A cosmopolitan artist, Mark Tobey was a pioneer of American abstraction. He was interested in the cultures and art forms of other continents and sought to incorporate them into his paintings.
Tobey’s only academic training was a weekly watercolour and oil painting class at the Art Institute of Chicago while attending high school in Hammond. His father’s illness forced him to abandon his studies in 1909 and move to Chicago, where he began to work as an industrial designer, and in 1911 he moved to New York to contribute as an illustrator to magazines and newspapers such as Vogue and New York Times. He had his first one-man exhibition at the M. Knoedler & C. gallery in New York in 1917.
In 1918 Tobey converted to the Persian Baha’i faith, which upheld the unity of all religions and universal brotherhood, through which he explored spiritual questions in art. In 1922 he settled in Seattle, where he taught at the Cornish School and developed an interest in Oriental calligraphy. From 1925, the year he visited Paris, Tobey travelled around the world, from the Near East, England (where he also taught at Darlington Hall in Devon) and Mexico to various parts of Asia, including a one-month stay at a Zen Buddhist monastery outside Kyoto in 1934. This experience was decisive in shaping his vision of painting and his technique of white writing, whereby he applied calligraphic brushstrokes to a coloured ground. A series of these paintings was first shown at the Willard Gallery in New York in 1944.
Although his work was first shown and won critical attention in the United States, his real success came in Europe, where Tobey received the International Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1958. The following year, while taking part in the Documenta II in Kassel, he met Ernst Beyeler, who persuaded him to live in Basel, where he settled in 1960 and spent the last years of his life.