I’m using Mark Tobey for this sticky subject, partly because I met him briefly in Seattle in 1962, and partly because he exemplifies a personality type most of us will recognize. Wisconsin born, Tobey was a leading light in what came to be known as the “Mystical Painters of the Northwest.” His big, calligraphic paintings and signature “white writing” influenced a generation of American painters.
While he had a few friends and adulators, Tobey was, by most accounts, a difficult, cantankerous fellow. He was also jealous, self-centred and quick to condemn competitors. Abandoning his early training in realism and portrait work, he taught art only intermittently from his home and in schools. A dedicated self-starter and persistent worker, he taught when he needed the money.
Art instruction with Tobey was noted for its lack of instruction. His idea of teaching was to go out with a group of students and look at mosses on rocks, oily slicks on puddles, and textures on gas-station walls.
“You don’t want to help the young too much,” Tobey advised student Wesley Wehr, “It will just weaken them and they’ll only resent it.” Mark Tobey thought there were too many artists already. Helping amateurs was counterproductive and ate into the eventual income of the pros. People either found their own voice or they didn’t.
Some of his students thought Tobey had little to teach. Self-absorbed, he was pretty well locked into an obsessive, mannered layering on big, non-objective paintings, and was fond of admitting he didn’t know what he was doing. Railing against his deficiencies, he was perennially in search of an arbitrary rightness that he found difficult to find. He left it to someone else to think up his titles.
A complex character, Tobey was a member of the Baha’i faith. He claimed it filled his work with love. This gentle religion probably prevented him from becoming a complete ogre. Through the force of his personality and by his own example, Tobey taught the value of ego, effort, and bloody-minded persistence.
PS: “Problems are an important part of maturing — meet them straight on. Work them out. It’s like the chick in the egg. It has to break through the eggshell on its own. That’s how it gains its first strength. If you break the shell for the chick, you end up with a puny little runt.” (Mark Tobey to Wesley Wehr)
Esoterica: Mark Tobey (1890-1976) had what we now call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Don’t knock it — a pile of artists, including lots of abstract expressionists, had NPD too. Some of them were pretty miserable folks. Think Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Many NPDs don’t have much of an inclination to share or teach. By default, perhaps, they figure the best artists struggle on their own. This “me-first” attitude can serve an artist well.
Succeeding in art — failing in life
>by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
Art historian and critic, Bow Davis, Maryland School of Art professor emeritus, thought my work at Delaware Center for Contemporary Art was in the Mark Tobey camp back in 1992. I was inventing my own calligraphy relating to ancient Egyptian and Sumerian healing. I never knew this dark side to Tobey, nor was I influenced by his work. We were both just pursuing a similar device. I wanted to comment on the notion of making a mark for oneself in the world of art, but failing in the world of LIFE. Nothing could be sadder. Yes, we may venerate these marvels of sculpture and painting, while the creators of the work suffer with depression, envy, and penury. Can’t we find a healthier way to follow our love of art… maybe with a love of life and people.
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Teacher past her prime
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
Mark Tobey displays all the characteristics of my voice teacher in London! She had been a great singer in her time and never stopped letting people know it, though her voice had long since capsized. Her teaching consisted of two words: YES and NO, the NO being dominant. After a series of NOs, shouted rather than confided, you might – if you were lucky – get a grudging or even enthusiastic YES, but you never really found out why because she had no idea either. She was looking for something: the proverbial needle in a haystack, a special sound, vocal attack, etc, and when it occurred it was a triumph, not for the student, but for her vocal prowess and pedagogic acumen. I went through years of this treatment. I was arguably her best “victim” and she threatened to leave the college if I insisted on changing teachers, which would have been a scandal since she had been honoured in the Queen’s Honours List. I would be letting the side down……
The obligations of the teaching professions
by oliver, TX, USA
When you teach for a fee you should either a) teach art appreciation from hands on; b) teach art appreciation from an academic art history perspective; c) encourage your students to enjoy the art from the self expression point of view but give them your honest perceptions of where they are at in finding their own voice. Sometimes this may be enthusiastic support and sometimes it may be harsh criticism or even “ah so what” or “I don’t get it” or “a nice study but it has been done before — a good learning project or you didn’t get this or that aspect of the masters work in your study” d) teach basic techniques and fundamentals or something. Taking a fee and a field trip to kinda look at stuff in the world seems a bit like a rip off, but extended to organic forms, color, motion, perspective, composition in the small and large or something may have value.
Artists loved and not so loved
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
There are so many egomaniac narcissists in painting that are famous. It tends to obscure the fact that most artists don’t need a trailer to haul around their aberrant ego. Fame makes jerks out of many people in many different fields. I wish there were more mention of the nice people in art and the truly great people who happened to be artists. Rubens is one who comes to mind. He was so talented in diplomacy that he often was involved in work that the state department would be involved in today. He knew all sorts of kings personally and trained many great artists like Van Dyk who helped him with the mountain of commissioned work he completed. Delacroix was another artist who was loved by younger artists as was the famously generous Corot. I’m sure there are dozens more men and women artists who were exemplary caring human beings… but mostly we hear about the creeps. It says a lot about our culture.
It’s not what you say
by Mike Fenton, Parsippany, NJ, USA
I have an ongoing fascination with abstract painters who actually know what they are trying to say with their work. It’s like jazz. You have to really feel the music to do it well. Something I have not yet been able to achieve… and may never. On this level I am fascinated with Tobey’s work. On the more important level, that of teacher and being human, I have a more complete understanding and so I recall something I heard when I was teaching management and leadership at Bell Labs (the real Bell Labs in the “good old days”): “What you do speaks so much louder than what you say, that I cannot hear you.” Tobey sounds like a very unlikeable person whose “message” was probably lost because he was always fighting his own insecurities and demons. Reading your short synopsis was about all the contact with Tobey that I care to have.
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Is it just the men with the egos?
by Karl Eric Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA
I’ve been trying to figure out why, even today in the early twenty-first century, the very top tier of successful artists seems to include considerably more men than women. This even though the second tier (all of us who are struggling along as professional working artists) has at least as many women as men, and anyone with an unbiased eye can see that there is no overall qualitative difference in the work being produced by men and women. Some of this may be the lingering effects of a more male-dominated society in the recent past. But could it also be that females, (in a very generalized sense and not on an individual basis), tend to be more nurturing and less prone to a “me-first attitude,” and thus are a little less likely to neglect other people and other parts of their lives in the obsessive pursuit of their art? Or, is it the higher respect that seems to be given to male artists purely on the part of the art audience, with no basis in the attitudes and actions of the artists themselves?
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Pollock’s personal passion
by David Hallowell, Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
Occasionally I imitate the style of various people, even Jackson Pollock. Each time I learn something useful, i.e. staring at some paintings can be disorienting! I agree that people who have NPD or intense egotists are hard to like. But in my best amateur diagnosis Jackson Pollock may have had Asperger’s syndrome. However that would not have made him any more socially palatable than a Narcissist. If he had Asperger’s, the fine muscle control needed for more accurate brushwork may have been missing, but his social awkwardness, passion for art and intense concentration on one style of work would fit the syndrome well.
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Filling work with love
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
I tend to agree with Tobey. Most of what I know about painting technique I learned from a book in a few weeks. I am talking about how to make a painting which is solid and will last through time without cracking or flaking. Unfortunately the essentials are rarely taught in school; What makes a great painting great? Self definition or how do you find your personal voice? Creative thinking or more importantly creative living. How do you create a life that supports full time painting? The most important element of all is almost taboo; The Spiritual side of painting. Tobey’s faith “filled his work with love.” When they start teaching that in schools I’ll be all for it.
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Let them figure it out on their own
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada
I do an art form of my own devise that involves attaching (usually) 1″ square tiles of various coloured woods to a fabric backing to make large flexible wall hangings that can be rolled up for shipping. I’ve been at it for more than ten years. I occasionally get people wanting me to teach them how I do it. While I have in fact worked as a joinery instructor and am more than happy to impart my quite extensive knowledge of wood and woodworking in general, the details of my art form remain with me. If someone wants to copy what I do, I’ll leave it up to them to figure it out for themselves, just like I had to. If the day ever comes that I have more orders than I can fill, perhaps I’ll be more inclined to teach others all the little tricks I’ve figured out to make the job go smoothly and quickly. If that means I’m narcissistic I guess I’ll live with it.
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Mark Tobey really a nice guy
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada
My wife Houri was a friend of Mark Tobey’s when she lived in Basel Switzerland for three years in the 1960’s. She says that Mark Tobey was an “angel, a very sweet, kind, generous and knowledgeable human being.” She strongly disagrees with your characterization of him; and I disagree with you also. While studying Fine Arts in the early 1970’s I researched Toby and wrote a paper on his life and work. Your representation of him is, unfortunately, biased and inaccurate. It saddens me to realize that your irresponsible remarks about him have gone out to affect the hundreds of your readers who trust what you say to be true. There are many things in your article I would like to point out and correct, but this would become quite long. In any case perhaps what I have said, if you choose to print it, will be enough to enable your readers to realize that you have maligned a great man in the way you used him to serve the subject you wanted to write about.
(RG note) Thanks, Bill, for your thoughtful, firsthand note. I apologize if I was a bit rough on Tobey. Indeed there were lots of folks who found him gentle and charming, and certainly a knowledgeable guy. He was also of course one of those guys totally turned on by the environment, and infected his friends with a true appreciation and love of things seen. I’d be curious to know if he mentored or taught you or Houri, or was in any way helpful in your own careers? My info came from Seattle art dealers Zoe Dusanne and Otto Seligman, the dealer whom he was visiting from Basel when I met him twice in one week. An excellent source of Tobeyana is Wesley Wehr’s charming book, The Eighth Lively Art, where he looks at a lot of Northwest artists and poets, etc. He’s interesting on poet Theodore Roethke too. As a very young man at the University of Washington, Wehr actually taught Tobey music and was his friend and confidante. Wehr is the most gentle of souls, and my remarks are backed up by his experiences with Tobey before he started to do well, was perhaps more comfortable with himself, and had moved to Switzerland, where your wife found him sweet, kind and generous.
Don’t despair, Robert
by Basil Pessin
Robert, of course there is a case for no help. In fact I would say that many if not most of the great artists ever known probably started on their own with no help. Hidden somewhere afraid that if it were known they wanted to create art they would be scorned by their family or the rest of the community. Until of course the works they created were somehow exposed to the world and were different enough to be labeled as unique and accepted by the art community as good and encouraged the artist to create more.
Inherent in all good art is the quality of uniqueness, difference. If all artists tried to create works of an instructor, what would happen to the concept of creativity? Who would know if it was a Rembrandt or one of his students that created the painting?
I belong to an art group. A couple of the artists teach art to the others in the group. The way they taught was to show the students a step by step way to create a painting by following what she did. So it was no surprise, but a horror when three of the artists in our group showed exactly the same painting at one of our shows. Of course the group immediately outlawed showing paintings of that nature.
The ultimate goal of art is creativity. Robert, do you consider your art creative? Do you consider your art in any way different from the little old ladies with blue hair that you have taught except that you possibly have a greater skill than they do? Your art is totally conventional. It lacks imagination and that one quality that makes art art. Creativity! You are a photograph copier! Yet in the article it was only thinly disguised that you have contempt for creative artists such as abstract or abstract expressionists or non realistic artists. It showed in the choice of artists you used to express your ideas. You could have chosen realistic painters with the same personality traits as Tobey or Pollock or Rothko. You had a hidden agenda! Your article was defensive of realistic artists such as yourself. What did Tobey’s abandonment of realism have to do with his ability to teach and Rothko and Pollock are hanging in every great museum in the world. Why disparage their life and character? That was not necessary. The great artists of today have abandoned photographs. The camera is the worst thing that has happened to art in the last century.
Don’t despair Robert. You can still attempt to be creative. To create art from your own imagination, from the depths of your creativity, rather than just be a copyist. You are, however, a good anecdotist. Keep it up.
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Pallister Valley Mist
oil painting by Bonnie Hamlin
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Daun E. Miller of Tampa, FL, USA, who wrote, “As a Baha’i, I try to be loving and considerate instead of narcissistic and self-serving. But one thing I have learned as a writer who just had her first book published, is what it took to accomplish that goal. It was hard work, persistence, belief in oneself, belief in the value of the work, and belief, without a doubt, that this book needed to be written. It is this attitude that carries one through all the years of tears and fears to see the fulfillment of one’s dream.”
And also Virginia Wieringa of Grand Rapids, MI, USA, who wrote, “Tobey — I recognize him. I studied under him (though he was using another name at the time), worked with him (also using another name and under a different guise), and I think I dated him a couple of different times (though his visage was never the same twice). Interestingly, I’ve never met a woman who met this description.”
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