Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Third Mind (Mark Tobey)


 Crystallizations, Mark Tobey, 1944

     I've been spending a fair amount of time among the leaves lately (mostly blowing them from the lawn into the woods), but it hasn't been too cold, so the task has allowed me a certain amount of time for calm-ish reflection.

     I thought it would be good to organize a short post around the work of the influential American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976), who I like quite a bit but hadn't thought about for some time.  


Mark Tobey, The Grande Parade, 1971     

    Whatever his actual color palette on a given day, Tobey always makes me think of deep autumn and I suspect the imminence of Thanksgiving brought Tobey's work to mind.  I thought how nice it would look on the screen to display a couple of good Tobey paintings or etchings and pair them with words or other items suggesting the movement of water because Tobey's work always makes me think of water:  water with excited surfaces, free flowing water, water flowing around obstacles or under monuments like bridges. 

      Tobey is usually classified as an abstract expressionist, but for me his highly controlled, calligraphic and contemplative pictures tell a different story and I regard him as sui generis.

     My daughter Jane's Chinese name means "water" and water is often my mind and flowing through my waking and dreaming imagination.

   Mark Tobey, Night Celebration III, 1971

     It was difficult to find Tobey pictures that reproduced at all well (in fact, it's impossible; the pictures' dimensions and surface appearances -- which Tobey felt should be "a textile, a texture" -- both get completely distorted), but during my image hunt I found a few nice Tobeys to include, as well as works  by other artists that seemed to suit and amplify my unsettled mood.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne In Blue and Gold (Old Battersea Bridge), 1872
      So, immediately above and below are paintings by James McNeill Whistler (his marvelous and famous Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge) and by Tobey's friend and Seattle colleague, Morris Graves.

Morris Graves, Time of Change, 1943

     These two paintings, as well as a couple of the Tobeys, appeared in a 2009 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City called The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989.

     The thesis of the exhibition was to "propose a new art-historical construct -- one that challenges the widely accepted view that American modern art developed simply as a dialogue with Europe -- by focusing on the myriad ways in which vanguard American artists’ engagement with Asian art, literature, music, and philosophical concepts inspired them to forge an independent artistic identity that would define the modern age and the modern mind."

Mark Tobey, Mon, 1959

     According to Guggenheim senior curator, Alexandra Munroe: “What emerges is a history of how artists working in America interpreted, mediated, and incorporated Eastern ideas and art forms to create not only new styles of art, but more importantly, a new theoretical definition of the contemplative experience and a new, self-transformative role for art itself.”

     Ms. Munroe derived the title of the exhibition from Untitled ("Rub Out The Word")  from The Third Mind (ca. 1965), a" 'cut-ups' work by Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which combines and rearranges unrelated texts to create a new narrative."  It's a good and clever title for the show.

     The exhibition thesis, however, sounds a little bit like arbitrary "curator-speak", i.e., less a real thesis worth advancing and defending than an attempt to hang an attractive grouping of works that seem to be related together in one place.  I don't think anyone really believes that modern American art developed "simply" as a dialogue with Europe.  Things in America tend not to occur "simply" in that way.  I agree, though, that there is and (naturally) always has been a preponderance of European influence in our painting and sculpture. 

     But the exhibition (which I missed seeing, unfortunately) seems to have been a terrific presentation of interesting art. I would love to read and view the catalogue and I believe that the influence of Asia on American (and European) artists will increase as the world continues to grow smaller and, in some ways, lonelier.

Mark Tobey, Thanksgiving Leaf, 1971


  1. Thank you Curtis, I like following your line of thought.

    Not that it has anything to do with anything, but we are teased by hearing that Jane's Chinese name means "water" (how beautiful that)...

  2. Good morning and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. What nice things to say. I wanted to say more in this post, but it would taken up too much space and turned academic. I've always really loved Tobey and it was interesting to discover how poorly his images reproduced (using my skills, at least). Jane was born in a small port city in China (Hubei Province) called Wuxue, which apparently has a long, venerable association with the arts as part of its larger history. Her Chinese name is Wu Shui. The "Shui" part means water. The "Wu" relates to the fact that she is from Wuxue. We became a family in a larger city in the province called Wuhan (actually a merger of three cities), which is an important place and the furthest city up the Yangtze that can accommodate deep water boat traffic. It used to be the jumping-off point for the various Three Gorges travel excursions. When we were planning our visit there, I read it described as being a place like Pittsburgh in the 1890s, but that is far from the truth. It's a city of "light industrial" manufacturing and quite an interesting and lively place, although our visit (a fairly long one) was such a whirlwind that it was difficult to properly evaluate it. By the way, Jane (who is a Beyond The Pale reader) has introduced some of her friends to BTP, who like and read it a lot. I was very pleased to learn this. Curtis

  3. Thank you very much, Curtis, not only for the very sensible and satisfying way you've done the Tobey post, but also for offering the information re. Jane's wonderful name and its very interesting associations -- which I would have, in my prying way, come right out and requested, had not the more discreet (well, it wouldn't take much) half of the partnership intervened.

    That Jane and her friends are looking at my humble blog is a great, great honour. (To establish a connection with the future in such manner is more than this geezer had any reasonable right or hope to expect!)

  4. Jane associates with a very nice and intelligent group of girls at her school and frankly I was hoping that they would find BTP both enjoyable and inspirational, which they do. In my thoughtless (more or less) youth, I never believed I would enjoy or value seeing young minds develop, but I do and with all the worthless stuff that gets thrown at us every day, it is uplifting. You might enjoy the following:
    John Ptak, the proprietor of the Science Bookstore in NC, maintains a very entertaining, good humored website full of interesting research and facts and incredible illustrations. I happened upon it one day when I was looking for a reproduction of a Durer engraving (which is far from what he concentrates on) and stumbled into his stimulating world. He had a post, I think, about accounts of "holes in the sky" and what was behind them and I was arrested by the phrase "extra earths". This should be an unusual day. Must get coffee and wake the dogs. Curtis

  5. That was an unusual and slightly unsettling experience, Curtis, being Ernst Mach's eyeball, for a few moments.

  6. Yes, wasn't it? It reminded me of specific visual experiences I had regularly as a teenager (before adult thoughts and worries crowded out immediate sensations and "living in the moment") reading in my favorite chair, which Jane now has in her room. It is incredibly comfortable and allows for much greater reclining that I would have thought possible for reading. I actually remember most of the books I read in that chair and a lot of their content. Princess Daisy, the cat, has now discovered the chair, which is, of course, the real test of chair quality. Curtis