The Life of Henry Moore makes no reference to Tobey. Its only reference to Dartington is in the context of Memorial Figure, the subject of a post here earlier this year.


To my surprise, this post is still being read, so I thought it might be helpful to update it regarding Tobey’s time at Dartington, drawing on Michael Young’s The Elmhirsts of Dartington, published in 1996 by the Dartington Hall Trust. The most relevant passages are on pages 221 to 223. Young, who had been a pupil at the school, explains how Tobey was invited to Dartington in 1931 by Dorothy Elmhirst:
… Dorothy sent Mark an invitation without any specificity about what he was expected to do, and perhaps because it was so vague Mark accepted. He taught amateurs of all ages on the estate, including me. I remember sitting in his studio with other children from the school and adults from many different departments of the estate, looking very awkward, as though they had never held a brush in their hands before, but all intent on their drawing. Mark moved around continuously, making jokes and encouraging more by words than by demonstration. Everyone an artist - he at any rate believed it.
Young quotes a speech given by Tobey to a class in autumn 1931 and a description by the potter, Bernard Leach, of Tobey’s manner of teaching. Young also explains how:
Tobey discovered at Dartington the mode of painting - the 'white writing' - for which he later became world famous. It came upon him in the middle of one night in his studio above the entrance to the courtyard, with its skylight which opened on to the stars like an immensely wide-lens telescope. He was so excited he sent for his friends to come over, even at that hour. He began a long series of paintings made up of lines whitish in tone made up of brush strokes against a dark background. Leach arrived in Dartington from St Ives in Cornwall in 1932.
Young explains:
In the summer of 1932 [Leach] and Tobey left together, at the Elmhirsts’ expense, to spend a year in Japan with Japanese craftsmen. Tobey went to China as well. … The experience of Japan influenced both Leach and Tobey as artists and created a bond between them that lasted.
According to Young, the three Freud boys arrived at Dartington in 1933, Clement staying until 1936 (page 174). Young makes no mention of Henry Moore.

No comments:

Post a Comment