Mark Tobey Threading Light

Mark Tobey: Threading Light

May 6 – September 10, 2017
Curated by Debra Bricker Balken


We hear some artists speak today of the act of painting . . . but a State of Mind is the first preparation and from this action proceeds. Peace of Mind is another ideal, perhaps the ideal state to be sought for in the painting and certainly preparatory to the act.
(Mark Tobey, 1958)

Mark Tobey
Mark Tobey in his studio, 1949, Courtesy Arthur Lyon Dahl. Photo by Larry Novak

Mark Tobey: Threading Light is the first comprehensive retrospective of the American artist’s work in twenty years. The exhibition 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, Mark Tobey: Threading Light is curated by the independent curator Debra Bricker Balken and surveys the breadth of Tobey's oeuvre and reveals the extraordinarily nuanced yet radical beauty of his work. 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.

When Tobey’s small paintings composed of intricate, pale webs of delicate lines were first exhibited in New York in 1944, they generated much interest for their daring "all-over" compositions. 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." Tobey's work bridges the international dimensions of mid-century modernism, a connection that has been previously unexplored in the discourse on postwar art.

Threading Light, 1942
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Crystallizations, 1944
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Mabel Ashley Kizer Fund, Gift of Melitta and Rex Vaughan, and Modern and Contemporary Acquisitions Fund

Untitled [Sumi Drawing], 1957
The Martha Jackson Collection at The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

World, 1959
Private collection, New York
White World, 1969
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn

Lumber Barons, 1957
The Menil Collection, Houston

Wild Field, 1959
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection

Daily at 3:30 pm free guided tours are offered to the public.

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.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection Store:
Daily 10am-6pm, closed Tuesday
Tel: +39 041.2405.422 / 432; Fax: +39 041.520.6885; e-mail:


Organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.

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.

The exhibition is made possible by

With the support of:

Intitutional Patrons
Regione del Veneto

Guggenheim Intrapresae
Acqua di Parma + Aermec + Allegrini + Apice + Arclinea + Arper + Corriere della Sera + Distilleria Nardini + Florim + Foodies Bros + Gruppo Campari + Hangar Design Group + Istituto Europeo di Design + Mapei + MST-Gruppo Maccaferri + Reggiani Illuminazione + René Caovilla + Rubelli + Safilo Group + Swatch + Trend