Underneath the Moments is an excellent example of Mark Tobey's mature style, developed by 1935 and refined during the next four decades. The intricate network of white lines that provides the technical foundation of the painting is the hallmark of all Tobey's best work from 1935 on. The defining experience in Tobey's creation of this signature "white writing" was a visit to Asia which he made in 1934. He had learned the fundamentals of oriental brushwork in 1923 from a Chinese friend in Seattle, and had ample occasion to practice the technique during his Asian sojourn eleven years later. The flowing but controlled movement of the brush in oriental calligraphy clearly informs Tobey's treatment of line in works like Underneath the Moments, producing an inner tension of such strength and vitality that the entire painting appears to vibrate.
Also central to Tobey's mature work is his experience of eastern religion. In 1918, he adopted the Bah'i World Faith, which professes unity, balance, and universality as its essential tenets. During his trip to Asia in 1934, he was exposed to the Zen ideals of simplicity, directness, and concentration; and he was profoundly affected by the concept of shibui, which he has defined as a sort of hidden beauty that only "in time discloses its jewels" (quoted in M.C. Rueppel, exh. cat., Mark Tobey Retrospective, Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, 1968, n.p.). If not explicitly stated, these ideas are clearly felt in paintings like the present one. Only upon sustained effort does the picture fully reveal its "jewels;" only upon careful looking do its various layers -- the loose skein of green and blue which comprises the front-most plane, the dense complex of exuberant white writing just beneath, the fathomless black space in the background -- resolve into a dynamic, unified whole. As so often in Tobey's work, the title of the painting reinforces these ideas, inviting the viewer to enter the space of the picture and to explore its depths.
In the catalogue of a retrospective of Tobey's work at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Merrill C. Rueppel eloquently captures the unique character of Tobey's art:
Seen against the background of American painting of the past twenty-five years, the work of Mark Tobey stands in splendid isolation. It is generally modest in scale, concentrated in focus, intricate in construction, and profound in intent. It is an intimate art, quiet, balanced, and precise. It is also immensely vital and is charged with a dynamic power that often seems to burst from the relatively small format... It is not part of the main stream but has its own special quality. It is an art that requires careful looking.
The distinctive aspects of Tobey's work are not difficult to identify... Emphasis is on fluidity of line, and mass is usually constructed from a linear network. Of particular importance is Tobey's preference for white lines which are threaded across the surface as a counterpoint to underlying colored structures. As the eye is led forward or backward into space or from side to side the spatial and color complexes are slowly revealed and the true depth of the work is defined. The viewer must penetrate what often seems to be an outer shell to find his way visually into the interior world of the painting...
[Tobey] is valued because of his spirituality, his timelessness, his energy and vitality, his intimacy, profundity, and sincerity. No one has a more vibrant line, more singing color, more sophisticated control of the spatial complexities of abstract form. He has [woven]...his own fabric to give form to his own vision. He has built his own world and, in the process, has helped illuminate ours. (Ibid., n.p.)