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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

White Night

Photo: Paul Macapia

White Night


Mark Tobey

born Centerville, Wisconsin, 1890; died Basel, Switzerland, 1976

The . . . white writing series [of] . . . paintings are varying attempts at a type of modern beauty I only find in the delicate structures of airplane beacons and electrical transformers and all that wonderful slender architecture connected with a current so potent and mysterious.

Mark Tobey, to his friend and dealer Marian Willard, 1946

The visualization of night and light evolved in the art of Mark Tobey in the early 1940s from what was for him a heightened sensitivity to the impulses of the modern world. His motivation, he declared, was to paint something felt, not something seen: the energies of the modern city at night, for instance, and those indefinable force fields whose radiance is only detected in the dark, sparkling energies that, while potentially explosive, might also suggest human intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. Tobey's distinctive approach to painting came to be called "white writing"an obsessive, dense, calligraphic style that seems akin to ancient symbolic expression, like characters scratched into the surfaces of black obsidian or clay tablets. Tobey's white lines on dark surfaces perfectly convey forces that are familiar to us alllike meteor showers in the night sky, for exampleand that we appreciate as some of the most ravishing and mysterious occurrences in nature. "His surfaces are worked with brush strokes that can be explosively bold, but are most often as delicate as the strands of a spider web or as ephemeral as smoke rising from a cigarette," is how one critic described Tobey's ethereal abstractions.

What do we see and feel in Tobey's White Night?

Tempera on paperboard mounted on composition board
22 1/4 x 14 in. (56.5 x 35.6 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Berthe Poncy Jacobson
Provenance: The artist; possibly as a gift to his friend Berthe Poncy Jacobson (1894-1975), Seattle, Washington, by 1945-1962
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view

White energy against a nocturnal background beautifully illustrates the saying: Let there be light.

Swiss painter Paul Klee, 1905

Recalling Seattle's Public Market

Photo: Paul Macapia
Rummage, 1941, Mark Tobey, 42.28
The Market will always be within me. Established back in 1907 by the farmers themselves--not for the tourist trade, but as a protest against the high prices paid to commission men--it has been for me a refuge, an oasis, a most human growth, the heart and soul of Seattle.

In the twenties, after many years in New York, I walked down this fabulous array of colors and forms. So many things are offered for sale--plants to be replanted; ropes of all kinds; antiques; Norwegian pancakes made by an old sea captain. . . . I hear the calls to buy--"Hey, you, come over here for the best tomatoes in the Market." Across the street are open shops under long burnt-orange-colored awnings.

--Mark Tobey, recalling the Seattle Public Market, 1964
Photo: Paul Macapia
E. Pluribus Unum, 1942, Mark Tobey, 43.33
The L-shaped Market is alive with all kinds of people, from everywhere, dressed in all kinds of garments. . . .One man could be from the Black Forest in Germany, and the woman just passing the cucumber stall walks with the stateliness of an Italian princess. . . .

From the many faces I picked out one man as someone I would like to know. He had looked at me with his friendly eyes--I felt he knew me, so why not speak? "What is your lineage?" But I did not expect the answer I got. "Adam and Eve, just like you, my son."

--Mark Tobey, recalling the Seattle Public Market, 1964
Market Scene, 1944, Mark Tobey, 79.145
For me every day in the Market was a fiesta. But, alas, wars came; the old men I had learned to know died; more and more stalls were empty; the Japanese were sent away. . . . The years dissolve and I return to visit the Market. A few old friends remain. . . . The main part of the Market is still active, still varied, and terribly important in the welter of overindustrialization. There is the same magic as night approaches: the sounds fade;. . . prices drop; the garbage pickers come bending and sorting; the cars leave the street which reflects the dying sun. The windows are all that remain of light as the sun sets over the Olympics. A few isolated figures appear and disappear, and then the Market is quiet, awaiting another day.

--Mark Tobey, recalling the Seattle Public Market, 1964

Techniques Used in Creating White Night

Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail of upper right quadrant, 62.78
In 1972, as filmmaker Robert Gardner was completing a documentary on Mark Tobey, he lamented to his subject, "I should have loved to find out more about the habits and work day of the painter." The artist replied, "it's a secret."

--Art historian Judith Kays, in an essay on Tobey's technique, published 1990
Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail, 62.78
"White writing" pieces such as White Night . . . exemplify Tobey's improvisational manner of paper presentation and application of pigment. His method was essentially one of accretion of multiple paint layers and of progression from loose strokes to increasingly tighter brushwork, and from dark to lighter hues. Working with water-based pigments, Tobey generally laid down a ground of warm purplish gray over which he brushed successive layers of paint in varying densities and tones of gray; these he manipulated spontaneously to form pleasing shapes and colors. Between paint applications, Tobey repeatedly washed down the surface with a brush or sponge to achieve subtle color gradations. He also crumpled wads of paper to scrub the remaining pigment so thinly that it created a transparent glaze covering the entire surface and served to tone down the values.

Each time Tobey reestablished the lights, he did so with enhanced articulation, thus reinforcing the linear rhythms, intensity, and energy of the composition. With a short delicate brush, he executed the final lines, which in White Night evoke the forms of seeds, grasses, insect wings, and the sights and sensations of a warm summer's evening.

--Art historian Judith Kays, in an essay on Tobey's technique, published 1990
Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail, 62.78
His surfaces are worked with brush strokes that can be explosively bold, but are most often as delicate as the strands of a spider web or as ephemeral as smoke rising from a cigarette.

At first they seem two-dimensional, but if one is willing to look long enough, the eye and mind are led into a unique world of form, space, and meaning.

--Critic and art historian William Seitz on Tobey's technique, writing for the Museum of Modern Art, 1962
Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail, 62.78
Tobey himself attributed the rapid linear notation of [this and other white writing paintings] to his study of Oriental calligraphy. Certainly an Oriental would not find the translation of writing into painting a difficult concept, since in the Orient writing and painting are treated as two aspects of the same art. . . . In China, writing is admired for its character and energy. An analogy with human activity is evident in their criterion that good writing is made up of "bone and muscle." Rather than exact drawings, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, calligraphic drawing can be considered action sketches to the extent that they are classified by speed, both of execution and, consequently, of appearance, into standing, walking, and running scripts.

--Art historian Eliza Rathbone, on the calligraphic sources of Tobey's technique, 1984

I wanted a picture that one felt more than one looked at . . . . The Chinese always talked about this feeling that exudes from a painting, you know; and I for a long time wanted something to come slowly to you. This thing has to be established between the painting and you. You can go up to it, looks like the dullest thing on earth, as though no color at all. And you stand there a while and that color will come out to you.

--Mark Tobey, 1948

White Night and Modern City Life

For a long time I had wanted to unite cities and city-life in my work. At last I now felt that I had found a technical approach which enabled me to capture what I was specifically interested in. Lights, threading traffic, the river of humanity. . . .chartered and flowing through and around its self imposed limitations not unlike chlorophyl flowing through the canals in a leaf..

--Mark Tobey, on "white writing" paintings, quoted in 1951
Artist Mark Tobey in restaurant at Pike Place Market, Seattle, 1959
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle, 1986.5.43544.1; All Rights Reserved.

Tobey's Friend, Pianist Berthe Poncy Jacobson

Photo: Wayne Albell
"The Cornish Trio" (Kolia Levienne on the cello, Peter Meremblum, violin, and Berthe Poncy at the piano), 1926
Before joining the music faculty at the University of Washington, Mrs. Jacobson was on the piano faculty at the Cornish School in Seattle. . . .

Mrs. Jacobson was held in high esteem by the music faculty and students at the University of Washington that approached reverence. I was told that she could have a biting and impatient tongue, that she had an unpredictable sense of humor, and that her worldly sophistication was of an order that set her apart. I also learned that she seldom performed in public, but when she did, it was a rare musical experience. . . .

Once a week Mark Tobey went to Mrs. Jacobson's house in Laurelhurst for dinner and a private piano lesson. He was somewhat in awe of her, and she was deeply fond of him. . . . Tobey's weekly evenings with Mrs. Jacobson were especially important to him. Mrs. Jacobson, for that matter, considered her friendship with Tobey to be of such a personal nature that, so far as I can determine, several weeks before she died she destroyed not only her private diaries but also her letters from Tobey

--Seattle writer Wesley Wehr, on Berthe Poncy Jacobson, in The Eighth Lively Art, 2000
Left to Right, Windsor Utley, Lockrem Johnson and Mark Tobey, February 26, 1950
In 1941 Tobey began to study piano and music theory with the pianist Berthe Poncy Jacobson. An abstract language of rhythm and feeling soon emerged as a fundamental ingredient of Tobey's painting.

--Art historian Eliza Rathbone, on Tobey's art and music, 1983

When I play the piano for several hours, everything is clarified in my visual imagination afterwards. Everything that exists, every human being is a vibration

--Mark Tobey, quoted 1961

Inasmuch as music is the highest and purest form of abstract art, Mark Tobey's is nearer to music that anyone else's in the field of abstract art.

--Architect and sculptor Naum Gabo, on Tobey, 1971
Gothic, 1943, Mark Tobey, 75.35
The living room in Mrs. Jacobson's Laurelhurst house was one of the loveliest rooms I have ever visited. I could never figure out exactly what it was that made that room so magically different. . . . Was it Mark Tobey's Gothic hung above the mantle? ("Mark gave that painting to me in exchange for piano lessons," Mrs. Jacobson explained.) Other beautiful Tobeys hung on the walls.

--Seattle writer Wesley Wehr, on Berthe Poncy Jacobson, in The Eighth Lively Art, 2000


Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, describes "white writing"


Exhibition HistoryPortland, Oregon, Portland Museum of Art, Paintings by Mark Tobey, July 7-Aug.12, 1945 (San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sept. 8-30, 1945;
Chicago, Arts Club of Chicago, Feb.7-27, 1946; Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts, Alger House, Mar. 1946). Introduction by Julia and Lyonel Feininger. Cat. no. 10.

San Francisco, California, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Mark Tobey Retrospective, Mar. 6-31, 1951. No cat. no., reproduced on cover. [Catalogue issued as California Palace of the Legion of Honor Bulletin 8, nos. 11-12 (March-April, 1951)].

Seattle, Washington, Henry Gallery, University of Washington, Mark Tobey Retrospective, May 20-June 27, 1951. Checklist no. 39. [a version of the San Francisco exhibition, it also traveled to Santa Barbara, California, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Aug. 16-Sept. 9, 1951].

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Mark Tobey Retrospective Exhibition, Oct. 4-Nov. 4, 1951. Cat. no. 27.

Houston, Texas, Contemporary Arts Museum, Contemporary Calligraphers: John Marin, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Apr.12-May 13, 1956. No cat. no.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, U.S.I.A. European and Pacific Exhibits: Eight American Artists, Jan. 10-Feb. 3, 1957 (exhibition traveled in two different versions under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, one to ten cities in Denmark, Germany, and England; the other to fifteen cities in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand, 1957-1958). No catalogue.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Mark Tobey: A Retrospective Exhibition from Northwest Collections, Sept. 11-Nov. 1, 1959 (Portland, Oregon, Portland Art Museum, Dec. 1959-Jan. 1960; Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Jan.-Feb. 1960; Pasadena, California, Pasadena Art Center, Feb.-Mar. 1960; San Francisco, California, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Mar.-Apr., 1960). Cat. no. 85.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle World’s Fair, Fine Arts Pavilion, Seattle Art Museum Mark Tobey Exhibition, 1962. No catalogue.

Olympia, Washington, State Capitol Museum, Governor’s Festival of the Arts, Mark Tobey, Feb.17-Mar. 20, [1965 or 1966]. Checklist no.19.

Spokane, Washington, Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum, Mark Tobey Retrospective, Mar. 8-Apr. 7, 1968.

Seattle, Washington, The Bon Marché, Mark Tobey Paintings from Northwest Collections, Apr 23-May 3, 1969. No catalogue.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Tobey’s 80: A Retrospective, Dec. 3, 1970-Jan. 31, 1971. Cat. no. 44, reproduced.

Washington, D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts, Tribute to Mark Tobey, June 7-Sept. 8, 1974 (Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Sept. 27-Nov., 1974; St. Louis, Missouri, City Art Museum, Dec. 7, 1974-Jan. 12, 1975). Cat. no. 4, reproduced.

Pullman, Washington, Washington State University Fine Arts Gallery, Northwest Painters Invitational, Apr. 14-May 4, 1975.

Miami, Florida, Miami-Dade Community College, The Art Gallery, Mark Tobey, 1930-1967: A Selection of Works from the Seattle Art Museum. Dec. 1, 1975-Jan. 29, 1976. Cat. no. 11, pp. 7, 10, reproduced p. 22.

Cincinatti, Ohio, Cincinatti Art Museum, Ten Modern Masters: the Spiritual Search in Art, Apr 30-June 13, 1976.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Northwest Traditions, June 29-Dec. 10, 1978. Text by Martha Kingsbury. No cat. no., reproduced p. 20.

Boston, Massachusetts, Institute of Contemporary Art, Northwest Visionaries, July 7-Sept. 6, 1981. No. cat. no, reproduced.

Osaka, Japan, National Museum of Art, Pacific Northwest Artists and Japan, Oct. 2-Nov. 28, 1982 (Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, The Pavilion, Jan. 27-Feb. 27, 1983). Cat. no. 116, reproduced.

Bellevue, Washington, Bellevue Art Museum, Regional Art: 1940-1962, Apr. 9-May 8, 1983.

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Mark Tobey: City Paintings, Mar. 18-June 17, 1984. Cat. no. 12, pp. 48-49, 78, reproduced p. 49.

Taiwan, Republic of China, Taiwan Museum of Art, June 25-Sept. 1988 [exhibition organized by the California/International Arts Foundation].

Tacoma, Washington, Tacoma Art Museum, 100 Years of Washington Art: New Perspectives, Nov. 24, 1989-Feb. 11, 1990. No cat. no., listed p. 12.

Stanford, California, Stanford University Museum of Art, Mark Tobey: Works on Paper from Northern California and Seattle Collections, Nov. 6-Dec. 23, 1990. Text by Paul Cummings and Judith S. Kays. Cat. no. 11, pp. 12, 17, reproduced p. 12.

Los Angeles, California, Museum of Contemporary Art, Rolywholyover—A Circus for Museum by John Cage, Sept. 12-Nov. 28, 1993 (Houston, Texas, The Menil Collection, Jan. 14-Apr. 3, 1994; New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Apr. 29-Aug.13, 1994; Mito, Japan, Art Tower Mito Contemporary Art Center, Nov. 3, 1994-Feb. 26, 1995; Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Apr. 2-June 11, 1995). No cat. no., reproduced.

Seattle, Washington, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, What it Meant to be Modern: Seattle at Mid-Century, Oct. 15, 1999 - Jan. 23, 2000. Text by Sheryl Conkelton, Martha Kingsbury, and Laura Landau. No cat. no., reproduced.

Bellevue, Washington, Bellevue Art Museum, Luminous, Jan. 13 - June 17, 2001. No cat. no., reproduced pp. 61 (detail) and 62.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, International Abstraction: Making Painting Real, May 2, 2003 - Feb. 29. 2004. No catalogue.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Night Sounds: Nocturnal Visions of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, May 4 - Oct. 15, 2006. No catalogue.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical, June 19 - Sept. 7, 2014. Text by Patricia Junker. No cat. no., p. 12, reproduced p. 13, pl. 3.
Published ReferencesChevalier, Denys. “Une journée avec Mark Tobey.” Aujourd’hui: Art et architecture 33 (October 1961): p. 4, reproduced.

Seattle Art Museum, “Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum: Fifty-seventh Year, 1962,” 1962; pp. 42, 54, reproduced fig. 29.

“Honest Prophet.” Time 74, no. 24 (December 14, 1959): pp. 80-81, reproduced p. 81.

Kingsbury, Martha and Sarah Clark. Northwest Traditions. Exh. cat. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1978; p. 20, reproduced.

Taylor, Joshua C. The Fine Arts in America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979; p. 203, reproduced.

Badiee, Julie. "Mark Tobey's City Paintings: Meditations on an Age of Transition." Journal of Baha'i Studies 1, no. 4 (1989), n.p., reproduced fig. 12.

Selz, Peter. Beyond the Mainstream: Essays in Modern and Contemporary Art. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997; p. 152, reproduced fig. 39.

Rosenblum, Robert. “American Painting Since the Second World War.” In On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum, pp. 62-63, reproduced fig. 32. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999. [originally published as “La peinture américaine depuis le seconde guerre mondiale,” in Aujourd’hui: Art et architecture 3, no. 18 (July 1958): pp. 12-18].

Conkleton, Sheryl et al. What it Meant to Be Modern: Seattle Art at Mid-Century. Exh. cat. Seattle: Henry Gallery, 2000; reproduced p. 4.

Ricou, Laurie. The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: NeWest Press, 2002; reproduced pl.5.

Wehr, Wesley. “Mark Tobey: A Dialogue Between Painting and Music.” In Sounds of the Inner Eye: John Cage, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, edited by Wulf Herzogenrath and Andreas Kreul, p. 26, reproduced fig.1. Exh. cat. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press in association with the Museum of Glass, International Center for Contemporary Art, Tacoma, 2002.

Johns, Barbara. Paul Horiuchi East and West. Exh. cat. Seattle: University of Washington Press, in association with the Museum of Northwest Art, 2008; p.36, reproduced fig. 39.

Balken, Debra Bricker. Mark Tobey: Threading Light. New York: Skira Rizzoli in association with the Addison Gallery of American Art, 2017; p. 21, reproduced pl. 3.

Morgan, Robert. Mark Tobey. Exh. Cat. New York: Pace Gallery, 2018; p. 15, fig 11 [not in exhibition].

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