Tobey and Pollack


Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1745, acrylic on paper

Q: You mentioned that Tobey and Pollack were working within different historical and cultural contexts., what were they? What do you see working differently between them?

ReeL: Tobey was working with specific Asian influences: the sumi-e marks of the brush, the pre-eminence of the hand of the painter and the brush.

He was influenced by the thinking of Southern Sung painters who prized accidental brush strokes that broke 

the strict formalism of the brush stroke traditions, and he was influenced by the Southern Sung painters’ ideal of a well-educated painter, well-read and well-cultured.

Tobey was a relatively refined individual. Almost the opposite temperament of Pollack who adopted a more macho stance and was clearly drawing from the most abstract strains of Surrealism, especially the work of those whose work he could see in New York, like Gorky, and Hoffman, who did smaller studies that are much looser and more Gorky-like than his bigger canvases.

It seems to me that the early Ab Ex guys surely must have seen some of Hoffman’s smaller oil sketches on paper, or at least known about them. On the other hand, I sincerely doubt that Tobey, for all his erudition and traveling, had probably not seen any of those younger abstract Surrealist works since he was not in New York. He also was working slightly earlier in these modes than the New Yorkers.

Of course the NW/Tobey strain of things was completely suppressed by the New York critics for decades. They obviously didn’t want anyone to even begin to suspect that there were non-New York American precedents for anything they were writing about. Heaven forbid.

Q: What you’ve just said is totally different than anything I’ve ever read in the history books.

ReeL: Well, you can’t believe everything you read in the books. There’s the evidence of the paintings and dates and who was where when and what they saw. The history of painting is in the paint. A good painter can not only see that, they can see the development of a single painting, how it is built up. Sometimes painters adopt processes that obscure this, but for most painters worth their salt, you can see the beauty of their process and the path they take to get to where they end up. It’s all there in the paint.

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