Paintings of Modest Scale but Ambitious Intent

Mark Tobey was hailed briefly in the early '60s as America's preeminent painter. Now a New York exhibition offers a fresh look at the work of this late Pacific Northwest artist, which, though small in size, often reflects cosmic concerns.

FROM roughly 1955 to 1965, Mark Tobey was the most highly regarded living American painter on the international scene. Jackson Pollock may have been more famous, but Tobey (1890-1976) received the recognition that really counted - first prize for painting in the 1958 Venice Biennale, a retrospective exhibition by the Louvre (he was the first American so honored) in 1960, first prize in the 1961 Carnegie International, and a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962.

In 1961, an English critic wrote, ``Tobey is considered by prominent painters of the School of Paris, as well as by established European art dealers, to be the foremost living American artist.''

Things changed dramatically after 1965, however, due primarily to the growing international impact of Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and a few other Americans.

Though still honored in many quarters, Tobey found his world stature diminishing. That circumstance did not, however, make him any the less creative or productive.

Significant evidence can be found in the Philippe Daverio Gallery's exhibition ``Mark Tobey: Temperas, Watercolors and Monotypes.'' Ranging from 1953 to 1970, the 35 small- to medium-sized works here represent Tobey's late, open, ``painterly'' approach. None of his earlier and more famous ``white writing'' pieces are on view - although ``Study for Mural, Olympia'' (1958) reflects a similar aesthetic and his 1960 ``Brown Calligraphy'' is very close in spirit.

One wishes a few of his earlier pieces had been included. They would have added a significant note to the show and would have given younger viewers a better idea of Tobey's full range.

Older viewers will be aware of Tobey's post-World War II reputation as one of the two figures (the other being Morris Graves) who dominated the Pacific Northwest art scene for at least three decades. They will also remember Tobey's emergence to national and international prominence, and the occasional statement by one art professional or another that Pollock's ``dribbling'' technique owed a great deal to Tobey's ``white writing.''

Whether or not that was true is now impossible to determine - and irrelevant, considering the very different uses the two artists made of the all-over linear technique. What does matter is that Pollock went on to become the champion of art that was big and powerful, while Tobey went on to epitomize all that was small, precious, and interior.

Tobey's paintings were often very small - sometimes no more than four or five inches across. But the spirit that animated his art was passionate and often cosmic in its implications.

Tobey's approach to life and art was profoundly spiritual. He converted to the Bahai World Faith in 1918 and remained true to its principles - which emphasize universality and the oneness of mankind - for the rest of his life. His quest led him all over the world. He visited Bahai shrines in the Middle East and spent a month at a Zen monastery in Japan.

As an artist, Tobey matured slowly, beginning to formulate his uniquely personal style in the early 1940s. From then on, his creative evolution - which was closely tied to his spiritual evolution - progressed steadily and logically. By the early 1950s, he had arrived at what is generally considered his mature phase, and by 1955 he was, as we have seen, world-famous.

Nearly all of the works here are small and on paper. Interestingly, the two largest - ``Brown and Yellow Composition'' and ``White Spot''- are the most recent (1970) included. Both dominate the show, proving that Tobey's creative powers did not wane in his later years.

Most of the outstanding pieces are extraordinarily subtle and delicate in execution. Among the finest are ``Brown Composition,'' ``Pink Waves,'' and ``Composition with Yellow Spots.'' Among the more intriguing is the thoroughly atypical ``Blue and Red Composition.''

At the Philippe Daverio Gallery, 41 East 57th St., through June 16.

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