Lenore Tawney was a textile sculptor who was not just a part of the fiber art movement but who became one of the greatest fiber artists of all time. She was a weaver who boldly transformed a traditionally female craft into fine art. She made hanging sculptures out of thousands of threads woven to form textured tapestries, airy nets, and totemic forms. Her tapestries hung freely in space, and she created suspended woven sculptures that curved and swayed. She called her work “woven forms,” and they were the earliest form of modern fiber art.
Lenore Tawney was born into an Irish Catholic family in Ohio. Her mother taught her how to sew and embroider, but her decorative additions to school uniforms were not approved of by the nuns in her convent school. When she was twenty, she left Ohio for Chicago and began taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She worked as a proofreader for a publisher and stayed with the company for fifteen years. Her involvement with text would resurface in her art when she began using the pages of old books in collages, assemblages, sculptures, and tapestries.
In 1941, she married George Busey Tawney, a psychologist from a prominent family. They had a happy but brief marriage lasting only a year and a half before her husband died at the age of thirty-one. She was devastated and moved in with her grieving in-laws for two years. They provided her with financial independence that would last her entire life.
After she left her in-laws, she went to Mexico for six months, returned to Chicago, and studied at the Institute of Design, an offshoot of the Bauhaus, where she studied drawing under Lazlo Moholy-Nagy; sculpture with Alexander Archipenko; and weaving with Marli Ehrman, another Bauhaus instructor.
She purchased a secondhand loom and began weaving. She studied in North Carolina in 1954 with the famed Finnish tapestry weaver Martta Taipan. She was forty-seven years old, working on her second piece of weaving when she began to mix her own colors. Her pivotal work, “St. Francis and the Birds,” had red, yellow, pink, and purple which liberated her from the colors she was using. Later she found herself spontaneously selecting colors and textures right on the loom, rather than working from a fully realized cartoon.
In 1955, Tawney developed her inventive open-warp technique by filling in only “the part where there was a form, and all around it I left the warp threads open.” This inaugural open-warp tapestry, “Family Tree,” was also the first time she used feathers in the weave. Tawny quickly gained recognition for her works, which were “essentially paintings in thread.” She figured out how to make curves of the earth, leaves, and birds in a medium of straight lines as in her 1957 “Lost and Proud,” which portrayed a nesting dove. In the same year her “Shadow River” could pass for an abstract paining if looked at quickly. Mostly transparent, this work was hung ninety degrees from the loom, so that its silver warp threads sagged, creating beautiful rippling forms.
Leaving Chicago in 1957, Tawney found a loft on Lower Manhattan’s historic waterfront – Counties Slip – where she lived illegally in a gigantic industrial space within a community of artists. There she developed a special relationship and friendship with minimalist painter Agnes Martin and with ceramic artist, sculptor, and weaver Toshiko Takaezu, with whom she traveled to Guatemala where they worked on backstrap looms. Tawney and Takaezu would have a joint exhibit in 1979 at the Cleveland Institute of Art, “Form and Fiber: Works by Toshiko Takaezu and Lenore Tawney.”
Tawny broke the traditional rules of her craft when she found them too confining. Starting in the early 1960s, Tawney rejected the traditional rectangular tapestry format by making shaped weavings in which the strands of the warp were not parallel but instead were angled or curved. She used different colors, textures, and thicknesses of linen and silk fibers to produce shadows on the wall in her 1961 weaving “Seaweed.”
Her use of an open, gauze-weave technique, which was derived from Peruvian textiles, gave her forms a sense of volume, while her invention of a special reed for the loom enabled her to vary the shape of the work as she wove it.
Soon after, Tawney broke with her figurative images and even color and used dense linen yarn that would not change shape in order to produce a ribbed surface. Her palette consisted of only natural colors and black, and this freed her to work with weaving where her “woven forms” were hanging sculptural pieces. With a series of “woven forms” of elegantly tall and austerely beautiful tapestries, Tawney transformed the surface-oriented medium of weaving into a three-dimensional art form, describing them as “sculptural.”
In the 1960s, Tawney began to work with paper and found objects to construct assemblages, most in wooden boxes and collages pasted on postcards. She combined collage and woven works. In 1964, she made a series of linear ink drawings on graph paper, inspired by her study at Cooper Union of 19th century patterns made on a Jacquard loom. These abstract drawing, optical wonders, are alive with a diagrammatic energy and motion. These drawings gave rise to her threaded boxes, in which taut lines took on three dimensions.
After 1977, Tawney created her “Cloud Series,” which consisted of thousands of shimmering linen threads attached to an immense blue canvas, suspended from canvas supports. For her 1990 retrospective, Tawney reconfigured this work, stitching together two of the clouds and deciding that each of the thousands of hanging threads needed to be twenty feet long, twice the length of the thread in the original work.
Tawny lived to celebrate her hundredth birthday and died peacefully soon after that. She attained fame as a fiber art pioneer but was under-appreciated, unlike artists who were painters. She was slowly forgotten. However, her work is coming into its own once again.
In 1961, Tawney had her first major solo exhibition in the Staten Island Museum. She has had two dozen solo exhibitions in galleries and museums and has participated in dozens of group exhibitions. Her work is the the collections of major museums such as the American Craft Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum.