Tobey and Feininger, Epistolary Buddies In the Avant-Garde

The current exhibition at Achim Moeller Fine Art- Lyonel Feininger/Mark Tobey: Years of Friendship, 1944-1956 -brings together the work of two American modernists who, although very different in background, temperament and style, enjoyed a friendship that’s said to have been important to both. Feininger (1871-1956), born in New York to a German-American family whose interests were mainly musical, was a far more cosmopolitan figure than the younger and more reclusive Tobey (1890-1976), who, as a convert to the Bahai faith, brought a more mystical sensibility to his art. They met in New York in 1944, when both were exhibiting their work at the Willard Gallery, then one of the principal venues of the emerging American avant-garde.

Theirs was mainly an epistolary friendship, for they lived and worked at opposite ends of the country-Feininger in New York (when he wasn’t in Europe) and Tobey in Seattle (when he wasn’t traveling in the Far East). They met only three times over the course of a dozen years. Whether, or to what extent, they influenced each other’s work is likely to remain unknown until the publication of their correspondence, which is said to have been extensive. Achim Moeller Fine Art has promised publication for the spring of 2005.

Their respective artistic accomplishments are similarly far apart. Tobey is mainly admired today for a mode of intimist abstraction that has been dubbed “white writing”: Minute white calligraphic forms are superimposed upon dreamlike allusions to vaguely identifiable backgrounds. In the current selection of his work, however, there are a number of paintings that could more accurately be characterized as “black writing”- Market in Summer (1958), for example, or Sumi (Abstract) (1957). Except for their modest scale, they could invite comparisons with Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline-and yet it would be a mistake to suggest that Tobey was directly influenced by the New York School. In his abstractions, there’s a finicky concentration on minute particulars that’s very different from the brash energy and improvisation that characterized the Abstract Expressionists.

Feininger’s career encompassed a far greater range of interests. He was still a young artist working in Europe when he enjoyed an immense success as a political cartoonist in Germany (although he was living most of the time in Paris), and this led to an invitation to produce comic strips for the Chicago Sunday Tribune , which assured his financial independence at an early age. It was in Paris that he encountered the modernist movement for the first time, and found in the Cubism of Braque, Picasso and Gris the pictorial syntax that served as the foundation for all his subsequent accomplishments. (For a brief period, Feininger worked as a cartoonist for the French journal Le Témoin at the same time as Gris, though there’s no evidence to suggest that they were friends.)

Even in his initial endeavors as a modernist, Feininger’s version of Cubism was markedly different from the style practiced by his Parisian contemporaries. Feininger himself described it as “visionary” Cubism, and behind the designation lay not only his enthusiasm for Turner and Whistler-and thus for light as his primary subject-but also something of his graphic gifts as well.

Feininger’s early critics spoke of the prismatic or “crystalline” quality of his pictures, and the characteristic works of his maturity were, in fact, a kind of transmutation of this romantic preoccupation with light and atmosphere. Never a strong colorist, Feininger was nonetheless able to bring his graphic powers to bear on the construction of monumental prisms of light-symbols, in his own imagination, of a simpler and more spiritual world than any to be seen with the naked eye.

These symbols all retained a recognizable relation to the observable world, however. Feininger was not, in the sense that other Cubists were, an abstract artist. Both landscape and urban motifs abound in his work, as we can see in the current show, but they all tend to represent a pure country of the mind. In Feininger’s vision, the objects of modern experience are exquisitely dissolved in an unearthly light and refracted into a form of visual pastoral that harks back to the innocent emotions of his youth. His was thus a pictorial style that gave him exactly what he needed to transcend the limits of his graphic talent and address his art to what he liked to call “cosmic wonders”-which is where Feininger and Tobey found common ground.

It’s to be hoped that sometime in the near future, we shall have an opportunity to see large-scale solo exhibitions devoted to each of these artists. Lyonel Feininger/Mark Tobey: Years of Friendship, 1944-1956 doesn’t pretend to satisfy an interest in either, but it does have the virtue of offering the public an introduction to their work. The exhibition remains on view at Achim Moeller Fine Art, 167 East 73rd Street, through Nov. 22.