The First of Many?

The Wall Street Journal recently anointed the Venice Biennale and the concurrent fairs throughout the city as “The Olympics of the Art World.” Over the course of six months every two years, approximately half a million visitors, including the who’s who of curators, collectors and dealers, visit this bustling city that is briefly transformed by an influx of contemporary art.  

photo Richard Brown

In the heart of the city sits one of the world’s foremost modern and contemporary museums, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Artists and movements showcased by the museum during the Biennale invariably draw attention and subsequent critique from the crowds of art-knowledgable visitors. During this year’s 57th Venice Biennale, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection will be presenting a comprehensive retrospective of the American artist Mark Tobey. ‘Mark Tobey: Threading Light’ will be his first major solo museum exhibition in almost 20 years. It is too early to say whether this showing of Tobey’s works in Venice will be as successful as in 1958, when he represented the United States along with Mark Rothko and became only the second American to win the Biennale’s prestigious International Award for painting.

photo Richard Brown

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a particularly apropos venue for revisiting and potentially reevaluating Mark Tobey’s place in the history of abstraction. As a visionary collector, one of Peggy Guggenheim’s defining moments was her early and stalwart support of the pioneering abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. At the time Guggenheim began collecting Pollock’s work, it represented a notable departure from the prevailing New York art style and was not immediately embraced by top collectors or dealers. Chronologically, Tobey overlapped with Pollock and his work reflected a similar movement towards purely abstract content. However, unlike many of his New York peers, Tobey incorporated diverse interests and influences from both Eastern and Western art practices. His signature and ground breaking ‘White Writing’ paintings involved detailed lyrical and flowing white calligraphic-like lines fully covering an abstract or dark solid canvas. These beautiful, complex, but immensely calming works emerged from the deep spirituality of his Baha’i Faith, meditative practices, and study of Eastern philosophy and Chinese calligraphy.

photo Richard Brown

While visually similar, Tobey’s abstract compositions predated those of Pollock. The exhibition curator, Debra Bricker Balken, asserts that Pollock saw Tobey’s White Writing exhibit at the Willard Gallery in 1944, thought about its radical and abstract implications and returned to his studio to create his own all-over compositions. Pollock, according to his biographers, even acknowledged Tobey’s influence on his thinking. “…

[Tobey’s] dense web of white strokes, as elegant as Oriental calligraphy, impressed Jackson so much that in a letter to Louis Bunce he described Tobey, a West Coast artist, as an ‘exception’ to the rule that New York was ‘the only real place in America where painting (in the real sense) can come thru'” (Jackson Pollock).

photo Richard Brown

In addition to Jackson Pollock, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has exhibited and honored many renowned artists over the years, including Brancusi, Giacometti, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg, to name just a few. In choosing to organize and exhibit a comprehensive retrospective of Tobey’s work, the museum has provided an opportunity to re-examine Tobey’s influence and place in the history of abstraction. Perhaps once and for all, this exhibition will debunk the damning critical essay, “‘American-Type’ Painting” published in 1955 by prominent critic Clement Greenberg asserting that any allusions to an Eastern aesthetic or influence in the work of Abstract Expressionists was unimportant or accidental, and in effect, dismissing Tobey’s practice and devaluing his work. According to Balken, Tobey resisted inclusion into the Ab Ex paradigm and was averse to the nationalistic overtones promoted in Greenberg’s critique.

photo Richard Brown

For me, the thought provoking question is why, amidst the escalating crowds and swelling global popularity of contemporary art, did the museum choose to showcase the relatively forgotten work of Tobey, particularly given all the eminently recognizable artists at their disposal? I cannot profess to know their reason, but can speculate and hope the museum felt the currently accepted narrative of art history had marginalized and forgotten Tobey’s profound influence on an important movement and individual painters like Jackson Pollock. Mark Tobey is hardly a “hot” or widely sought-after artist, even though his works regularly appear at auction and are included in many respected international museum collections, such as the MoMA, the Tate and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Selecting to organize this retrospective during “The Olympics of the Art World” might be considered adventurous for a well-established museum; however, I believe it harkens back to the spirit of Peggy Guggenheim, who relished being unconventional and ultimately proved to be a visionary collector. Perhaps the show’s curator believes strongly, as I do, that Tobey’s place in history needs to be re-examined and contextualized. Regardless of the reason, I applaud the decision and think this positive review is a harbinger of many forthcoming in the months and years ahead. I believe visitors to the Guggenheim’s show will have the same reaction one experiences when immersed in The Lab’s much smaller Tobey exhibition – a deep sense of beauty, tranquility, flow and inner peace similar to the one that Tobey sought in life.

All photos by Richard Brown

2018-01-10T14:39:25+00:00 June 5th, 2017|Contemporary Art, Design, the Greenstein Lab|0 Comments

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