Mark Tobey

Northwest Drift

1958

Artist
Mark Tobey 1890–1976
Medium
Tempera and gouache on paper on board
Dimensions
Support: 1135 x 905 mm
frame: 1157 x 930 x 55 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the American Friends of the Tate Gallery 1961
Reference
T00463

Not on display

Summary

Northwest Drift is an abstract tempera and gouache painting on machine-made paper mounted on strawboard. The paint has been applied in layers: a variety of light blue and grey tones of paint have been applied in broad brushstrokes on top of a dark blue ground, which shows through in places, and a softer, almost translucent, lilac paint has been brushed across the surface like a haze or mist. The painting is inscribed ‘Tobey | 58’ in the bottom right corner.

Northwest Drift was made by the American artist Mark Tobey in Seattle in 1958. Although not part of a series, the painting employs a style of painting called ‘white writing’ that Tobey began to use from around 1935 and for which he became known. Tobey’s white writing foregrounded the use of linear forms, spatial layers and the shifting of focus across the canvas. For instance, in works such as Crystallization 1944 (Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Centre for Visual Arts at Stanford University, Stanford), tangled white lines move harmoniously across the surface of the image, tracing shapes and symbols in a careful calligraphic mesh. While Northwest Drift does not exhibit the same linear forms, it does employ a similar lack of centre and luminosity that is characteristic of Tobey’s paintings throughout his career.

The title Northwest Drift refers to the geographical location of Seattle, where the painting was made, and Tobey’s experience of the changing seasons and atmosphere of this locale. In March 1962 Tobey stated of this work:

Location geographically speaking no doubt plays a principal role in the development of this painting, for Seattle where I painted this picture is a place of virginal winds, air currents and intermingled seasons. To the West of the great Cascade Range of mountains, the atmosphere becomes softer, rain forests exist and fogs drift against the mountains and along the coast line. Gray skies, gray water make one conscious of this color and I have used a series of gray tones which seem so indigenous to the locale. I hope in the slow rhythms of this painting of the North West to have transferred some feeling of all I have spoken of above.
(Quoted in Alley 1981, pp.724–5.)

Tobey began his career as a fashion illustrator, working between Chicago and New York until 1917 when he began executing accomplished charcoal portraits, which were shown in his first solo exhibition at Knoedler and Co., New York, that year. Between 1925 and 1927 he travelled to France, Barcelona, Greece, Constantinople and Beirut. In 1930 he went to England to teach at the progressive Dartington Hall School in Devon. There he met the writers Aldous Huxley and Rabindranath Tagore and the artist Bernard Leach, among others. In 1934 Tobey and Leach travelled to Colombo, Shanghai and Hong Kong and Tobey spent month at a Zen Buddhist monastery near Kyoto in Japan studying calligraphy, painting, meditating and writing poetry. Upon his return to Dartington in 1935 Tobey fused the findings of his travels to China and Japan and initiated the new style that was later known as white writing. Reflecting on his career in 1955, Tobey stated:

Over the last fifteen years, my approach to painting has varied, sometimes dependent on brush-work, sometimes on lines, dynamic white strokes in geometric space. I have never tried to pursue a particular style in my work. For me, the road has been a zig-zag into and out of old civilizations, seeking new horizons through meditation and contemplation … I take up no definite position. Maybe this explains someone’s remarks while looking at one of my paintings: ‘Where is the centre?’.
(Quoted in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1962, p.13.)

Northwest Drift was first exhibited at the twenty-ninth Venice Biennale in June–October 1958. It was then shown in a retrospective of Tobey’s work at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, in October–December 1961. Tobey’s solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in January–February 1962 was the first time that Northwest Drift was shown in Britain.

Further reading
Mark Tobey: Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1962.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.724–5, reproduced p.724.
Mark Tobey: Paintings (1920–1960), exhibition catalogue, Yoshii Gallery, New York 1994.

Beth Williamson
February 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Display caption

After studying calligraphy in China and Japan, Tobey developed a technique of painting with rapid brushstokes, which he called ‘white writing’. Northwest Drift is one of several works that reflect his meditative response to landscape. He wrote: ‘Seattle where I painted this picture is a place of virginal winds, air currents and intermingled seasons... Gray skies, gray water make one conscious of this color and I have used a series of gray tones which seem so indigenous to the locale.’

Gallery label, November 2005

Catalogue entry

Mark Tobey 1890-1976

T00463 Northwest Drift 1958

Inscribed 'Tobey | 58' b.r.
Tempera and watercolour on card, 46 1/8 x 39 5/8 (117 x 101)
Presented by the American Friends of the Tate Gallery 1961
Prov: Purchased by the American Friends of the Tate Gallery from the artist through the Willard Gallery, New York
Exh: XXIX Biennale, Venice, June-October 1958 (US pavilion 71, repr.); Rétrospective Mark Tobey, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, October-December 1961 (176); Mark Tobey, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, January-February 1962 (111)
Repr: Ronald Alley, Recent American Art (London 1969), pl.4; Terry Measham, The Moderns 1945-1975 (Oxford 1976), pl.6

The artist wrote of this picture, in March 1962: 'Location geographically speaking no doubt plays a principal role in the development of this painting, for Seattle where I painted this picture is a place of virginal winds, air currents and intermingled seasons. To the West of the great Cascade Range of mountains, the atmosphere becomes softer, rain forests exist and fogs drift against the mountains and along the coast line. Gray skies, gray water make one conscious of this color and I have used a series of gray tones which seem so indigenous to the locale. I hope in the slow rhythms of this painting of the North West to have transferred some feeling of all I have spoken of above.'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.724-5, reproduced p.724


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