Currently on view as a counterpart to the Frye Museum’s Noguchi exhibit is Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai. The latter, 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. And, as with the Noguchi on display in the companion exhibition, a component of that inspiration was mediated early on by friendship with a Chinese artist. The friend in Tobey’s case, 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.”
Tobey’s early friendship with Teng gives this glimpse into his mature work its focus. The younger Teng taught Chinese calligraphy to Tobey, who later visited his friend in Shanghai in 1934. But with the onset of the world war looming, Tobey lost contact with his friend and never heard from him again. Some very intriguing questions emerge from this juxtaposition: what interpretation of a complex traditional aesthetic did Teng mediate, and what role did this play in Tobey’s evolution of his characteristic “white writing” style?
The exhibit is also about mirroring, and the same should be asked in the other direction as well: what did Teng take away from his time in Seattle, what did he gain from his friendship with Tobey? The shocking fact is that we apparently have so little to work with. The two ink-and-paper scrolls on display represent the only works by Teng on display.
Teng’s absorption of Western influences made him suspect back home as China struggled toward its postwar identity as a nation. Teng became a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and was released from forced manual labor just a few years before his death. The vast majority of his artwork appears to have been destroyed — perhaps other works have survived in private hands, but the sparse knowledge we have is one of the points here. (Even the transliteration of Teng’s name has been maddeningly inconsistent among books in English, adding to the confusion over his legacy.)
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. But from today’s post-Cold War, global perspective, are we able to discover mutual influences beyond the mutual stereotypes of “East” and “West” that prevailed in the past century? As Tobey himself wrote:
Man today is challenged to extend his mental and spiritual horizons. Geographical barriers have given way before the light of science, invention and psychology. The great inventions that have demolished the former sense of special difference must await a new man who will use them positively. But this new will have seen a great light which burns away the barriers of prejudice and religious antagonism. 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.