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A Case For No Help – by Robert Genn

Photo found at www.mark-tobey.com

The Case For No Help

by Robert Genn, photo found at www.mark-tobey.com

I'm using Mark Tobey for this sticky subject, partly because I met him briefly in Seattle in 1962, and partly because he exemplifies a personality type most of us will recognize. Wisconsin born, Tobey was a leading light in what came to be known as the "Mystical Painters of the Northwest." His big, calligraphic paintings and signature "white writing" influenced a generation of American painters. So you can get an idea of Tobey's art, we've put a selection at the top of the current clickback.

While he had a few friends and adulators, Tobey was, by most accounts, a difficult, cantankerous fellow. He was also jealous, self-centred and quick to condemn competitors. Abandoning his early training in realism and portrait work, he taught art only intermittently from his home and in schools. A dedicated self-starter and persistent worker, he taught when he needed the money.

Art instruction with Tobey was noted for its lack of instruction. His idea of teaching was to go out with a group of students and look at mosses on rocks, oily slicks on puddles, and textures on gas-station walls.

"You don't want to help the young too much," Tobey advised student Wesley Wehr, "It will just weaken them and they'll only resent it." Mark Tobey thought there were too many artists already. Helping amateurs was counterproductive and ate into the eventual income of the pros. People either found their own voice or they didn't.

Some of his students thought Tobey had little to teach. Self-absorbed, he was pretty well locked into an obsessive, mannered layering on big, non-objective paintings, and was fond of admitting he didn't know what he was doing. Railing against his deficiencies, he was perennially in search of an arbitrary rightness that he found difficult to find. He left it to someone else to think up his titles.

A complex character, Tobey was a member of the Baha'i faith. He claimed it filled his work with love. This gentle religion probably prevented him from becoming a complete ogre. Through the force of his personality and by his own example, Tobey taught the value of ego, effort, and bloody-minded persistence.

Best regards,


PS: "Problems are an important part of maturing--meet them straight on. Work them out. It's like the chick in the egg. It has to break through the eggshell on its own. That's how it gains its first strength. If you break the shell for the chick, you end up with a puny little runt." (Mark Tobey to Wesley Wehr)


Robert Genn has given artazine.org permission to add his postings to our website.  To view more of his insight, please visit his website: http://www.painterspost.com

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