The case for no help

Dear Artist, 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.

Mark Tobey

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.

original painting by Mark Tobey

Best regards, Robert 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.   Mark Tobey

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“White flames”
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Salute to Mark Tobey
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American Landscape
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              Succeeding in art — failing in life by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA  

original painting
by Alan Soffer

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. There are 3 comments for Succeeding in art — failing in life by Alan Soffer
From: susan burns — Apr 23, 2010

I think your dream is coming true. It seems we are leaving the age of reason and entering a new age….maybe the age of intuition, or mysticism. You are leading the way. I thank you.

From: Anonymous — Apr 23, 2010

Mark, keep doing what you are painting, I love it. When I saw the painting, my heart jumped, is that good enough? I paint abstract much to the annoyance of many of my painter friends, but its ok with me..I just do it…Jean McLaren

From: wendy head — Apr 23, 2010

I saw this as I scrolled down and thought ‘Wow!’ without even reading anything about it. I love it.

  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  

digital photograph
by oliver

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  

“Long Distance”
mixed media painting
by Paul deMarrais

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. There are 2 comments for It’s not what you say by Mike Fenton
From: Don — Apr 23, 2010

So, are you saying that today’s Bell labs are not as good as Bell Labs of your time? And that “good old days” of yours were better than these days? Don’t you see that’s the same attitude as the one of Tobey that you bash? Most people here sound much more visious commenting on Toby, than he ever was. Kettle calling the pot blak – Toby was at least a frank pot.

From: Bobbie Sayles — Apr 24, 2010

I like the comparison with jazz. Thelonious Monk might not have had NPD, but he was famously uncommunicative, in the verbal sense. However, literally thousands of jazz practitioners learned a lot from his music, and he opened the ears of his attentive audience. We can’t do much to help the modern Tobey’s and Rothko’s, but we can certain honor their efforts by learning from their work. In fact, in many cases we cannot help but learn from them when we stand goggle-eyed before the canvases.

  Is it just the men with the egos? by Karl Eric Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA  

“Shrimp Boat at Sunrise, Edisto Island”
oil painting 16 x 12 inches
by Karl Eric Leitzel

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? There are 4 comments for Is it just the men with the egos? by Karl Eric Leitzel
From: Caroline Jobe — Apr 23, 2010

i think it is that fact that women generally care for the family and the husband who wants to pursue his career. i did ask that question to a teacher of a workshop one time. i asked who was doing the dishes. he replied well now my wife is out on the golf course while i am here teaching. so in the end she did reap the rewards of being his background support while he got to live out his dream. often it is the woman’s desire to see her man succeed and to stay in the background painting when she can.

From: Female — Apr 23, 2010

No, that is not the reason. The reason is that women tend to stab each other in the back, especially when one makes a progress ahead of the other. Women make a big performance on the appearance that they are supportive of each other, but when it counts, you better call your male colleague for support.

From: Anonymous — Apr 23, 2010

As a professional artist I have always said “I wish I had a wife”. Coming home to a meal, clean house, etc. would be great. Years ago women were not allowed to paint, except to amuse themselves, so they were never taken seriously. We have come a long way. As to the comment that “women tend to stab each other in the back”….I find this a sad commentary as the women artists I know are supportive, smart and willing to go the extra mile for their colleagues. Perhaps a look inward would enhance your viewpoint.

From: Anonymous — Apr 27, 2010

Actually, she probably does not need to look inward. I have seen both. I have supportive female art friends and have unfortunately had friends jealous of me as well. I now seek a higher standard of friendship. I wish you all…only the best kinds of friends!

  Pollock’s personal passion by David Hallowell, Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine  

digital painting
by David Hallowell

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.   There are 2 comments for Pollock’s personal passion by David Hallowell
From: caroline Jobe — Apr 23, 2010


From: Anon — Apr 23, 2010

Actually, Pollock was very bad in trying to draw and paint anything realistic. Lee was the good one with that. Pollock recognized after a while that his genius lays in something else and pursued it with his drips. Knowing that he escaped from the initial failure, without conquering it, made him a bitter man.

  Filling work with love by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“Tower Of David III”
original painting
by Jeffrey Hessing

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. There is 1 comment for Filling work with love by Jeffrey Hessing
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Apr 27, 2010

The spiritual side of art is difficult to teach- because we live in a world of Dogmas- belief structures we individually hold all our lives that are filled with some pretty major un-truths. Even study of the (supposed) great teachings will not lead you to understand your own self spiritually. The big suggestion is to Know Thyself. What does that really mean? My point is that a person has to want to know before they ever do the inner work necessary TO KNOW. And only a KNOWER can teach such a class/student. Unfortunate- because few will claim to be in a position to actually know how to teach someone how to be PRESENT with the ALL- and have that direct spiritual experience flow out of them as ART instead of religion.

  Let them figure it out on their own by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada  

mixed media
by Wes Giesbrecht

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.   There are 3 comments for Let them figure it out on their own by Wes Giesbrecht
From: Tatjana — Apr 23, 2010

Hi Wes, I have seen your beautiful wood mosaics, they are amazing! If another artist get’s inspired by them, there are many obvious tools and methods they can explore to develop their own art in a similar medium. I don’t see why someone would need to know your exact process unless they wanted to replicate your art.

From: Wes — Apr 23, 2010

Thanks T. I had an e-mail from someone in China wanting me to explain my process not long ago. Mmmm … I don’t think so.

From: Marti O’Brien — Apr 25, 2010

Great letter, Wes…and of course Marilyn… Your sister and biggest fan.

  Mark Tobey really a nice guy by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada  

“Rainforest Sunlight”
original painting
by Bill Skuce

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  

original painting
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. There are 7 comments for Don’t despair, Robert by Basil Pessin
From: Darla — Apr 23, 2010

While I have my doubts about slavish photograph-copying except as a learning device, plein air or still life painting require the highest degree of creativity and skill, translating 3-d real life into paint. Abstract painting is like music without words; you have to get the message across without set symbols. Effective abstract art is very difficult and correspondingly rare. Abstraction used without skill is noise, without value except possibly to the painter. Realistic painting uses representation as another tool to get the message across. Many painters start as representative artists and go on to abstraction and stylization as they learn the visual language. Others go on to perfect their representational style. Throwing away realism as a legitimate art approach, in favor of abstraction, good or not, is as ridiculous as insisting on photorealism as the only valid approach.

From: John F. Johnson — Apr 23, 2010

The creative process doesn’t only happen when you have a paint brush in your hand. Great art is something that touches our soul, whether it is sculpture, painting, photography, literature, music, or whatever. The creative process uses different tools, NONE of which is superior to the others. New tools inspire new techniques, which in turn may inspire others. Build on the past, but don’t get stuck in it. I have an agenda, and it isn’t hidden – I use digital photographs to create my art, and I want my creativity to be recognized equally with other art forms. Just because I don’t have paint on my hands does not make me a bad artist. Your use of the words “contempt for creative artists such as abstract or abstract expressionist” is in itself contemptuous of those who don’t create art in the way that you do. There’s room for us all, so let’s just learn to get along, please.

From: Anonymous — Apr 23, 2010

The camera is not the worst thing to happen to art in the last century. Its a tool box that after 100years and massive technological development that is just comming into its own. Will the technology make painting an alternative technology, possibly consider that television, movies and indeed photographs predominate our world. Most people in the world see hundreds of photographs a day and watch television, and for those in the developed world most have a camera or two – even cell phones have cameras. Other than children’s tools am not sure how many people have paints and brushes. The photographic tools are developing changing and how people use them are changing as well. Painters have been moaning about the death of painting since the first camera came out. It isn’t dead yet, many painters use a camera for help, and some don’t go into the photographers domain – but be careful – that domain is bigger and more flexible than most think. A photographer can probably make images quicker than a painter – thereby practicing the craft for self development. Inherent is the ability to make editions – painters go to gicelles. Realism comes and goes and I think you misunderstand how much realistic art – commercial and otherwise is out there. Suppose though you are a snob, only oils are worthy art forms, watercolors, acrylics or other media just don’t qualify. Think again the world has passed you by. It’s a big tent.

From: anonym — Apr 23, 2010

Dear Basil, you are up to a long wait. Bitterness won’t help.

From: Sarah — Apr 23, 2010

Your comments were actually sad–so much bitterness, combined with obvious envy and mean-spiritedness. Of course you would snidely criticize Mr. Genn, whose creativity, generosity of spirit, knowledge and success inspire thousands of artists around the world. I hope you can find a therapist who can help you work through the miasma of ego-centricity, ignorance and closed-mindedness which seems to afflict you.

From: Gwen Fox — Apr 24, 2010

Well Basil….it is obvious you are not a teacher and from your post I think it is a good thing. You have brought up some good points but shared them with the wrong spirit. Your point about the teachers who teach and their students who paint just like them was well taken. This happens and it will always happen. Beginning artists don’t realize this aspect of “the rules”….they are excited to show what they have done. The club should have had the rule of no paintings to be shown that were done is class in place before the show….this was their error not the students. I am sure the students will take the instructions of the teacher and with time tweak them and make them their own. This is how people learn. They need a starting point. Those who only copy are not and will never be “real artists”. Yes, creativity is the ultimate goal of art. To create a beautiful landscape takes creativity. Deciding what to leave out, what mood you want to share or how to translate the scene. In the end all good landscapes, still life’s or portraits boil down to being abstract shapes. As an abstract artist I understand what you are saying about creating art from the imagination but I think you are putting us abstract artists on too high a pedestal. I would find it hard to create a landscape that was of the standard I want. We are all given gifts and we all share them in different ways. Your painting is beautiful, color is strong and the design well executed but the quality of your painting is no different than a beautifully designed landscape. I personally use the camera to capture a shadow, light, a mood, etc. I find the camera to be an invaluable source of reference. As I stated above, your work is exquisite and yet I can’t help but wonder why you don’t share your love and passion for art instead of being a drag. Go for a long walk young man and drink in the beauty of the world. Come back and share it with others and then witness your expanded creativity.

From: Anonymous — Apr 25, 2010

That comment is wrong in so many ways, but lets take three for starters: “In fact I would say that many if not most of the great artists ever known probably started on their own with no help” Eh? In fact most artists of real note started their apprenticeship at about 12 years of age and spent several years working closely with a recognised master before branching out on their own, or more recently a lot of years at an academy. Secondly,why do you think originality is such a prize? no great artist has ever striven for originality as an end in itself, even Rembrandt since you mention him, and yes scholars still argue to this day about the attribution of many of ‘his’ paintings, some might even have been done by his students!I could sit in a gallery with an egg on my head as a protest about third world hunger, it’d be original, but pretty silly wouldn’t you say? And finally creativity isnt a goal of art, its a tool, you use it to create art, you see the clue is in the word, and it takes a bucketful more of it to create a harmonious coherent landscape painting than it does to mess around with software for half an hour and see what turns up!

  [fbcomments url=””]    woa  

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.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The case for no help

From: Jackie Knott — Apr 20, 2010

I have never figured out why an “artistic personality” has to be difficult. It doesn’t cost a thing to be agreeable and there are enough contrary individuals in the arts. One can be confident without arrogance and we could all use a few smiles along the way. Sure, there are too many artists … but it isn’t anyone’s God given assignment to decide who should rise to the top or who should fall by the wayside. Natural attrition takes care of that. Neither is dismissing another artist going to help your career one bit. How does eliminating your competition make your work any better? I had the privilege of taking a weekend seminar with Daniel Greene years ago. If anyone has the right to be egotistical, Greene does. But, I’ve never met a finer gentleman or superb teacher. The value of a teacher is in wanting to impart knowledge, not devastate the student. If you’re in it for any other reason you shouldn’t teach. Instruction doesn’t “weaken” the young it helps them problem solve. Great teachers leave students with lasting impressions, not crushed ambition.

From: Gabriella Morrison — Apr 20, 2010

I guess when Mark Tobey was alive there was a smaller Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual available where Narcissistic Personality Disorder didn’t figure prominently as a diagnosis. Robert, where do you get your information from that you may conjecture Tobey could be labelled as an NPD? The proclivity to share and teach does not necessarily ensure one is free from narcissitic tendencies; in fact, it could be argued that many persons teach, not only to make money from the activity or to share knowledge but to gain acolytes for a specific way of making art. I think you called it “cloning” in some earlier posts.

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Apr 20, 2010

My personal mantra on this has always been: “Teach the student how to use the materials, talk them through the process, but don’t guide their hand while creating the art.” :)

From: Sheila Minifie — Apr 20, 2010

It seems pretty much that this guy was teaching those around him all along – to go ones own way, being true to oneself regardless of the ‘world’ – individualistic, determined, obsessive maybe, devoted, and an expression of giving it your all. He reminds me of my own sculpture tutor – a bit of a megalomaniac, was difficult and hard and though I hated him and thought him a lousy teacher, his work was strong and beautiful. He had character which is missing a lot these days. I’m not saying he was right or good – just a formidable force of human nature and I struggle even to this day to get him out of my mind. I stayed with him for 6 years. Angry I left, but he has always remained in my heart. He was passionate – he cared. Not for me, nor anyone, but art and nature.

From: Richard Smith — Apr 20, 2010

I’m a big believer in the “me first” school of artistic success. As far as I can see, many of the really successful artists are like that. Michelangelo, Picasso, Cezanne, tons of artists who were so intensely focused on themselves and their work that they little time for others but went on to create masterpieces. I’m not like that and I’m not successful. Matter of fact, I think that anyone who wants to be super successful needs to be completely concerned about themselves and their work first. This is how you get to be successful. And have no other life worth speaking of. The husband or wife whose career is paramount while their relationship heads down the porcelain disposal unit are the prime example of people who put what they do for themselves before their relationships with others. It’s the price you have to pay for success and some people are quite willing to pay it. For me it’s a price too high and I think there’s more to life than being single focused.

From: Anonymous — Apr 21, 2010

Hi Richard, There are shades of gray. That’s why we are reading Bob Genn’s letters. He is reasonably successful and has a lovely family and many friends. I guess we are trying to learn how to do that. Best wishes!

From: Jan Ross — Apr 21, 2010

it came as no surprise that Tobey’s paintings appear to have as much soul as a Brillo pad, given your description of his personality. Reminds me of an answer an art instructor I once had gave when asked, “Why is this artist’s work considered so noteworthy?”…”Because he was the first artist to do it that way”. Kennesaw, GA

From: Feven Tewolde — Apr 21, 2010

I am a very happy individual playing many sports must have helped, but I am also an artist. I hope you like this words. The light that is given is the light that lives its brilliance. I don’t look for anything. I have too much from the world we live in. I only want to share my inspiration. I am still a baby.

From: Ivan Lloyd — Apr 21, 2010

It is interesting you mentioned Mark Tobey because about fifteen years ago I was commissioned to document some historical scenes from the Baha’i Faith when a client discovered that I’d spent my youth studying Art in the Middle East and India. Naturally I agreed but knew nothing about the subject except that everyone I met was very pleasant. At first I spent several months on each painting mostly on research and studying references but soon discovered it was almost like painting Persian miniatures with a western perspective. I’m constantly having to paint myself in and out of the painting so hopefully the finished result doesn’t look too overworked, a characteristic I noted you recently criticized in some paintings you viewed. I’m always determined to enjoy the painting process as I believe that’s what ultimately comes through to the viewer, whatever the image. There is a chance this subject matter will guarantee my work will have a certain longevity, which it otherwise might not necessarily have, which raises the question whether you, or any of your readers, have any opinion about narrative painting verses the pleasure of creating decorative art.

From: JoAnn Formia — Apr 21, 2010

I am currently President of Watercolor West a Transparent Watercolor Society and I just received you book today and have skimmed through it. It looks very interesting. You were brought to my attention by a fellow painter, Joanna Mersereau a great watercolorist and designer. I do receive your twice a week letters but I was so excited to see that you had a book available I ordered it immediately. I am sure there are great things to be learned even though I am a watercolorists as well, I see you work primarily in acrylics. I think it is more about the philosophy than the medium.

From: Loraine Wellman — Apr 21, 2010
From: Delores Nelson — Apr 21, 2010

I appreciated your piece on Tobey’s work. I live in Olympia, WA, a small town and the State Capital. A very large Mark Tobey painting hung in the State Library on campus and I studied it often. I felt he may have worked somewhat in the same vein as Jackson Pollack, however a closer look at Tobey’s painting revealed details and images from nature. Like most abstract works, just a glance never is enough. The artist has required the viewer to do more, become involved and to feel something.

From: Janice Robinson-Delaney — Apr 21, 2010

I have done a few pieces that are reminiscent of Tobey’s style, I saw them as prospective designs (some of them ) as ideas for wallpaper design, but soon found out that wallpaper designer are not really that much in the market for prints, not that much, I thought I would at least get a send us a sample or something, got nothing.

From: John Ferrie — Apr 21, 2010

If ANY instructor made me stare at oil slicks or textures on gas station walls, I would have thought them completely daft! This “Toby” did some really bad art and while their might have been some applause for earlier works, there certainly was no thunder for his later works. This is what really bothers me about a lot of artists, rather than rethinking their work and what they are communicating, they get pissed off at the world and slam everyone else. To be truly creative it to always be working beyond what you think you know. I looked at this guy’s work. It was like a bad comedian who is bombing on stage with bad jokes. This thing about “Toby” is he is just not that funny.

From: Sandra — Apr 21, 2010

I am currently teaching at a college level art program and one of our team of teachers is like Mark Tobey. I am constantly running interference with the cruel non-constructive comments this guy gives these young aspiring artists. He spends most of the class time talking about his own achievements and refuses to do demos or show examples of what he is looking for because as he says “You will only copy me and do it badly”. The only hope the rest of us have is that the forms the students get at the end of the semester to do the teacher report card will keep his destructive attitude at bay.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Apr 21, 2010

There is some of Mark Tobey in most of us. I can feel him rising at times when I need to be left alone with my art. As the social part takes charge at other times, I get overwhelmed with the goodness and quantity of great stuff that friends artists do. So many lovely people and so little time to appreciate everything. And that’ when my internal Mark Tobey slaps me a few times, shakes me thoroughly, kicks me in my behind in the direction of my studio (yes, down the stairs) and slams the door shut. I am thankful to my Mark Tobey, he makes sure I stay on track with my work.

From: Paul Wolf — Apr 21, 2010

I can see what Mark Tobey was getting at, but it was an art of a personal vision, not easily understood and perhaps uncomfortable for many.

From: S.K.Sahni (India) — Apr 21, 2010

I have not liked your remark mentioned under Esoterica that Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko were suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So according to you all abstract painters and non-figurative artists suffer from such kind of disorders as they fail to explain their works. To me this only reflects your personal attitude of glorifying natural studies which you have been practicing from hill tops to sea from the last few decades.

From: Susan McCrae — Apr 21, 2010
From: Patricia Carmichael — Apr 21, 2010

I have seen his work in the Seattle Art Museum and it is a beautiful, spiritual experience to see the real deal because it does not photograph well.

From: Neil Waldman — Apr 21, 2010

I’ve been reading both of the books you sent me . . . slowly (a chapter or two at a time) . . . as is my way with reading . . . and I’m very impressed – firstly with your generosity of spirit, and secondly with the valuable information you’ve made available. I’ve already begun to share some of the information with my students.

From: Sandra Kessler — Apr 21, 2010

have you seen the interview with George Stroumboulopoulos on the Mark Rothko film coming up? It is called RED. Quite interesting in that Rothko telling his young protege about the piece he is painting. He speaks in such a vigorous manner and the kid thinks he is angry. He says it is not anger, it is passion.

From: Gail Nash — Apr 21, 2010

This was a funny piece. I looked up Mark Tobey’s work to see what you were going to talk about and was appalled by his stuff. So it was with a good deal of relief that I read your backhanded compliments toward this guy. I just wish I had more of his “me-first”-ism and would get back to work on my art. Thanks for the article.

From: Joseph Tany — Apr 21, 2010

I am painter talking from first impression, his art speaks for itself; Tobey is the only American master that I recognize. the only ‘local’ painter who will join the great masters of the past , and i mean the world masters, not the American masters…whatever that means.

From: Julie Roberts — Apr 21, 2010
From: Denese Oakes — Apr 21, 2010

Thank you Robert. I love your insight. I have known a few NPD’s during my artistic career, it is a wonder I am not scarred for life. Remarkably, NPD-ism transfers right on over to the Art History field too. Thank you. Some of your best letters come at times when life is really stinky.

From: Claudia Cohen — Apr 21, 2010

I know that personality type well. I was married to such a character. Not so much fun. Which is why perhaps, I never repeated that experience.

From: Dennis Birch — Apr 21, 2010

It’s great to see the responses are getting shorter. I love reading them but I don’t do the long ones.

From: Paulus Potter — Apr 21, 2010

“The root of all religions, from the Baha’i point of view, is based on the theory that man will gradually come to understand the unity of the world and the oneness of mankind. It teaches that all the prophets are one – that science and religion are the two great powers which must be balanced if man is to become mature. I feel my work has been influenced by these beliefs. I’ve tried to decentralize and interpenetrate so that all parts of a painting are of related value… Mine are the Orient, the Occident, science, religion, cities, space, and writing a picture.” (Mark Tobey, 1934)

From: Jackie Knott — Apr 22, 2010

I am surprised at the justification of a negative temperment just because the bearer is an artist. We wouldn’t tolerate such hostility in the other professions we interact with. Bewildering.

From: Barrett Edwards — Apr 22, 2010

Poor, poor Mark Tobey. He never saw the light go on in some young artist’s eye, put there through his own prompting illustration. He never felt the joy of sharing what he valued most. And, saddest of all, he never realized that teaching art can be a potent force for artistic self growth. Self-absorption may have its benefits, but more likely it limits the creative spirit.

From: John Ferrie — Apr 22, 2010

Dear Robert, I may only be 48 years old, but I have learned one valuable lesson, “Never fear your Competition!”. This guy is a Putz, never liking anything, never encouraging anything. And if ANY instructor made me stare at oil slicks or textures on gas station walls, I would have thought them completely daft! This “Toby” did some really bad art and while their might have been some applause for earlier works, there certainly was no thunder for his later works. This is what really bothers me about a lot of artists, rather than rethinking their work and what they are communicating, they get pissed off at the world and slam everyone else. To be truly creative it to always be working beyond what you think you know. I looked at this guys work. It was like a bad comedian who is bombing on stage with bad jokes. This thing about “Toby” is he is just not that funny. Always, John

From: Jack Richardson — Apr 23, 2010

As a young art student at the PAFA in the late 60’s and not appreciative of “Intellectual” art I was taken aback when entering a show of Mark Tobeys’ at Peale House gallery. The electric energy emanating from his work sent me through the roof. I had a difficult time dragging myself away. His paintings are energy fields which speak and pull you in. They are vibrational glimpses of time, art in its highest form, not pictures. . Your commentators on this blog should take the time to experience this esteemed artists work in person. NPD abounds right here

From: Mary — Apr 23, 2010

Virginia Wieringa – you haven’t met my mother in law, but think mother in laws in general…

From: Mel Proulx — Apr 24, 2010

I think that a large majority of people in the greater North American society suffer from problems that might fit under the umbrella of NPD. Think how many you know who believe that all opinions are created equal — the uniformed on the same level as the informed. Think how many people live a public life capsulized in sound bites — regurgitating their philosophies and (usually strident, if not angry, but certainly unequivocal) cliches. Think of the people who believe that reality is consistent with their personal view of it. There’s a lot of strife out there, and it’s obviously not limited to the internal life of poets and painters. I like the ideas that all things are connected, that all things change, and that we should pay attention (certainly before we bag off or backhand our fellows on the basis of incomplete awareness).


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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