City Reflections
Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Currently on view at Frye Art Museum, Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai offers a reflective counterpart to the museum's Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Bejing 1930 exhibit. The former, more modest in scope, also attempts to break new ground in considering cross-cultural connections and impulses shared between artists.

The American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) found himself at a turning point in his career when he discovered inspiration from the East. A friend, Teng Baiye (1900-1980), had moved to Seattle to study art at the University of Washington and met Tobey in the early 1920s.

Seattle was the city where Tobey had chosen to move in order to reboot his life and art after a disastrous attempt at marriage. (He eventually met his life partner, the Sweden-born Pehr Hallsten, in Ballard, according to one account.) Around three decades later, Life magazine published its famous article hailing four “mystic painters of the Northwest,” which cemented Tobey’s image as a leading figure of the so-called “Northwest School.”

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Tobey’s early friendship with Teng gives a glimpse into his mature work its focus. The younger Teng taught Chinese calligraphy to Tobey, which raises intriguing questions: What interpretation of a complex traditional aesthetic did Teng mediate? What role did this play in Tobey’s evolution of his characteristic “white writing” style?

Teng’s absorption of Western influences made him suspect back home as China struggled toward its postwar identity as a nation. He became a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the vast majority of his artwork appears to have been destroyed. Meanwhile, as Life elevated Tobey to a new level of fame, questions about the identity of American artists in the postwar years were also taking on new urgency. As Tobey himself wrote: “The art of the future cannot germinate in antagonism and national rivalry but will spring forth with a renewed growth if man in general will grow to the stature of universal citizenship."

Read more about the Frye’s Noguchi and Tobey exhibits on Thomas May's Memeteria blog.

Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai
Thru May 25,  Frye Art Museum, Free

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