Julius Tobias began his artistic career painting in an abstract expressionist mode before moving into the monumental sculpture for which he is most remembered. However, painting continued to be an important aesthetic outlet throughout his working life. By 1946 he was showing at the Provincetown Art Association, then a hotbed of activity for the nascent abstract expressionist movement due to its proximity to Hans Hofmann’s pioneering art school and its popularity as a summer alternative to the sweltering city among many New York artists. Tobias’ paintings from the 1950s and 1960s employ the thick, expressionistic brushstrokes and broad areas of color that were hallmarks of the New York School, as well as an insistent materiality of paint and emphasis on surface that was championed by critics such as Clement Greenberg. However, Tobias did not adhere to strict Greenbergian abstraction. Many of these works are evocative of sky or landscape, vistas that Tobias would have been intimately familiar with from his experience as a bomber pilot during the Second World War. He has written that “there is no such thing as abstraction as differentiated from reality—all abstraction is based on reality and is reality. You can see abstraction wherever you go—clouds, sidewalks, sides of wall. It is not necessary to see things as objects only.” (1) Tobias’ brushwork also often has a distinct directionality, lending his work a sense of motion that energizes his painted surfaces.
Born in 1915 in Harlem, Tobias was inspired to become an artist at a young age after seeing an image of Thomas Gainsborough’s "Blue Boy" (1770). He began his studies in the evenings at the American Art School soon after while also maintaining his day job as an elevator operator and later as a postal worker. Tobias enlisted in the Air Force in 1942 and was stationed in England throughout the war. He flew B16 bombers in raids over Germany until being shot down over Switzerland on his 26th mission. Before he could arrange to rejoin his unit in England, Tobias spent some time in Adelboden, Switzerland, where he met and befriended the widow of German expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose collection of early 20th century expressionist paintings he found greatly impressive.
After the war, Tobias married and moved with his wife to Paris, taking advantage of the GI Bill to enroll at the Atelier Fernand Léger. His studies there from 1949 to 1952 instilled in him a deep sense of both art history and of Léger’s particular politically charged humanism. Tobias recalled that the most important lesson he learned from Léger was contained in the older artist’s mantra that “ça droit être monumentale! (It should be monumental!).” Tobias continued: “not just in size—a work should be overwhelming in its greatness, in its bigness. It should be big in quality. It has got to stay with you. The feeling of the work has got to make a lasting impression.” (2) This feeling would drive much of his work throughout his career, from his early monumental paintings to his later sculptural environments.
Always in tune with the art movements of his time but never stylistically dogmatic, Tobias consistently remained somewhat of an enigma within the art world.
His paintings from the 1950s and 1960s have a poetic, minimalist tone similar to that of his contemporary Mark Rothko, although Tobias’ paintings have a strong sense of subjective impressionism and action. Thus Tobias, a humanist at heart, saw the realities of urban existence as abstract pictorial elements to be manipulated at will. Gradually, over the course of the decade, his works moved from pure abstract expressionism to incorporate aspects of Neo-plasticism. (3)
Tobias’ series of wall-sized white paintings, executed in the late 1960s, transitioned seamlessly into his sculptural work of the 1970s, in which concrete, steel, or wood created contained and often stubborn environments for the viewer to navigate. Like his contemporary Richard Serra, Tobias filled and sometimes even barricaded galleries with vast sculptural materials, and eventually moved into outdoor spaces in order to work on a more monumental scale. His focus on space extends beyond his sculptural practice: “Space is primary—objects are secondary—objects can be destroyed—space cannot be destroyed. It is for this reason that space is primary—think about it! Paint space!” (4) This emphasis on the immaterial notion of space rather than the material nature of his work can be traced to the destruction he witnessed—and, as a bomber pilot, caused—during the war.
Wartime memories also come to play in his work of the 1980s, which turned to figural painting. This more socially conscious work featured abstracted images of piled bodies in grim landscapes, recalling the horrors of the Holocaust and the battlefield. In the 1990s he moved into large black canvases, where he explored black as a color by experimenting with the different tonalities of black.
A traveling retrospective of Tobias’ work was organized by the State University of New York, Stony Brook in 1992. Examples of his work can be found in the collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca. Over the course of his career he was the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, two Pollock-Krasner awards, and multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants. He passed away in Manhattan in 1999.
1. Julius Tobias, “Several thoughts to consider in reference to art.”
2. Julius Tobias, quoted in Elizabeth Neuman, “Julius Tobias: View Gallery.” "Review Magazine." January 15, 1997, p. 2.
3. April Kingsley, “Julius Tobias: A Boulder in the Mainstream.” "Julius Tobias: Work 1965-1992" (New York: SUNY Stonybrook), 1992.
4. Julius Tobias, “Several thoughts to consider in reference to art.”
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