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Mark Tobey: Threading Light travels to the Addison this fall

Mark Tobey: Threading Light traces the evolution of the artist’s groundbreaking style and his significant yet under-recognized contributions to abstraction and mid-century American modernism. With 70 paintings spanning the 1920s through 1970, Threading Light surveys the breadth of Tobey’s oeuvre and reveals the extraordinarily nuanced yet radical beauty of his work. Mark Tobey: Threading Light is organized by the Addison Gallery and guest curated by Debra Bricker Balken. The exhibition's presentation at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, May 6 through September 10, 2017, coincided with the 57th Venice Biennale. Threading Light will then travel to the Addison Gallery, where it will be on view November 4, 2017 through March 11, 2018.

One of the foremost American artists to emerge from the 1940s, a decade that saw the rise of abstract expressionism, Mark Tobey (1890–1976) is recognized as a vanguard figure whose “white-writing” anticipated the formal innovations of New York School artists such as Jackson Pollock. His unique calligraphic renderings largely invoke the city—its dizzying, towering architecture, thoroughfares, and pervasive whirl of electric light. As such, they are the outcome of a lyrical combination of both Eastern and Western visual histories that range from Chinese scroll painting to European cubism. This unique form of abstraction was the synthesis of the artist’s experiences living in Seattle and New York, his extensive trips to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kyoto, and Europe, and his conversion to the Bahá'í faith. As curator Debra Bricker Balken explains, “Within this mix of sources, Tobey was able to skirt a specific debt to cubism—unlike his modernist peers—by fusing elements of like formal languages into compositions that are both astonishingly radical and beautiful.”

During the last phase of his life, Tobey enlarged the scale of his painting, producing epic works that expanded on his signature concept of “white writing.” Like the inventive features of his earlier works, these larger canvases extend an aesthetic of transcendence and ethereality. As Tobey stated, his work was not bound by a geography or a country but aimed for a “higher state of consciousness.” Innovative and distinct in its influences and beauty, Tobey’s work bridges the international dimensions of mid-century modernism, a connection that has been previously unexplored in the discourse on postwar art. Mark Tobey: Threading Light re-examines and re-contextualizes the work and influence of this important painter, weaving in the rich but occluded histories of the global intersections of late modern art that have evaded many of the interpreters of culture in United States.

Mark Tobey: Threading Light is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 208-page scholarly catalogue, published by Skira Rizzoli in English and Italian, that documents many of Tobey’s most accomplished works and includes a comprehensive examination of Tobey and his cultural context by Balken, whose thorough and original research addresses the prescience of Tobey’s style and his unique place in American art.

The exhibition is made possible with generous support from the Sidney R. Knafel Exhibition Fund, Peter and Elizabeth Currie, Stephen C. and Katherine D. Sherrill, and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. An important contribution from Douglas and Janet True made the catalogue possible.

Read more about the presentation of Mark Tobey: Threading Light and related programs at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection here.

Images, top: Mark Tobey, The Void Devouring the Gadget Era, 1942, tempera on board, 21 7/8 x 30 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the artist, 264.1964; center, left: Mark Tobey, Threading Light, 1942, tempera on board The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase, 86.1944; center, right: Mark Tobey, Window, 1953, casein on board, 44 3/8 x 281/2 in., Anderson Collection at Stanford University, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, and Mary Patricia Anderson Pence, 2014.1.014; bottom: Mark Tobey, Wild Field, 1959, tempera on board, 26 5/8 x 27 5/8 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, 1967. All images © 2017 Estate of Mark Tobey / Seattle Art Museum, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.