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Friday, December 11, 2015

Alton Tobey

If the central image (above) doesn't look much like a self-portrait, it's an indication of just how Alton Tobey has impacted this type of painting.
He also hand paints hand portraits--
Hands I, Anton Tobey
One of the most stagnant areas of art down through the centuries has been the painted portrait. A few artists have breathed new life into the genre a few times but for the most part, a portrait is now and has pretty much always been simply a face that looks like, and reflects the per-sonality of the sitter. Leonardo set the bar with Mona Lisa. Picasso stunned the world with Cubist portraits. And Andy Warhol "popped" a few new elements into portrait-ure...what is it now, fifty or more years ago? Chuck Close painted "close" portraits on a grand scale, then began to paint realist portraits in an abstract manner following (and largely because of) the advent of his paralysis. I've painted dozens of portraits. Except for one, which I claim to be the first painted portrait based upon a computer printout (a portrait innovation which, regrettably, I neglected to pursue), I can think of no other that might afford me a footnote in any art history book. That is, except for the one I wrote myself, Art THINK, (available through the links on the far right). The only other artist I can think of who has explored even modest innovation in painting portraits is the American painter, Alton Stanley Tobey.

Famous people, perhaps even famous portraits by Alton Tobey, but far from groundbreaking.
One should not go in search of accurate dates (or even a chronology) involving Tobey's work. I could not find a single date associated with any of the artist's portraits or even his major non-portrait works. Insofar as Tobey's portraits are concerned, they're exceptionally faithful in all respects. However it's only when Tobey moved in close, painting only recognizable fragments of famous faces, that he began making inroads toward lifting the stagnant malaise of haze that has dogged portraiture for most of the past five or six-hundred years. In essence, fewer than a dozen top artists from around the world have lifted, if only momentarily, from the long-held sociological definition of portraiture--simply a face, from a race, from a place.

How many can you recognize?
(See list at bottom.)
Originally from Middletown, Connecticut, Anton Tobey was born in 1914, In 1934 he won a scholarship to study art at Yale University. After military service during the war, Tobey also received his masters degree from Yale where he also taught for a few years. Tobey lived for most of his life in the village of Larchmont, in Westchester County, New York. His wife, Roslyn Tobey, was a piano teacher and musician. Their son, David Tobey, is both a painter and musician. Alton Tobey's early work and endemic style can be seen in his Machinist (below).

Machinist, Alton Tobey
One of Tobey's Golden
Books covers
Perhaps what makes Alton Tobey most interesting is that he was essentially two distinctly different artists in one. All his life he worked as a portrait artist, book illustrator, teacher, and muralist. Tobey's earliest murals were of historical subjects painted in the 1930s, when he worked for the WPA Federal Art Project. They are probably the most well-known works, displayed in many public buildings in the U.S. and elsewhere. These include public institutions in his native state as well as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; New York's Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum (below); and even an officers club in Saudi Arabia. Tobey's obituary in the Larchmont Gazette states, "[He]was best known for the murals, which he called 'symphonies of painting'." Alton Tobey was president of the National Society of Mural Painters from 1984 to 1988. Tobey was also the creator of the hundreds of paintings illustrating the twelve volumes of The Golden Book History of the United States series (above, left).

Tobey Murals: One of four in the MacArthur series (above, lower-left), and the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum series of murals (above, lower-right).
But there was also a second artist dwelling within Alton Tobey, drastically unlike the first. Among his various styles, perhaps the most original works are those in a semi-abstract mode using a curious "visual alphabet" of his own invention. These he called "curvilinears." They, along with his Fragment portrait series and some curvilinear sculptures in this idiom, form a second body of work quite apart from his Realist efforts. Yet, these abstract works, display a distinctive, exacting draftsmanship much as those in his realistic style. Alton Tobey died in 2005 at the age of ninety.

Tobey's curvilinear works: Contra Bass (upper-left), Don Quixote (top-center), The Knight (top right), Tango (sculpture, lower-left), and Crucifixion (lower, center).

Tobey with his self-portrait (top).
(The Fragment portraits are of Margaret Thatcher (Thatcher's Thatch), Einstein, John Stein-beck, Albert Schweitzer, and Churchill.)


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