MARK TOBEY (1890-1976) AND MORRIS GRAVES ( 1910-2001) TWO IMPORTANT MODERN ARTISTS WHO USED WHITE WRITING AS A FORM OF ABSTRACTION REVEALING THEIR INTEREST IN EASTERN RELIGIONS LIKE BAHAII AND BUDDHISM.

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In this posting I am going to be discussing the art of two very different Modernists, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves who used white writing .some of their work can be attributed to abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock.

Matthew Baigell in his concise History of American painting and sculpture gives an introductory comment on their work.

” At least two important artists found comfort neither in forcing order nor by extension wishfully imposing a symbolic order on Modern culture by responding to non-western philosophical and religious ideas”. [1].

” These are Mark Tobey and Morris Graves whose association with the pacific North west underlined their separation from the New York-Paris artistic axis “. [2]

Baigell continues to explain how Tobey a deeply religious man embraced the Bahai faith.

” Tobey was more profoundly influenced by his conversion to the BAHAI world faith. in 1918 his study of oriental calligraphy dating from 1923 and his travels to the far east in 1934″. [3].

” Best known for his white writing painting begun in 1935 Tobey usually worked on a intimate scale”.[4].

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Dove of the Inner Eye - Morris Graves

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If you look at the images I have produced Morris Graves’s work has a more figurative appearances .Graves was a great believer in displaying amongst his blurred images replica’s of birds and small animals.

Baigell continues with his commentary of Tobey and Graves.

” Tobey once said that white lines symbolise light as a unifying idea which flows through the compartmental units of Life”. [5].

This of course is a religious statement and imbued with Idealist resonances.

” The white lines lacking velocity form myriad stationery strokes that appear to vibrate and fill a void but do not suggest mass”.[6].

” Reflecting Bahai’s attitude about the unity oif life these works invoke a sense of cosmic wholeness combining matter with non-matter space with non-space and individual stroke with the totality of the pictorial field”.[7]

This of course is nonsense from Matthew Baigell. There is no such thing as non-matter as the great Rationalist of the 17th Century Rene Descartes proved in all his experiments. It is an empiricist thought practised by a number of Empiricist philosophers chief of among them of course was Bishop George Berkeley.

” Morris Graves employed white writing about 1940 but he never abandoned recognisable imagery , rather he used it to trap his subjects often Birds as they emerged from spaceless voids”.[8].

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Both artists tried to create a timeless journey through a spatial void , Idealist in though but an interesting approach to Modernism.

” For Graves as for Tobey such images seem to represent the human voyage through the spaces of inner consciousness as the mind forever tries to push away the webs and tangles of reality”. [9].

” Zen and other eastern mystical systems have provided graves with the insights necessary to still the surface of the mind and let the inner surface bloom”. [10].

Ann Lee Morgan in her Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists in the United States offers her opinion of Tobey and Graves.

” (Tobey) painter and printmaker noted for calligraphic white writing .he developed this speciality in response to east Asian art especially Zen Buddhist painting”. [11].

” The pale markings originally overlay representational subjects within a few years as recognizable forms almost entirely disappeared his work presaged the all over canvasses of such abstract expressionists as Jackson Pollock”. [12].

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Morgan explains how Tobey travelled widely , was well read and used music as an influence in his use of the white writing.

” He explored numerous avenues of expression , travelled widely and ultimately drifted farther away from the conventions of European traditions than any of his contemporaries “. [13]

” For years while retaining ties to representation his painting inquired erratically into expressionism Cubism , and other modern modes as he attempted to work out an aesthetic position for himself”.[14].

Morgan comes now to discuss the contribution of Morris Graves.

” An Independent West coast spirit he painted somewhat abstract images from nature Birds especially emphasizing  the fragility , mystery and lyricism of creation”. [15].

” An admirer of Mark Tobey’s work he remained almost entirely self-taught as an artist. he accomplished his most sensitive and singular work during the 1940’s and 1950’s”. [16].

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Morgan explains how after returning from a trip to Europe Graves developed an expressionist technique.

” Returning to Seattle he painted heavily impastoed  somewhat expressionist interpretations of Birds and other motifs drawn from the natural environment of the North west coast”.[17].

” He ( Graves) struck up a friendship with John Cage  whose unorthodox ideas he found stimulating and a short time later became acquainted also with Tobey”. [18].

Morgan finally concludes explaining how Graves began to use water based paint painting on paper .

” During this period he began working mostly with water based paints on paper. there he reached a mature realisation of his aesthetic aims in a series of visionary works that generally incorporate abstracted Birds sometimes blinded or wounded within painterly fields”. [19].

This concludes my survey of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves who because of the influence of abstract Expressionism are not widely known. They are a useful addition to a different interpretation of Modernism.

FOOTNOTES

  1. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE : MATTHEW BAIGELL. PG.282
  2. DITTO.PG.282
  3. DITTO.PG.282
  4. DITTO.PG.283
  5. DITTO.PG.283
  6. DITTO.PG.283
  7. DITTO.PG.283
  8. DITTO.PG.283
  9. DITTO.PG.283
  10. DITTO.PG.283
  11. THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS: ANN LEE MORGAN.PG.486
  12. DITTO.PG.486
  13. DITTO.PG.486
  14. DITTO.PG.486
  15. DITTO.PG.187
  16. DITTO.PG.187
  17. DITTO.PG.188
  18. DITTO.PG.188
  19. DITTO.PG.188

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2 thoughts on “MARK TOBEY (1890-1976) AND MORRIS GRAVES ( 1910-2001) TWO IMPORTANT MODERN ARTISTS WHO USED WHITE WRITING AS A FORM OF ABSTRACTION REVEALING THEIR INTEREST IN EASTERN RELIGIONS LIKE BAHAII AND BUDDHISM.”

    1. Paul,
      I didn’t know anything about them it was the two reference art Books that I read which referred to their Art They were very specialised and of course were competing with the abstract expressionists of the time. Laurence

      Liked by 1 person

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