ANDOVER — Mark Tobey’s paintings cascade with gesture. Blizzards of squiggly hieroglyphs; soft, wispy mists; the crisp, chaotic lines of a city. Like his contemporary, Jackson Pollock, he made all-over paintings, but he covered his surfaces with layers and tangles of script, not flying splatters. He called his technique “white writing.”
Tobey strove to synthesize Western and Eastern aesthetics, and his paintings capture something humming and numinous, although not always soothing.
“Mark Tobey: Threading Light,” a prickly and enlightening exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art put together by independent curator Debra Bricker Balken, is up through March 11. With close to 70 paintings, it’s the first substantial retrospective of the artist’s work since the 1970s.
Tobey didn’t quite fit in anywhere, nor did he seem to want to. He lived in Seattle for many years and shuttled to New York, but he resisted being associated with a group calling itself the Northwest School. “I’m no more a Northwest artist than a cat,” he said.
Likewise, he balked at the nationalistic swagger of New York School artists. He had no interest in pouring id or ego into his paintings — although when it came to positioning himself in the art world, his ego naturally weighed in. He came to all-over painting before Pollock, and Pollock got the credit.
Tobey was no Action Painter. His paintings are smaller, more premeditated, less commanding and physically confrontational, more otherworldly and delicate than Pollock’s. Tobey didn’t share Pollock’s passion for scale or dazzle. Pollock flung industrial paint, and Tobey made tiny, neurotic gestures in unforgiving tempura. He was intrigued by minutiae, and his paintings draw us in.
That implies a space to be drawn into. All-over painting eliminates points of perspective, and thus depth, but Tobey’s works are often like fog – you can’t see three feet in front of you, but you know there’s more there. Alice B. Toklas said Tobey had “penetrated perspective.” The artist described his efforts to “bring the far near.”
His paintings lacked the bravado of Pollock’s, and Tobey was never anointed by the critic and tastemaker Clement Greenberg, as Pollock was. But he had international success, and some saw him as a bridge between American and European modernists.
He was born in Wisconsin, in 1890. Early on, he made a living as an illustrator and portrait painter, and he came to modern art late. As a young man, he converted to the Baha’i faith, which values all religions and peoples, and opposes racism and nationalism. We begin to see why his tastes were more catholic than nationalist.
Tobey initially struggled with volume and mass, as all artists confronting Cubism did. His rather elementary “Middle West (American Landscape)” pares down farm buildings and crossroads. But he also looked east. He traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Japan in 1934, and calligraphic lines moved into his painting.
Skeins of white whizz and tangle over the surface of “Threading Light,” in white tempera on a dark ground. Tobey fills every niche with gesture. Clear images lurk: birds, vessels, a robed figure clutching a fern, a lute player.
He strikes a taut balance between abstraction and representation: The white lines make a loose, buzzing twine throughout, which sometimes coalesces into imagery, then jumps and flees back into abstraction. Likewise, Tobey’s space is cunning – despite the demands of the surface, there’s a suggestion of something architectural, a museum or church, where order is ritualized.
He frequently turned to the scope, hubbub, and pulsing patterns of city life, describing that energy with intricate webs of light scribbled against the dark. “Lines of the City” streams with layers of slightly skewed verticals, and occasional juts and loops kink the flow.
These paintings are not big — “Lines of the City” is less than 2 feet across. Indeed, within his works, Tobey had a passion for the microscopic. In time, figuration dropped out of his paintings, but the sense of intricate worlds remained. His aching precision and crowdedness suggest a world in a grain of sand.
The art world then, as now, mistrusted religion and mysticism, even as artists struggled with depicting their inner lives, revelation, and transcendence. Wassily Kandinsky, in his 1912 book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” argued for the subjectivity of spirituality. Tobey’s work is subjective, but he wasn’t excavating his psyche the way his Abstract Expressionist colleagues were, and his Baha’i faith shimmers through his paintings. His white writing might be divinity itself.
Mark Rothko wrestled with depicting transcendence, too, albeit on a larger scale. In 1958, Tobey and Rothko exhibited together at the Venice Biennale. Perhaps challenged by Rothko, Tobey expanded his paintings.
The soft, comforting mauves and lavenders in “Northwest Drift” (which is still not big, at less than 4 feet tall) are veined in black and smudged with white to create a juddering mist, or a shower of downy feathers. The center draws the eye. The shading suggests a shadow there, a whisper of depth, subtle as a momentary contraction, an intake of breath.
Whatever it is, it’s about stillness, not action. Even when Tobey experimented with sumi ink drawing – throwing the ink at the page – the effect was Zen-like, not emotive. To Tobey, mindfulness laid the ground. His works may not be as sexy or as operatic as action paintings, but they envelop and abide.
MARK TOBEY: THREADING LIGHT
At Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through March 11. 978-749-4015, addison.andover.edu