An Appraiser’s Observation

The Parallel Events and Perpendicular Careers of

MARK TOBEY  (1890 - 1976)

The “Guru” of Northwest Art

and

JACOB ELSHIN  (1891 - 1976)  

The “Dean” of Northwest Art

By: Haydee & Mark Allred

Posted 2004 Updates 2009, 2017 

As you can see by their life and death dates they both lived into their 80’s, worked during the same time period (the early 20th century) and died the same year,1976, the bi-centennial of the United States.  Although both these artists are associated with Seattle and the Northwest, neither were born here.  As young men, at the age of 32 they both moved to Seattle.  Mark Tobey in 1922 and Jacob Elshin in 1923. Mark Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin, Jacob Elshin born in Russia.

The name Mark Tobey will be familiar to many of you as one of the Northwest’s prominent “Mystic” painters. Others may or may not recognize Jacob Elshin – also a northwest artist.  These two artists were chosen because both of their careers and backgrounds were very parallel in the beginning; very perpendicular in the end.

As you can see by their life and death dates they both lived into their 80’s, worked during the same time period (the early 20th century) and died the same year,1976, the bi-centennial of the United States.  Although both these artists are associated with Seattle and the Northwest, neither were born here.  As young men, at the age of 32 they both moved to Seattle.  Mark Tobey in 1922 and Jacob Elshin in 1923. Mark Tobey was born in Centerville, Wisconsin, Jacob Elshin born in Russia.

The similarities don’t stop there, that’s just where they begin.
 

  • Both had a connection to the Far East

  • Both taught

  • Both painted Murals

  • Both won numerous prizes

  • Both exhibited nationally and internationally

  • Both are listed in Art Reference Books

  • Both have had works sell at auction

Beginning with the FAR EAST CONNECTION, the Northwest is notorious for its Asian influence.  The comparison would quickly dismantle if both these artists had not benefited first hand from the Far East traditions and culture, but they did.  In 1934, as part of a Far East Vacation / Tour, Mark Tobey studied Chinese Calligraphy and painting in Shanghai. On the same trip he lived in a Zen Monastery for 1 month in Kyoto, Japan. [1]

Elshin also traveled to the Far East, earlier in his life, in 1920.  When his family fled the Russian Revolution in 1918, Elshin’s journey eventually took him to Shanghai.  Once there he worked as a newspaper cartoonist and illustrator for the Shanghai North China Daily News.  He remained there for approximately three years before moving to Seattle.

SO, WHAT HAPPENED?

WHAT MADE MARK TOBEY BECOME INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED WHILE JACOB ELSHIN REMAINS A REGIONAL ARTIST with a smaller than ever following? Circumstances in both artists’ life became the events that determined their success while in turn their success began to determine the events in their lives.

 

LOCATION and ASSOCIATION for Mark Tobey

Mark Tobey actually lived in different cities for extended periods of time.

  • 11 years in New York  1909 – 1920

  • 14 years in Seattle       1922 – 31; 1939

  •   7 years in Devonshire, England 1931– 38

  •   1 month in Kyoto, Japan 1934

  • And between 1940 -1960 he is described as a GYPSY living in Seattle, New York, Chicago, England, Europe and finally settling in Basel, Switzerland in 1960 –1976

                      

It is possible that by living in these different locations and making ties to the local art scene he in fact created various regional markets which formed a foundation for the larger national and international scene.                                    

 

Although all the specifics may not be known or agreed upon, it is evident that Mark Tobey shared some sort of friendship with Elizabeth Willis.  According to Iridescent Light by Delores Tarzan Ament, Elizabeth Willis recalls:  "In 1943, Tobey persuaded me to risk it and go to New York and get a job in a gallery.  Tobey pressed me and pressed me to go to New York and make him known". [4]

 

Elizabeth Willis got a job with the Marian Willard Gallery in New York City for $35 a week. Again, according to Willis as quoted in Iridescent Light: “Tobey was unknown.  It was hard to interest people at first in his work". (Statement dated April 3, 1955, Willis papers 1-2)] – from Iridescent Light

 

While in New York, Willis apparently played some pivotal role in the career of Mark Tobey even if it was simply getting his work in to show at a New York gallery.  Mary Randlett, regional photographer and daughter to Willis was quoted in the Seattle Post Intelligencer Obituary of July 2003 referring to her mother’s time in New York: “She took Jackson Pollock aside and showed him Tobey’s work herself, when she was working at (New York’s) Willard Gallery.  That was before Pollock created the style that reminded us all of Tobey’s.  She made sure the facts were documented and published, to get Tobey the credit he deserved.  Mother always followed through." [5]

 

When Pollack climbed to the top of the art world it was Willis’ effort that tied Tobey to Pollack as the precursor of Jackson Pollock’s all-over action painting, even though New York’s critics and art scholars maintained that Pollock had not seen any of Tobey’s paintings and therefore could not have been influenced by his work. Their work might seem similar to some but there is a consistent vast difference between the work of the two artists.

 

This connection or ongoing controversy continues:  The essay by Judith S. Kays, published in the 1997 exhibition catalogue at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, lends to a “high degree of certainty” by stating that Pollock (the commanding figure of the abstract expressionist movement) “was familiar with Tobey, and quite likely influenced by him – something that art historians had previously overlooked”. [6]

 

There is no printed evidence that the historians overlooked anything but were more inclined to be influenced by, exhibition dates, consensus of gallery owner view points, and what was published of the day. There is wide spread acknowledgement that Pollock was obviously influenced by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974) Janet Sobel (1894–1968), and especially Lee Krasner (1908–1984) by Pollock’s own admission.

 

Regardless of who influenced who first or if they influenced each other, the importance of this association is that Tobey’s work has been identified as part of the first uniquely American fine art movement, Abstract Expressionism, and his art certainly does not detract anything away from Pollock. 

 

While Mark Tobey did not win numerous prizes, (under a dozen during his life) the prizes that he did win were considered national and international in stature. A good example is winning the Painting Prize at the 29th Venice Biennale of 1958.  Just to have work shown there would be considered an accomplishment but a win at this competition has been considered the highest honor any artist can achieve. This sort of success is recognized around the world.

 

It has also been documented that from 1928 – 1965 Mark Tobey had at least 63 one man shows. This is a span of 37 years.  He was averaging almost two shows per year.  Some years he actually had 3 & 4 shows going on at the same time.  With the success of the Venice Biennale, Tobey became the first American painter to be honored with a solo exhibition in Paris, at the Louvre. The show contained an astonishing three hundred paintings, spanning 50 years of his work, from his early tight, precise style to his newest work.  According to Newsweek, he called the 1961 retrospective exhibition in Paris "The biggest show of my life”. [2]     He said it was “Like taking my clothes off in public”. [2]    Again, this was a huge publicity event, as he once more received worldwide recognition.

 

Today, his one-man shows continue after his death in 1976.  Since that time, he has had numerous one-man shows in Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Seattle and Tacoma just to name a few.

LOCATION and ASSOCIATION for Jacob Elshin

There may not be a right or wrong answer as to why Jacob Elshin remains only regional, but consider how the following factors influenced his career. He traveled throughout his life and had a favorite vacation spot but once Elshin arrived in Seattle it became his permanent home.

 

Although he exhibited at least twice in New York, he never made a continuous connection to the New York art scene at a very critical time that could have advanced his career.  And although he may have probably known Elizabeth Willis somewhat, he never had an independent promoter or advocate like she was for Tobey. 

 

While Elshin benefited from the “Northwest School” association as many local artists continue to do so today by the simple act of living in the area, his work did not become identified with the national art movement, Abstract Expressionism, and he was never recognized as influential in any specific art movement.

 

And even though Elshin was very active in competitions with 24 prizes to his credit, the majority of the competitions were regionally located in the Puget Sound Area.  Even though he was very well known in the Northwest, his awards were never of such importance that caused the art world to take notice.  Almost every Museum, Art Center, and Community in the United States devotedly promotes the artists of their particular area or region with shows and competitions.  So winning 1st place at the Seattle Art Museum Annual is equivalent to 1st place in Anytown, USA.  And although it is a great feat to win, in the big picture of the art market, regional recognition alone does not necessarily propel the artist to the international forefront.

 

From 1929 to 1965 Elshin had 14 one man shows. During a 36-year span, when Tobey was averaging two shows per year, Elshin was only averaging approximately one show every three years.  Of these 14 shows, only one was outside the Puget Sound area. In the case of Jacob Elshin, if there were more shows, there is no documentation to support it.  And even though he showed in numerous group shows, they do not carry the same influential weight as one-man shows.

 

THE NO ACTIVITY SYNDROME: Unknown

The same events or non-events can have the same stagnating effect on the career of most any artist.

Everyone is familiar with the perplexing question -

 

- “If a tree falls in the woods and no one

     is there to hear it, does it make any noise?”

 

This saying can apply to artists today. Today too many gallery shows cycle through without the essential published media coverage or at least exhibition brochures to document the event. The lack of some form of media documentation packaged with the exhibition will only accelerate the disappearance of the artist’s efforts from the history record just as they did in Jacob Elshin’s case. 

 

It also seems to be the custom for many galleries to shy away from published prices or price lists. This stems mostly from galleries not knowing what price to ask with an amateurish anticipation that the value of the art will climb too fast tomorrow to be able to price it today or that the price may depend on the what kind of car you drive syndrome. No matter the reason, once the gallery drops a certain artist or is under new ownership or goes out of business, without printed material (brochures, pricelists, exhibition catalogues, etc.) there is no documented record of how valuable that gallery felt the work was during the artist’s heyday.

 

Another detrimental effect which is perceived as no activity for many artists is the use of two little words, “AND OTHERS”.  Newspapers, Magazines, Galleries, and Museums all resort to advertising and press releases that do not list all the artists participating in group shows. Many times this is done because of a lack of space, lack of money, or a general unawareness of the effect on the artist’s career.  Very often it is done purposefully to project a certain perception: list the bigger names to grab attention thus attendance.  This occurrence causes lesser known artists to remain lesser known while it continues to boost the artists which are mentioned because of their previously established popularity.

 

NO NEW INVENTORY being produced also has the same no activity effect.  This is so often the case with many artists when they retire, move away, or decease.  As in Jacob Elshin’s example, as well as the majority of all artists, the idea that artwork goes up in value because an artist has passed away is a misconception based on ignorance.  It is harder to keep the momentum going when there are no new works.  If a family member or gallery owner does not step in to keep the artist’s name in the public eye the work will often be considered to have no resale value. Gradually the reputation and fame that took the artist a lifetime to build fades away within a few years as new artists enter the market.

 

REFERENCE BOOK listings of course are interlocked with published auction records that are vital to establishing a value for artists work on the secondary market.  Today Jacob Elshin is only listed in approximately 12 reference books and/or sites.  This ensures that he will always be considered a “listed artist”, but listing alone does not guarantee an increase in value.

 

Mark Tobey is currently listed in over 255 reference books/sites with more continuously written about him from a variety of other publications, documenting the importance of the artist.  This continuous scholarly attention to the artist guarantees interest in the sale of Tobey’s work by established buyers while attracting new collectors.

 

MEDIA ATTENTION was another factor.  Mark Tobey was one of four featured artists in the September 28,1953 Life magazine article Mystic Painters of the Northwest. [3]  Although the article was fairly small, only a few paragraphs dedicated to each artist with a few images of their work, it fully established the concept of the Northwest School of Art permanently in recorded history. The story was not even a cover story, but the publication had national and international circulation.  This magazine was extremely influential in American culture and it became known as the publication that could and did create “STAR” status artists, such as Jackson Pollock being featured in Life magazine August 8,1949. There were not that many magazines published at that time, certainly not one for every subject imaginable. There was no Internet. No Blogs. No Facebook. No going viral. No Fake News. The only research accomplished was by those individuals who had the where-with-all to get up, get out of their bath robe, get dressed and spend the day at the library and / or send out letters of inquiry.

WHAT ARE THEIR PAINTINGS WORTH TODAY?  

For that type of information, we consult published auction records.  Art databases have collected auction results since the 1700’s and they monitor global auction activity on a daily basis. These types of records are important because they are actual completed sales - not offers for sale or asking prices and because they are considered “documented” by being published and made available.

 

As further proof of how regional Jacob Elshin remains, according to the art databases and looking at regional auction house records he has less than 25 auction records documented, the record price being an oil on canvas that sold for $650 in 2005. The rest of his work sold at auction for less than $500. This is a far cry from Mark Tobey’s 2,000 plus auction records. His work entered the auction arena in 1962 and by 1965 Time magazine reported that on January 22 Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet auction house sold three works by Tobey for a total of $34,000.  That was an average price of $11,300 for each piece.  These auction sales quickly established a resale value and served as a pricing guide for Tobey in the secondary art market ten years before his death.  The record high for Tobey was a painting selling for $432,354, in 2017 through Christie’s Auction House, United Kingdom. His second highest price at auction was $366,177 for a painting sold in 2006 by Sotheby's, United Kingdom.

 

Other sales that may have occurred through private galleries or at smaller, un-cataloged auctions are not recorded and not accessible.  When these unpublished transactions occur, they do little to support the career of the artist. Like the proverbial tree in the forest, those type sales did not make any noise.

 

Finally, artists do not exist in a vacuum.  They fall in or out of favor of the buying public.  They produce their art within the context of the greater national and global art scene. 

 

Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading surrealists to New York, and many of the abstract expressionists were profoundly influenced by Surrealism's focus on the unconscious. By the mid 1940’s the center of gravity of the art world had shifted from Paris to New York.  Before this time, the history of painting in America was often just European Art as done in America.  With the development of abstract expressionism also known as the “New York School”, for the first time, European art began to follow the example of American Art.

Jacob Elshin and Mark Tobey lived during an art era of Giants:  Picasso, Dali, Pollack, Warhol, and Kelly to name a few.   Not only were the artists huge, the art movements during their lifetime were monumental:  Cubism [1908 – 1920], Surrealism [1924 – 1950], Abstract Expressionism [1946 – 1960’s], Pop Art  [1950’s – 1960’s], Optical Art [1950’s – 1960’s], Photo Realism [1960’s – 1970’s], and Minimalism [started in the 1960’s].

 

Artists from these Movements were quite prolific and they continued to dominate the art market throughout the 20th century.  Since the emergence of Minimalism in the 1960’s, the art world had been fairly mundane identifying subcategories from the previous categories.  It was not until 1997 that there were any major ripples in the art world, when the highly controversial “Sensation Show” [1]  sparked serious discussions on the role of art in society. The show included the painting by Chris Ofili [British, born 1968] that depicts the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung which added fuel to the decency vs. free speech debate. For artists active after the 1960’s, there was almost 40 years of no new competition, while comparatively, Tobey and Elshin as well as other artists of their era, competed their whole life with what would become larger than life events.  Until the day that the art market sees Elshin’s contribution to art in a different light, his work sadly remains mostly unappreciated.

So... While Jacob Elshin became recognized in the Seattle area, he remains a regional artist.  Mark Tobey was not only recognized by Seattle but became internationally renowned by the world. Mark Tobey was able to arouse the Nation and the World either through his art or his fortunate career moves.

 

From an appraiser’s viewpoint, Connoisseurship would play a very little role in appraising these two artists. Connoisseurship would play a more active role in authenticating a work, but the authenticity is not an issue in this case.  And, the larger majority of appraisers are not authenticators.  There is no blatant difference in the quality of these two artists’ artwork.  Nor can the reason of such wide discrepancy between careers be contributed to the conclusion that one artist is more innovative, or creative, or painterly, or edgy, or whatever critic’s choice term of the month may be. These terms are relative as the definition of art itself continues to evolve. If you could become familiar with both of these artists work, it would become obvious both were innovative and much of their work looks shockingly similar. To the public’s chagrin art is truly in the eye of the beholder or should we say the eye of the art critic and art dealer of the time? 

 

The chief influence in most any appraisal is what the IRS terms as comparables (similar items that have previously sold in a like market).  The IRS is very explicit as to what they will and will not accept from appraisers and when it becomes confusing, their agents are always nearby ready to explain further. Experience will help interpret auction records but no lifelong membership to any appraisal association will ever give the appraiser the ability to change what has or has not been documented in an artist’s career. The career of the artist directly influences the market price. Due diligence and research become the appraiser’s tools of choice and necessity but unfortunately time spent researching is no guarantee that information will be found when there was very little or nothing of the artist’s career preserved. The appraiser is constantly forced to back up their opinions of value based on previous sales from that artist or similar artists. The value the appraiser finds in any artwork does not come from a personal fondness of the artists or an appreciation of their style, but instead from parallel characteristics from past documented sales and a detailed knowledge of the artist’s career.

References

1. B'klyn Gallery Of Horror - Gruesome Museum Show Stirs Controversy by Douglas Feiden, New York Daily News, Thursday, September 16, 1999.

2.Tobey, Mark (1890-1976): The Old Master of the Young American Painting by Deloris Tarzan Ament Posted 2/16/2003 HistoryLink.org Essay 5217

http://www.historylink.org/File/5217  essay made possible by: NW Arts Encyclopedia: Nesholm Family Foundation - Bagley Wright.

3. Mystic Painters of the Northwest, Life Magazine Sep 28, 1953,144 pages, Vol. 35, No. 13; ISSN 0024-3019, Published by Time Inc.

4. Delores Tarzan Ament, Mary Randlett, Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest - Art (University of Washington/MONA)"  ISBN-10: 0295981474, ISBN-13: 978-0295981475.

5. Elizabeth Bayley Willis, 1902-2003: 'She loved art and worked for artists' by Regina Hackett, art critic for Seattle Post-Intelligencer Updated 10:00 pm, Tuesday, July 1, 2003.

6. Published on One Country (http://www.onecountry.org)  Source URL: http://www.onecountry.org/story/review-mine-are-orient-occident-science-religion-citiesspace-and-writing-picture. Issue date:  January-March 1998 Volume number: 9 Issue number: 4    Review: "Mine are the Orient, the Occident, science, religion, cities, space, and writing a picture." Mark Tobey A retrospective exhibition. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. 11 November 1997 to 12 January 1998, Madrid.

7. Special thanks and recognition to:  

Seattle Art Museum, 1300 1st Ave, Seattle, WA 98101. (206) 654-3100.

David Martin and Dominic Zambito, Martin-Zambito Gallery, 1117 Minor Ave, Seattle, WA 98101. (206) 726-9509.

Alex Rosenberg, Alex Rosenberg Fine Arts, 3 E 69th St  NY,NY. (212) 628-0606.

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