SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Although she was financially comfortable, living in a home full of antiques, fiber artist Lenore Tawney knew she needed something else — more time to make art and a more austere life to nurture her creativity. She moved from Chicago to New York City in 1957 at age 50 and lived near artists such as Robert Indiana, Ann Wilson, and Agnes Martin on the docks at Coenties Slip. She wrote in her journal in 1967 that she wanted “a barer life, closer to reality, without all the things that clutter and fill our lives.”
The breathtaking four-part retrospective, Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe, at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (its main section curated by Karen Patterson, with the three others curated by Laura Bickford, Shannon R. Stratton and Mary Savig), acknowledges the importance of this move. Tawney reinvented herself, creating a living environment that helped her develop both her spirit and her delicate weavings. The Kohler has recreated her home as part of the exhibition. Stark wooden furniture accompanied by collections of egg shells, smooth rocks, feathers, bones, and ceramic vessels, attest to a contemplative life and flow seamlessly into the presentation of hanging diaphanous sculptures.
More than 40 textile works dating from the 1950s to her death in 2007, at age 100, float above low, white curving plinths. Even the text is suspended on wires. Tawney became well known in the 1960s for her experiments with open-warp tapestries, which freed loom weaving from rectangular formats, allowing for layers, insertions, and free-ranging threads. Early works like “Floating Shapes” (1958) or the delicate monochromatic “Vespers” (1961) are porous and fragile, their vagrant threads intersecting organic designs. A group of tall, narrow vertical pieces, such as “Dark River” and “Declaration,” both from 1962, subtly change rhythm as they shimmy downward like water.
Interest in fiber artists flourished until the 1970s. Tawny’s last solo gallery exhibition in New York for several years was in 1974; she wouldn’t have another until 1988. There is some truth in Roberta Smith’s comment in a New York Times review of a 1990 exhibition at the American Craft Museum: “…Mrs. Tawney’s work exists in a limbo … it has departed from craft and function without quite arriving at art.” Nearly 30 years later, this indistinction has become the works’ strength, making it feel fresh and experimental. The presentation of her work conjointly with her life, as well as the deeply researched catalogue, enrich any previous understanding of her courageous dedication to linen thread.
While sexism and the craft world’s segregation from the fine art world affected her career, Tawney also became less productive in the ’70s as she committed herself to Buddhism and Siddha Yoga. Work from this decade has a new solidity. Tightly woven block forms, such as those in “In Fields of Light” (1975), contain slits as design elements that filter light.
As her career quieted, Tawney began traveling to ashrams in India and California. She moved to New Jersey to live with ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu but declared herself a “permanent pilgrim.” A continued interest in mail art, documented in a related adjacent exhibition of ephemera, kept her in touch with friends and colleagues.
The exhibition concludes with a room-sized late work, “Cloud Labyrinth” (1983), featuring thousands of single threads dangling to the ground, creating a monumental geometric form. The effect is atmospheric, delicate, and transcendent, evoking rain. In her 70s at this point, Tawney seemed to reach an apex, ingeniously entwining her spiritual practice with the repetitive work of her hands, ensuring that the visionary could indeed be made visible. Her life was her work, without distinction.
Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe continues at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, Wisconsin) through March 7, 2020.