Pace Gallery is exploring the work of American artist Mark Tobey (1890-1976) in a new exhibition with over 35 paintings and works on paper from major museum loans and private collections. This exhibit is the first comprehensive show of his work in New York in over twenty years, and reminds us of this artist who preferred the small scale to the large and who found meaning in mindfulness before it was in the zeitgeist.

I believe that painting should come through the avenues of meditation rather than the canals of action. Only then can one have a conversation with a painting. If I find no content, there’s no communication.

Mark Tobey

When one looks at the work of Mark Tobey the mind automatically wants to compare him to Jackson Pollock – the color palette and brush strokes scream Abstract Expressionism albeit it a more diminutive size. However, to understand him as an artist we must understand his incessant wanderlust and spirituality. A member of the Baha’i faith, Tobey’s brushstrokes come not from physical action but from a desire for peace and mindfulness, which he discovered on his travels through Asia.

Tobey lived a nomadic life, spending early time in New York and Seattle and traveling to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kyoto, and across Europe. In 1922, he learned Chinese calligraphy from artist Teng Kuei. Often working in water based media his lines echo the movement of the calligraphic line. It was an exercise in meditation to empty his mind and focus on what he was putting on the page.

A view of the installation of Mark Tobey’s work at the Pace Gallery.

The small scale works are hung throughout Pace’s galleries, and viewing them is a more intimate experience than the work of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. While those large works may envelop and overwhelm you with their movement and emotive use of color, here the works draw you in to examine their details in close proximity.

In addition to two-dimensional works, the film Mark Tobey, which was filmed while he was living in Seattle and has a soundtrack of piano and flute music composed by the artist. It shows a different side of the artist – one where he is both subject and performer.

A view of the installation of Mark Tobey’s work at the Pace Gallery.

Once again museums and galleries are paying attention to this artist (in 2017 Addison Gallery of American Art organized the first retrospective of Tobey in the U.S. in 40 years). This show serves to reopen to discussion around Tobey’s work, and shows another side of American Mid-Century abstraction. His works can be seen at Pace Gallery, New York, October 25, 2018 – January 12, 2019. A catalogue is also available for purchase.

– Sarah McMillan