Mark Tobey - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 14, 2018 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • Provenance

    Willard Gallery, New York
    Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Greub, Basel
    Germann Auktionshaus, Zurich, June 1, 1999, lot 49
    Private Collection, Michigan
    Moeller Fine Art, New York
    James Goodman Gallery, New York
    Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2007)
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    “[Tobey] is valued because of his spirituality, his timelessness, his energy and vitality, his intimacy, profundity, and sincerity. No one has a more vibrant line, more singing color, more sophisticated control of the spatial complexities of abstract form. He has [woven]... his own fabric to give form to his own vision. He has built his own world and, in the process, has helped illuminate ours” - M. C. Rueppel

    A key figure in post-war American painting, Mark Tobey developed a distinctive visual language over the course of fifty years, conjuring American, European, and East Asian iconographic elements in poetically abstract paintings. Replete with forms resembling Chinese, Persian, Arabic and Zen inscriptions, the American artist’s work mirrors his peripatetic life, and hovers somewhere between sensuous abstraction and original calligraphy. Between Black and White, 1970 is emblematic of this complex aesthetic, and boasts Tobey’s iconic idiosyncratic “white writing” that weaves webs of letter-like symbols on the entirety of the painted surface. Reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists’ “all-over” compositions, the present work equally summons questions on physicality and space. A meticulous construction of undulating white lines, Between Black and White indeed demonstrates Tobey’s exceptional capacity to create an illusion of spatial infinity, blurring the line between pictorial flatness and three-dimensionality.

    Upon commencing his artistic career in the mid-1940s, Tobey became aware that his work could neither be defined by the ancient practice of calligraphy, nor be collated to the strictly pictorial nature of Abstract Expressionism. Situated somewhere in the middle, his paintings hesitantly aligned with postwar abstraction, yet boasted a tone of their own, at once candidly intimate and deeply spiritual. Sidney Janis noted that what distanced Tobey the most from his Abstract Expressionist peers was perhaps his gestural awareness. “Here it is presumably different from psychic automation in [that] it is essentially under conscious direction” he writes (Sidney Janis, quoted in Debra Bricker Balken, “Mark Tobey: Life Tracks in the Snow”, Mark Tobey: Threading Light, New York, 2017, p. 18). The shape of Tobey’s white undulations, purposely resembling figurative symbols, indeed suggests an underlying calligraphic influence evocative of Eastern iconography. Debra Bricker Balken further notes that Tobey’s “anomalous relationship” to post-war American painting can be attributed to his late start as a painter, and the fact that his interactions with the New York avant-garde scene were limited (Debra Bricker Balken, Mark Tobey: Threading Light, p. 22).

    Executed in 1970, just a decade after Tobey’s permanent move from Seattle to Basel, Between Black and White signals in its title a desire to return to his American home, and to continue travelling to countries abroad. Suffering a heart attack in 1968 and undergoing a heavy operation the following year, the artist was constrained to remain in Switzerland for the rest of his life, abruptly prevented from envisaging even one last voyage. Cathartically expressing his state of isolation on canvas, Tobey used painting as a way to materialize the illusion of a journey. Art, as such, became a liberating tool through which a fugue was made possible.

    Drawing from the idea that one’s existence can be understood as a web of interlaced elements, Tobey’s work meditates upon the various networks that structure the universal. In Between Black and White, the thick, luminous white forms brightening the work's stark background with occasional drips of yellow and red, produces a visual effect bordering on illusion, whereby the work swallows itself into infinity. This aspect is only enhanced by a spiritual inflection which permeates Tobey’s gestures: converted to the Bahaï religion in his late twenties, the artist frequently incorporated hues of spirituality in his work. Between Black and White aptly demonstrates this: it invokes themes of grandeur and humility, cyclical timeframes and infinity.


Between Black and White

signed and dated "Tobey 70" lower right
tempera and oil on paper mounted to cardboard
39 7/8 x 28 in. (101.3 x 71.1 cm.)
Executed in 1970.

Achim Moeller, Managing Principal of the Mark Tobey Project LLC, has confirmed the authenticity. The work is registered in the Mark Tobey archive with the number MT [247-10-17-18].

$180,000 - 250,000 

Sold for $531,000

Contact Specialist
John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 14 November 2018