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Partitions of the City

On view

Partitions of the City

Artist: Mark Tobey (American, 1890 - 1976)

Date: 1945
Medium: Opaque watercolor on masonite
Framed: 37 1/2 x 31 x 2 3/4in. (95.3 x 78.7 x 7cm)
Overall: 30 1/4 x 23 3/4in. (76.8 x 60.3cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Tobey / [date? illegible]'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.264
Text Entries

Mark Tobey’s Partitions of the City comes from the 1940s, the decade in which he formulated the major themes of his work and an abstract pictorial language to express them. While the subject matter of Tobey’s early work encompassed still life as well as the figure, landscape as well as cityscape, it is in his paintings of the city that we see the main thrust of his development. This was a subject that he pursued throughout his life as an artist and one that seemed to embody a distillation of his artistic concerns.(1)

Tobey’s desire to convey the experience of city life prompted his first use of a calligraphic linear style. In the mid-1930s, soon after a crucial visit to the Orient where he studied calligraphy, Tobey painted a series of paintings of San Francisco’s Chinatown and New York’s Broadway.(2) Inspired by the dense humanity and brilliant lights of the city, he achieved a breakthrough in his development with a painting called Broadway of 1935 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), in which the crowds and traffic on the avenue are conveyed in the frenetic and agitated activity of the artist’s brush.

When Tobey resumed the theme of the city in the 1940s, he further developed the dichotomy between an abstract, calligraphic treatment of the surface and a perspectival illusion of depth. His contemporaneous exploration of Cubism and multiple perspective led to a shallow pictorial space with many points of recession, which he unified by an over-all gestural brushstroke. Partitions of the City, one of the most densely worked paintings of this period, exhibits a steep diagonal path of recession by means of the artist’s use of white in the central portion of the composition. The sense of depth is strongly contradicted by the vigorous use of brushstroke, which varies from wet brush to dry, thick strokes to thin, in a breadth of handling that continued to characterize the artist’s mature style. While figures are more specifically defined in Tobey’s city paintings of the two preceding years, in the Utica picture only a few may be identified with certainty, including a bearded figure in the lower left corner of the composition, which could be the artist himself. Other figures or faces are suggested but subsumed into the general matrix of linear abstraction. In this respect Partitions of the City looks forward to Tobey’s more abstract works of the 1950s and 1960s, in which line suggests rather than describes the subject of the work. In forcing us to contemplate the image in order to perceive its subject, Tobey succeeds in his desire to create paintings that not only arrest but detain the viewer.

Tobey viewed the city as a microcosm of the entire world effectively shrinking due to the impact of modern technology. His approach to this theme gradually shifted, both pictorially and philosophically, from descriptive to abstract, from a specific city to a universal one. Tobey’s intense response to the subject and his goal of investing it with larger meaning are revealed in this painting, which marks a pivotal point in his artistic evolution.




1. Eliza E. Rathbone, Mark Tobey: City Paintings, exhibition catalog (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1984).

2. Ibid., pp. 25-32.


Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s) / Licensing by ARS, New York, NY.