Partner Pehr Hallsten, Mark Ritter
Cornish College of the Arts - Kerry Hall, 710 E Roy St, Seattle, WA 98102
St. Alban-Vorstadt 69, 4052 Basel
Friedhof am Hörnli, Hörnliallee 70, 4125 Riehen, Switzerland
Mark Tobey (December 11, 1890 – April 24, 1976) was an American painter. His densely structured compositions, inspired by Asian calligraphy, resemble Abstract expressionism, although the motives for his compositions differ philosophically from most Abstract Expressionist painters. His work was widely recognized throughout the United States and Europe. His close friendship with other gay arstists like Richard Bennett, Morris Graves, and Guy Anderson, who never hid their orientation (or married), gave him support to accept his sexuality and enjoy the benefits of intimate relationships.
“The Lavender Palette: Gay Culture and the Art of Washington State” at the Cascadia Museum in Edmonds was a packed art show and a powerful history lesson. Museum curator David F. Martin put together artwork by dozens of gay men and women who often, just a few short decades ago, had to hide who they were in order to express themselves artistically. The exhibit closed on January 26, 2020. The featured artists included Edmonds native Guy Anderson, illustrator Richard Bennett, Ward Corley, Thomas Handforth, Mac Harshberger, Jule Kullberg, Delbert J. McBride, Orre Nelson Nobles, Malcolm Roberts, potter Lorene Spencer, Sarah Spurgeon, ceramicist Virginia Weisel, Clifford Wright, and also one-time Woodway resident Morris Graves, Leo Kenney, Mark Tobey, Lionel Pries, Leon Derbyshire, and Sherrill Van Cott.
Along with Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and William Cumming, Tobey was a founder of the Northwest School. Senior in age and experience, he had a strong influence on the others; friend and mentor, Tobey shared his interest in philosophy and Eastern religions. Similar to others of the Northwest School, Tobey was mostly self-taught after early studies at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Pehr Hallsten (left) with Mark Tobey and Wesley Wehr UW Special Libraries
Mark Tobey and Mark Ritter in front of their home in Basel, March 1975
Born in Centerville, Wisconsin, Tobey lived in the Seattle, Washington area for most of his life before moving to Basel, Switzerland in the early 1960s with his companion, Pehr Hallsten. Tobey was careful with his money but often casual with his own paintings, knowing he could always paint more of them. When Beyeler, his dealer, arranged for Tobey to live in a XVII century house rent-free in exchange for his paintings, Tobey couldn’t resist such an offer. He lived there with Pehr Hallsten and Mark Ritter (his secretary), leading a quiet life of painting, music, and friends.
In 1921, Tobey founded the art department at The Cornish School in Seattle, Washington.
A probable influence was the gay artist Pavel Tchelitchew, who created several images, such as The Thinker of 1927, in which the figure (usually male) is contained in a series of weblike lines. It is very likely that Tobey either personally knew or at least knew of Tchelitchew through his circle of artist friends while living in New York in the early 1930s. Coincidentally, Tobey's "white writing" development began right after Tchelitchew's first American exhibition at New York's Julien Levy Gallery in 1934.
Tobey met the Swedish scholar, Pehr Hallsten, in Ballard in 1939 and they became companions, living together from 1940. Tobey was an incessant traveler, visiting Mexico, Europe, Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, China and Japan. After converting to the Bahá'í Faith, it became an important part of his life.
Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Richard Bennett remained friends throughout the 1940s, and Graves would often visit the couple at their cabin at Robe Ranch, where they all shared ideas and produced work in the Northwest wilderness. Mark Tobey would also visit occasionally, but his disdain for outdoor activities led Margaret Callahan to remark: "Nature in the raw for Mark Tobey means dinner in the open at a city park such as Golden Gardens or Volunteer Park."
Whether Tobey's all-over paintings, marked by oriental brushwork and calligraphic strokes, were an influencer on Jackson Pollock's drip paintings has been left unanswered.
Tobey died there in 1976 and is buried at St Alban Church Cemetery.
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