Waters Above the Firmament
Lenore Tawney, sculptor, weaver, and collagist, died this week. She was 100.
“I’m following the path of the heart. I don’t know where the path is going.”
Born in Ohio, Tawney moved to Chicago in the late 20’s, and while working as a proofreader, she began to take classes at the Art Institute. She came under the influence of the Bauhaus School when she attended Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Chicago Institute of Design, and studied under him, sculptor Alexander Archipenko, a cubist, and Emerson Woelffer, an abstract expressionist painter.
In 1957 she moved to NYC where she joined a group of artists that included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin and Jack Youngerman. She became well-known on the NY art scene, had over 25 solo exhibits and participated in many important group shows .
In the late 50’s and early 60’s she invented open-warp weaving and an open reed technique that led weavers to reinvent the woven field and become less strictly rectangular. She became the mother of woven sculpture and began the transition from craft to fiber art. Her work has been exhibited at the Renwick, the Art Institute, the American Craft Museum, the MMA, and international museums, all of which include her work in their permanent collections.
A retrospective of her work was held at the MMA in the 1990. Reviewing this show for the NYT, Roberta Smith states, “Also outstanding are pieces in which the artist simple exaggerates with overturning the inherent components of weaving, like “Lekythos” of 1962 , a delicate drawing-in-air of linen threads. Here the artist elongates the fringe of unwoven warp that usually remains at the top of a piece of weaving when it is cut off the loom. First she spreads these strands up and away from the relatively small and narrow shape, which suggest an abstract face or torso . Then she brings more the warp down over this shape to create a second, veil-like layer of strands. (However difficult the piece is to describe, its utter simplicity is brilliant.) These works show Mrs. Tawney to be an artist of a meditative transparency in which every thread and strand of material counts and empty space holds equal weight.” Although the reviewer says Tawney’s “Cloud” sculptures “Are the perfect distillation of the artist’s sensibility,” she also says, “It would be wonderful to be able to say that Mrs. Tawney’s achievement transcends the craft-art distinction, adding an important chapter to the history of late 20t-century art. But on the contrary, Mrs. Tawney’s work exists in a limbo that is endemic to much contemporary craft: it has departed from craft and function without quite arriving at art.”
In Fields of Light 1975
In the catalogue for Tawney’s exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1996, Kathleen N. Mangan writes, “Throughout the work, Tawney’s intention is the same — to represent what is not seen, to express the essence. Frequently she does this through the use of basic, universal symbols, such as the circle within the square (representing the unity of self) or the cross (representing the meeting of opposites and the point at which linear and eternal time meet). The surfaces of “Tau” and “In Fields of Light’ are interrupted only slits in the tapestry that reinforce their stong geometry, and form and color are distilled to their essence.”
Tawney turned her hand to assemblage and collage in the 60’s, sending collage postcards to her many friends for the rest of her life. They are characterized by multiple layers including Zen and yogic spiritual texts.
Signs on the Wind
In 1994, Robert Kushner wrote of her assemblages, “Tawney raises the question, ‘Is it possible to make contemporary art about the sublime?’. . . The success of this work lies not only in the aptness of the assemblage itself, but in its overall effect of internal clarity and tranquility.. . .What does a critical eye do with the resemblance of many of Tawney’s objects to Cornell’s?. . .If one delves deeper, past superficial similarities, one finds a unique sensibility. Who says that art has continually to break new formal ground? Tawney’s art speaks in a soft voice, underneath which there is power, pain and spirituality. It is a rich and modulated mature womaqn’s voice, a soothin tonic for today’s pervasive adolescent excesses. Ther is ample room in her universe for sadness and also acceptance. ”
I agree with Kushner, and disagree with Smith. I think Lenore Tawney was an artist of great stature in the 20th c. I think her work is characterized by brilliant surfaces layered with meaning, metaphor and connections.