Mark Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin and received little or no formal art training aside from a few lessons at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1906. At first he worked as a fashion illustrator in New York, and then as an interior decorator and draughtsman in 1911. Tobey studied Arabian literature and East Asian philosophy and in 1918 converted to the Baha’i faith and joined their world church. Tobey described his faith and its influence on his art:
The root of all religions, from the Baha’i point of view, is based on the theory that man will gradually come to understand the unity of the world and the oneness of mankind. It teaches that all the prophets are one – that science and religion are the two great powers which must be balanced if man is to become mature. I feel my work has been influence by these beliefs. I’ve tried to decentralize and interpenetrate so that all parts of a painting are of related value…Mine are the Orient, the Occident, science, religion, cities, space, and writing a picture.
Traveling extensively to Europe, Persia, Shanghai and Japan, Tobey studied the doctrine and paintings of Zen as well as calligraphy. These influences led to the development of his now famous “White Writings” which resulted in the creation of works containing calligraphically composed filigree symbols. These works contained an overlay of white or light-colored calligraphic symbols on an abstract field which is often itself composed of thousands of small and interwoven brush strokes. These increasingly abstract works as seen in Composition, 1958 are in harmony with the artist’s meditative and contemplative religious principles as expressed above. This technique would later influence Jackson Pollock to whom Tobey has often been compared as well as to abstract expressionism as a whole with its organization of brush strokes. Tobey once said:
A painting should be a textile, a texture. That's enough! Perhaps I was influenced by my mother. She used to sew and sew. I can still see that needle going. Maybe that's what I'd rather do than anything with the brush-like stitching over and over and over, laying it in, going over, bringing it up. Bringing it up. That's what is difficult.
Kunsthalle Mannheim, 1961
Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris
Private Collection, New York