|Twenty years ago, I stepped off of a gray New York City street and into the world of Lenore Tawney. Tawney met me at the studio door dressed entirely in white. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, with clear blue eyes and hennaed hair cut in a short bob. My appointment was to begin research for a retrospective exhibition at the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design), but Tawney had other ideas. “I thought we’d blow bubbles today,” she said, and producing a small vial of soap bubbles from the pocket of her smock, she began to twirl through the space, a cloud of bubbles trailing behind. Thus began a friendship that lasted until the end of her long life.|
Kathleen Nugent Mangan
Lenore Tawney (1907-2007) was a New York-based fiber artist who became an influential figure in the development of woven sculpture as an art medium. She died on September 24 in her Manhattan studio at the age of 100. Kathleen Nugent Mangan is the Administrative Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.
Twenty years ago, I stepped off of a gray New York City street and into the world of Lenore Tawney. Tawney met me at the studio door dressed entirely in white. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, with clear blue eyes and hennaed hair cut in a short bob. My appointment was to begin research for a retrospective exhibition at the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design), but Tawney had other ideas. “I thought we’d blow bubbles today,” she said, and producing a small vial of soap bubbles from the pocket of her smock, she began to twirl through the space, a cloud of bubbles trailing behind. Thus began a friendship that lasted until the end of her long life.
Tawney moved through the all-white studio with a dancer’s grace. Quiet and light, the loft was imbued with an otherworldliness, a sense of spirituality reflective of Tawney’s reverence for and poetic response to materials. The space was filled with time-polished pebbles, bleached bones, feathers and eggs, textiles and objects from her travels around the world, and chests in which each drawer contained a small assemblage. The studio itself seemed to be a kind of environmental autobiography, the collage of a lifetime.
Thirty years before, at the age of fifty, she had moved from Chicago to a cold-water loft on New York’s Coenties Slip, a small street overlooking the East River on the southern tip of Manhattan, where a number of younger artists had set up their studios. There she joined a small but legendary community of artists that included Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, and Agnes Martin, her close friend and neighbor. Tawney described herself as an “all or nothing person.” In New York, her work was “all,” a commitment she had rejected in Chicago. There she had attended the Institute of Design, studying with Alexander Archipenko, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Marli Ehrman. A promising sculpture student, she was invited by Archipenko for further studies at his Woodstock studio. “I studied with him that whole summer,” she told Cummings, “and that was a real turning point for me, working all day… when you’re just completely with what you’re doing. It’s like… ecstasy sometimes.” Back in Chicago, however, she found it difficult to devote her whole self to sculpture. All-or-nothing Tawney stopped working and destroyed much of her work.
But in 1954, after a period of travel, she attended a tapestry workshop with Finnish weaver, Martta Taipale, at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. Tawney returned to Chicago and began working steadily, almost immediately pushing the boundaries of weaving and no longer resisting complete devotion to her work. She credited her limited formal training with her ability to innovate. Even her earliest pieces caused controversy. “Weavers on juries tended to reject my work,” she said; “painters tended to like it.” Painter Margo Hoff summed it up in 1957, when she wrote, “In the last two years [Tawney’s] tapestries have become nationally known, discussed, admired, and criticized. Her work is controversial, but the great response to it indicates that there is a kind of revolt going on in the United States against craftsmanship dictated by traditional methods and the limits of the tool.”
In New York, her experimentation continued, and a body of work poured forth that changed the face of fiber art. Tawney’s first solo exhibition, at the Staten Island Museum in 1961, was later heralded by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen as being “the point at which Art Fabric was healthfully and joyously launched in America.” The following year, she invented a new reed for her loom, which allowed her to depart from the rectangle as she wove Stripped of color, in stark black and natural linen, this new work exploited areas of solid and void, opacity and transparency, and achieved a strong sculptural presence. The work formed the nucleus of the seminal 1963 exhibition Woven Forms at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and in 1964 it was exhibited at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich with works by Sheila Hicks and Claire Zeisler. Curator Erika Billeter remembered the occasion as “a genuine avant-garde event.”
Yet Tawney remained under-recognized. Working, reading, and meditating alone in her studio, she followed what she called “the path of the heart.” To the art world, her work was considered “craft,” not on the level of fine art. She professed indifference. “I didn’t plead to be in the art world,” she said. “I didn’t pay attention. I just took what came.”
During the 60s, Tawney began a series of highly personal collages, assemblages, and collaged postcards that she continued until her deteriorating vision forced her to stop working during the last decade of her life. But the medium was never the message in her work. A woven thread, a fine line of India ink, a strip of antique paper in a collage were all equivalent. The constant was her desire to make visible the visionary. Quoting Jung in a journal, she wrote, “The struggle to express an inner vision of a reality greater than the individual self, a reality that transcends the mundane, is what lies at the root of a genuine artistic impulse.” To give expression to an inner vision was her goal.
Tawney had studied meditation for years and considered much of her work to be a form of meditation. Her work and her spirituality were inseparable. During her last years, having lost her vision, the role of meditation took on increased importance. She sat in her studio and meditated. She listened to music, chants, books-on-tape, and recorded songbirds. She waited for friends to come and reread favorite books aloud. She remembered the past and she faced the present and future with courage and humor. “The first hundred years,” she said with a smile on her hundredth birthday, “were the hardest.”