Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai
February 22 – May 25, 2014
Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai is the first exhibition in the United States to explore artistic and intellectual exchanges between Chinese artist Teng Baiye (1900–1980) and his American contemporary Mark Tobey (1890–1976). The two first met in the 1920s, when Teng moved to Seattle to study sculpture and complete a master’s degree at the University of Washington. During this period, Tobey studied calligraphy with Teng, and the two artists formed a deep personal friendship. In 1934, Tobey visited Teng in Shanghai and soon thereafter embarked on his seminal “white writing” paintings, works considered by Western critics to be indebted to his study of calligraphy, ink painting, and the Bahá'í faith.
The present exhibitionconsiders Teng’s influence as both a cultural interpreter and an artistic practitioner on the development of Tobey’s distinctive artistic practice and—through Tobey—on the discourse on abstraction in midcentury American art. Whether Tobey’s work had remained “American” or become “oriental” was a subject of debate among contemporary observers in the United States. Merrill Rueppel, the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, wrote in 1968 that Tobey was “never for one moment anything but an American,” explaining that he had “taken the calligraphy of the orient and made it the foundation of his own art without becoming oriental.” Similarly, William Seitz, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, wrote that in Tobey’s work “the Eastern dragon had been harnessed to Western dynamism.”
In China, similar questions regarding the extent of foreign influence on the work of Teng Baiye were raised. Scholar David Clarke notes that Teng’s “sojourn in the Pacific Northwest and his sophistication in handling both Western and Chinese cultural knowledge gave him valuable resources with which to contribute to the task of assimilating lessons from elsewhere while building a national culture [in China in the 1930s].” Nevertheless, after 1949, and especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Teng’s paintings were denounced as spiritual pollution. He was condemned to manual labor and few of his paintings survived.
At the time of these debates on national identity in the United States and China, Mark Tobey reflected on “the art of the future,” writing that it “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.” The present exhibition provides audiences in the twenty-first century with the opportunity to consider and compare the mature work of both Teng and Tobey and to reexamine twentieth-century debates on their artistic endeavors beyond the ideological inflections and Cold War rhetoric of their day.
“…[Tobey's] use of Chinese calligraphy become[s] more and more abstract. We see him rendering the calligraphic form that he understands only visually (and not as a system of written communication), into a system of painterly marks.”
Don Fels, Crosscut
“Some titles in the show… (‘Above the Earth V,‘ ’Above and Below’) seem to join a cartographic with a calligraphic impulse, evoking impossible geographies of the mind with their dense, warped cross-hatches of color.”
Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
“Tobey’s early friendship with Teng gives a glimpse into his mature work its focus.”