Midcentury Artist Lenore Tawney Offered a Radical Vision of What Weaving Could Be

Midcentury Artist Lenore Tawney Offered a Radical Vision of What Weaving Could Be

Lenore Tawney: Dark River, 1962.

Lenore Tawney: Dark River, 1962, linen and wood, 164 by 22 1/2 inches.

IN HER 1965 TREATISE ON WEAVING, the pioneering weaver Anni Albers praises Coptic and ancient Peruvian textiles for their sophisticated formal structure—a quality she argues is lacking in contemporary weaving. Yet, she writes, certain recent fiber works do hold interest, including some that trespass into the realm of sculpture.¹ She illustrates her point with photographs of Lenore Tawney’s Dark River (1962), a commanding, flawlessly executed weaving that is considered one of the artist’s masterpieces.

Dark River hung at the center of the exhibition “In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney.” The show was the main event in “Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe,” a four-part project on view last fall and winter at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The project also included Tawney’s 1983 installation Cloud Labyrinth; a display of archival materials such as her journals and letters; and a group show comprising contemporary works that take up strategies that the artist, who died in 2007, at age one hundred, employed in her practice. Dark River is insistently vertical—an elongated form, composed of some forty sections woven in black linen, that descends almost fourteen feet from the ceiling and calls to mind lancet arches in Gothic cathedrals. When the work is viewed up close, the particulars of Tawney’s hand take precedence: the deft way she created a selvage edge, or repeated the same knot, perfectly, over a span of hundreds of threads, or how she used a single type of yarn to elevate the work’s formal elements, erasing distracting variations in color, texture, and weight. The overwhelming impression is that of a singular devotion.

Such devotion was central to Tawney’s artistic practice, and guided the presentation of her work in the exhibition, which was organized by Karen Patterson, a curator formerly at the museum and now at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. In addition to more than 120 of Tawney’s assemblages, drawings, sculptures, and weavings, the show featured an installation loosely re-creating the artist’s studio in New York—where she renovated seven lofts between 1957 and 1973—complete with her furniture and curios, including ceramics, metal gears, rocks, tortoise shells, wooden shoe molds, and woven baskets. Tawney displayed such objects, many of which she collected during her travels, in highly aesthetic arrangements in her spare, white studios, creating a world of her own, in which she could work in solitude. In interviews, she spoke of losing herself in complex weavings that poured forth like a river, or precise drawings that took entire days to complete. Her solitary tendencies were also a response to her liminal position as a female weaver in postwar New York, stuck between the rigid categories of art and craft. The way forward, Tawney apparently felt, was not to conform, but to do exactly what she wanted to do in her cloistered studios.² What emerged was an unexpectedly radical vision of what weaving could be.

A re-creation of Tawney’s studio at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wis., 2019.

A re-creation of Tawney’s studio at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wis., 2019.

TAWNEY WAS BORN IN LORAIN, OHIO, and moved to Chicago at age twenty. She took evening classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while working as a proofreader. Her first marriage was unhappy; her second, to psychologist George Tawney, ended after eighteen months, when he died from pneumonia. In the fall of 1946, Tawney enrolled at the city’s Institute of Design, which functioned as a refuge for European artists, many of them associated with the Bauhaus. She studied drawing with László Moholy-Nagy, drawing and watercolor with Emerson Woelffer, sculpture with Alexander Archipenko, and weaving with Marli Ehrman. After spending the summer at Archipenko’s studio in Woodstock, New York, Tawney threw all her sculpture into a cellar in a theatrical moment of self-realization, smashing most of it. Fiercely independent, she did not want to be beholden to anyone else’s style.³ The three small-scale clay works from this period that survive, which were juxtaposed with her early weavings in the exhibition, bear the influence of Archipenko’s formal simplicity, Cubist-style planarity, and figural abstraction. Despite Tawney’s forceful rejection of sculpture, her training in the medium would guide her approach to weaving in the 1960s and contribute to her most significant artistic innovations.

Working on a secondhand loom in her home in Chicago, Tawney initially wove utilitarian items like shawls and table mats. Her weaving was sporadic until she attended a workshop taught by modernist tapestry weaver Martta Taipale at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina in the fall of 1954. Upon returning to Chicago, Tawney completed her first pictorial weaving, St. Francis and the Birds (1954), a somewhat crudely rendered depiction of the patron saint of animals surrounded by three birds. To make a traditional work like this one, the artist builds up the design with threads known as the weft, lacing them through a set of threads called the warp that is stretched longitudinally on a loom, and pulling them tightly into each other with a component of the loom called a beater or batten, so that they cover the warp. The warp threads are held in a fixed alignment with the loom’s reed, a closed, comblike implement that is usually attached to the beater. Soon, Tawney was pushing against the constraints of this process.

Lenore Tawney, Birds and Flower, 1955.

Lenore Tawney: Birds and Flower, 1955, linen and wool, 57 by 24 inches.

A 1955 work titled Birds and Flower, included in the recent exhibition, is an important transitional piece that demonstrates just how quickly Tawney’s sense of weaving matured. Executed in black and neutral-toned linen and wool threads, it is a chromatically subtle work in which Tawney created textural effects using threads with different weights, surface qualities, and sheens. Four birds appear in profile against a series of overlapping squares in a neatly color-blocked composition that morphs into something else entirely toward its center, where Tawney depicted a flower. She left the petals nearly transparent, with lengths of warp threads hanging loose and exposed. Discontinuous weft threads provide the flower’s outline and create patterning on the petals. The delicate petals are counterbalanced by the thick tangle of fluffy yarn that constitutes the blossom’s center. Tawney’s energetic portrayal of the flower makes the careful silhouettes of the birds in the tapestry suddenly appear staid, even old-fashioned.

Tawney’s technique of leaving portions of the warp to hang unsupported by crossing weft threads, known as open-warp weaving, signaled a shift in her work toward a looser, more expressive approach. This style reached a high point in her 1957 piece Shadow River, which could easily pass for an abstract painting if looked at quickly in reproduction. Largely transparent, Shadow River is hung ninety degrees from its orientation on the loom, so that its silver, cream, and white warp threads run lengthwise. Thick woven vertical bands at the sides of the weaving hold the warp threads in place, giving the piece structure—to a point. Due to the lack of consistent weft threads throughout the composition, the warp threads sag, creating rippling forms that, while beautiful, compromise the weaving’s structural integrity. (Tawney collaborated with glass artists Frances and Michael Higgins to encase the work between two pieces of glass, so that it would be stable.) Curving forms made of black and dark purple weft threads appear to float across the weaving, defying the linear matrix produced by the loom. In a virtuoso passage beside this series of arcs, Tawney achieved the lyricism of a freely drawn or painted line using thin black thread.

 

Lenore Tawney’s work on view in the exhibition “Woven Forms,” at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, 1963.

Lenore Tawney’s work on view in the exhibition “Woven Forms,” at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, 1963.

TAWNEY’S FORMAL BREAKTHROUGH COINCIDED with an equally dramatic rupture in her personal life: her move to New York. In 1957, at age fifty, she left her comfortable life in Chicago—her friends, her home on the North Shore, her workshop with three looms—to move to a derelict cold-water loft on Coenties Slip, a street in a seaport area on the southern tip of Manhattan. Tawney felt that her life in Chicago was holding her back, and she wanted to focus solely on her art, without distractions.4 She planned to stay in New York for a year, but never left.5

Tawney rented the loft from painter Jack Youngerman and his wife, the actress and filmmaker Delphine Seyrig. What the raw industrial space lacked in amenities, it made up for in its proximity to the East River—water was a recurrent motif in Tawney’s work, and in Chicago she had lived near Lake Michigan—and to other artists. On the Slip, Tawney came in contact with a loosely affiliated group that included Robert Indiana (then Robert Clark), Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and James Rosenquist. The artists were distinguished from those in Greenwich Village by their isolated location, their respect for one another’s privacy, and a general aversion to the raucous scene at Abstract Expressionist hangouts like the Cedar Tavern.6 Tawney maintained a close relationship with Martin and, to a lesser extent, Indiana, but her role as a weaver set her apart from her Coenties Slip colleagues. In 2017, Youngerman recalled, regretfully, that he had dismissed Tawney’s work at the time because “as a woman and as a weaver, she was maybe the most ‘outlier’ of all of us on Coenties Slip. The rest of us were working with paint on canvas, and except for Agnes Martin, we were men.”7 That Tawney was left out of Hans Namuth’s iconic 1958 Life magazine photograph of the artists on the roof of a building on the Slip reflects her outsider status.

Lenore Tawney, The Bride, 1962.

Lenore Tawney: The Bride, 1962, linen and feathers, 138 by 13 inches.

In the fall of 1961, Tawney studied Peruvian textiles and gauze weaving techniques with the German fiber artist Lili Blumenau. (Ancient Peruvian textiles were a source of inspiration for many weavers at the time, not just Albers.) Around this time—while preparing for an exhibition at the Staten Island Museum of works she made since 1955—Tawney’s aesthetic shifted. She purged her studio of old yarn, and custom-ordered a linen variety that was plied and polished to be hard, dense, and smooth enough to create a woven surface of substantial weight.8 She reduced her palette largely to black and natural-colored linen, expanded her work’s scale, and, most important, created a new reed for her loom. Whereas standard reeds are closed, Tawney’s could be opened at will, enabling her to reposition the warp threads mid-weaving and thus to produce works with shifting geometric formats.

Tawney’s “open” reed had enormous implications for her practice. The complex shapes of pieces like The Bride (1962)—a dynamic 11½-foot-tall form with variously angled sides—quickly superseded the rectilinearity of her prior weavings.9 The process of making this work, for which she employed three weaving techniques to create different levels of transparency and texture, required exacting concentration and focus over extended periods of time. That she could see only a foot of her composition on the loom at any given time further complicated the process.10 Tawney’s ability to execute demanding patterns at such a consistently high level of finish, at such a large scale, further cemented her position at the vanguard of weaving in the United States.

In 1963, Tawney’s new works were featured in “Woven Forms,” an influential group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts and Design) in New York. Paul J. Smith, the director of the museum and curator of the show, conceived the exhibition as a solo presentation of Tawney’s work, but decided to expand it to include the work of four other artists (Alice Adams, Sheila Hicks, Dorian Zachai, and Claire Zeisler) producing experimental weavings. The show’s title is a term Tawney used to describe the increasingly sculptural quality of her work. In the gallery, Smith displayed Tawney’s pieces away from the walls, suspending some at the center of the room. Viewers could walk among her woven forms, examining their surfaces at close range or stepping back to look at a number of them together. Smith’s installation, in other words, was premised on movement and invited the viewer’s physical interaction with Tawney’s works.

 

THE EXPERIENCE OF MOVING AMONG THE WORKS stayed with Tawney and informed her late “Cloud” series, which she began in 1977 with a piece commissioned for the lobby of the new Federal Building in Santa Rosa, California. She pulled thousands of threads through a large rectangular canvas in a gridded pattern, knotted their ends, and hung the canvas horizontally from the lobby’s ceiling, so that the threads cascaded into the space—a dramatic installation that felt light, almost weightless, despite its substantial scale. Tawney’s subsequent “Clouds” followed this basic format. Created for the International Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne, Switzerland, and installed in its own gallery at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Cloud Labyrinth is a particularly evocative example. For this work, Tawney tied pink threads to the ends of natural-colored ones to create sixteen-foot-long pieces that she attached to an 18-by-24-foot canvas. She coated various threads with gesso, giving them textural contrast and weight, and left areas of the canvas open in a spiral pattern that produces a pathway through the threads when the work is installed. Cloud Labyrinth nearly filled the gallery, and the subtle pink color infused the room with the evanescent glow of a sunrise. The long, hanging threads, which recalled the loose warp threads of Tawney’s earlier weavings, quivered and swayed with the slightest current of air as viewers passed by.

Lenore Tawney, Cloud Labyrinth, 1983.

Lenore Tawney: Cloud Labyrinth, 1983, canvas and linen; at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

Given the fragile nature of Cloud Labyrinth, visitors were not permitted to walk the pathway in the installation. Laura Bickford, the curator of this portion of the “Mirror of the Universe” project, included a 1979 film, Cloud Dance, in which dancer/choreographer Andy De Groat spins and dances in and around another of Tawney’s “Clouds.” His movements make the piece come alive, underscoring the extent to which Tawney’s art had transformed, over nearly three decades, from practical items to sculptural woven forms to, ultimately, installations attuned to the rhythms of the body.

One might say that the “Clouds” mark the apex of Tawney’s long career as an iconoclastic, shape-shifting weaver, the artist once more pushing against the limits of her medium. But to do so is to sell the far-reaching nature of Tawney’s body of work short. While the “Clouds” are composed of knotted threads, they are not, in fact, weavings. More than just a culmination of Tawney’s prior work, these ethereal installations represent a crucial moment of its unmaking. Through her knowledge of her materials, her technical ingenuity, and her repeated willingness to risk failure, Tawney remade her medium according to her own exacting vision until, toward the end of her career, she had no more need for weaving at all.


1
Anni Albers, On Weaving, Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press, 1965, pp. 69–70.
2 Tawney made various statements conveying this inclination. Referring to her mid-1950s weaving Family Tree, for instance, she said, “I thought to myself, it won’t be any good. Then I thought, but I don’t have to show anybody; it’s just for myself. And I felt so free!” She also noted that she didn’t care that her first nontraditional weavings were controversial. Both of these incidents are cited in Glenn Adamson, “Student: 1945 to 1960,” Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe, Sheboygan, Wis., John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in association with Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 59.
3 See ibid., p. 52.
4 Lenore Tawney, journal entry, Dec. 4, 1967, quoted in ibid., p. 69.
5 Margo Hoff, “Lenore Tawney: The Warp Is Her Canvas,” Craft Horizons 17, no. 6, November–December 1957, p. 19.
6 See Agnes Martin, ed. Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell, London, Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 24, and Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, New York, Thames & Hudson, 2015, pp. 66–67.
7 Jack Youngerman, quoted in Adamson, “Student,” p. 72, n. 94.
8 Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1972, pp. 267–71.
9 For a detailed technical description of this work, see Florica Zaharia, “Technical Analysis: The Bride,” in Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe, p. 170.
10 Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective, ed. Kathleen Nugent Mangan, New York, Rizzoli International Publications, in association with New York, American Craft Museum, 1990, p. 24.

 

This article appears under the title Devotion and Solitude in the May 2020 issue, pp. 54–61.

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