A few things about Lenore Tawney: She arrived in Chicago at the age of twenty from Lorain, Ohio. She took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago while making a living as a proofreader for a publisher of court opinions. At thirty-four she married a young psychologist named George Tawney, but he died suddenly a year-and-a-half later. This led to a period where Tawney traveled abroad extensively. In between travels, she studied sculpture and weaving with Alexander Archipenko and Marli Ehrman, respectively, at Chicago’s Institute of Design (the “New Bauhaus”). At the age of forty-one, Tawney purchased her first loom. Six years later, in 1954, she decided to devote herself to weaving. She would leave Chicago for New York, where she set up a studio at Coenties Slip in the Financial District alongside neighbors including Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin. In subsequent decades, Tawney became a major force in redefining and expanding the possibilities of weaving as an art form.
Agnes Martin became one of Tawney’s closest friends and wrote in 1961, about Tawney’s weaving: “To see new and original expression in a very old medium, and not just one new form but a complete new form in each piece of work, is wholly unlooked for, and is a wonderful and gratifying experience.” The artist’s groundbreaking body of work is on view in a multifaceted retrospective called “Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe” at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Closer to home, four of Tawney’s iconoclastic fiber artworks are featured in “Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus” at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe” is comprised of a series of four exhibits organized by Karen Patterson, JMKAC’s former senior curator. Tawney was an artist persistently drawn to the rhythms and elements of the natural world, and particularly to the sensorial and metaphorical qualities of water. The title of the retrospective comes from words that the artist once wrote in a sketchbook: “Water is still like a mirror… Mind being in repose becomes the mirror of the universe.”
In Poetry and Silence
With Kathleen Nugent Mangan of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, Patterson curated the core exhibit, “In Poetry and Silence,” which features a recreation of Tawney’s New York City studio, a calm and bright space of “spiritual retreat” from the chaos of urban life. This installation possesses the unmistakable allure of an artist-centered space—where cabinets of curiosities evoke the creative spirit that inhabited this environment and the personality that curated its idiosyncratic and deeply personal contents. There are many charming and unusual objects that catch the eye, for example: a hand-carved figure of a “guiding angel” that one imagines would look over the artist as she worked; a Jacquard harness loom suspended in air—a relic of weaving technology, which must have enchanted the artist for its contrast of mechanical, ninety-degree angles anchoring soft lines of malleable threads.
Adjacent to the artist’s studio, a stream of Tawney’s fiber pieces winds its way around the gallery, tracing from her earliest steps—the initial exploration of weaving thread as a kind of drawing, shifting between a representational approach to a sculptural approach—to increasingly experimental phases—enlarging her work to a monumental scale, gradually reducing her color palette, inventing her own open-reed format, freeing weaving from the boundaries of the loom—and culminating with a piece called “Cloud Labyrinth” (1983), from her late-career “Cloud” series, that fills a room and commands its own atmosphere. At the Art Institute, “The Bride has Entered” (1982) is another piece from the same series, consisting of linen threads that sometimes dangle as long as twenty feet, individually hand-tied to a fabric backing.
At Kohler, the weavings are hung just far enough from the wall and lit in such a way that one can admire the intricate and shifting shadows cast immediately behind them. The weavings are so lightweight that they sway when you walk past. The shadows translate the delicate shapes and lines within Tawney’s compositions from three dimensions into two, adding another layer of experience. The disadvantage of the installation format is that you cannot get close to most of the woven pieces. Details are lost, perhaps inevitably, in displaying this type of work in a manner that protects its longevity. But even in the higher-trafficked galleries of the Art Institute, it seems as though one can get closer to admire the nuances.
Perhaps the last sections of “In Poetry and Silence” that catch one’s attention are the handful of assemblage works and suite of works on paper that were created later in the artist’s career. Although Tawney apparently made hundreds of assemblages, not many have been preserved and only a few are on view in this show. It’s impossible not to think of Joseph Cornell in looking at pieces such as “Materia Medica” (1967) or “Time Trembling” (1966). There is no documented correspondence between Tawney and Cornell; it’s unknown whether each admired the other. Without meaning to imply that one emulated the other, it’s worth noting that their assemblages inspire the sense that they were kindred spirits.
The works on paper are in some ways the most accessible because most of us have spent more time touching paper, having turned more pages of text than we have woven threads on a loom. We have more of an intuitive material understanding of paper, and by extension, how the paper works are made; thus when one examines the works on paper in tandem with the fiber art pieces, one gains a deeper appreciation for how Tawney—whose eyesight began to fail in the 1990s, prompting her to shift to working with different materials—was exploring similar paths via different mediums. Whether she was composing with thread or with strips of paper, there is a unified sense that she was always interested in drawing as a form of thinking.
Ephemeral and Eternal
The view of Tawney’s creative oeuvre is further rounded by “Ephemeral and Eternal: The Archive of Lenore Tawney,” curated by Mary Savig of the Archives of American Art. “Ephemeral and Eternal” supplements the main Kohler gallery exhibit with more works on paper, most notably collaged postcards Tawney sent to friends. These are no ordinary postcards—they are knockout, exquisite bits of mail art. Looking at them makes you depressed when you realize you’ve been wasting your life not receiving (and probably not sending) written correspondence that looks anything like this. Some of these postcards were collected in a 2002 book called “Signs on the Wind,” accompanied by a short and sweet essay by Holland Cotter. Tawney considered the postmark—the formal, material evidence of the paper having journeyed from one place to another—to be essential to the composition. Occasionally she would mail a postcard to herself in order to secure the finishing touch of a postmark.
“Ephemeral and Eternal” also presents some examples of garments Tawney made for herself to wear for formal studio portraits and other significant events, as the wall text notes, all part of a “sincere and beautiful performance of a public version of herself, that was an extension of her studio life.” By themselves, these garments and the design sketches she made are not especially remarkable, but taken as yet another piece of the full essence of her creative energies, so compellingly conjured by “Mirror of the Universe,” it is further evidence of the extent to which her life and her art were fused together. In the disciplined and artful approach to every aspect of her days—from the shirt on her back to the extraordinary mail she sent and the lyrical words she wrote as conceptual firmament to her visual art—Lenore Tawney exemplified the Bauhaus’ precept to dissolve the boundaries between art and life. (Nancy Chen)
“Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe” at the Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, is comprised of four exhibitions with different end dates. “Cloud Labyrinth” is on view through January 19. “Even Thread Has a Speech” is on view through February 2. “Ephemeral and Eternal: The Archive of Lenore Tawney” and “In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney,” are on view through March 1 and March 7.