Fiber artist Lenore Tawney, born in Lorain, Ohio, became an influential figure in the development of woven sculpture as an art medium. Her introduction to the tenets of the German Bauhaus* school and the artistic avant-garde came in 1946 with her attendance at Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Chicago Institute of Design, and study with Moholy-Nagy, cubist sculptor Alexander Archipenko and abstract-expressionist painter Emerson Woelffer. In 1949, she studied weaving with Marli Ehrmann.
Destroying her clay sculpture, she moved tentatively to fiber, receiving a huge career “break” when the first pieces she made, black and white table mats, were selected by the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, for a “Good Design” exhibition.
Tawney lived in North Africa, Spain and France for a year and a half, before returning to America in 1954 to study tapestry weaving at the Penland School of Crafts, in North Carolina, with Martta Taipale, a Finnish weaver. But, like Archipenko before her, Taipale wanted Tawney to weave Taipale’s designs instead of her own. Refusing to do this, as she had rejected “turning out Archipenkos,” Tawney left Taipale after six weeks of study. Tawney fell seriously ill shortly thereafter, nearly dying, in what the artist describes as like a rebirth. This experience, the weaving and the illness, would mark the turning point in Tawney’s career toward her major focus on fiber art.
Tawney left Chicago in 1957 for New York City, where her studio was in the same building with artists Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman, her landlord. Her one-person exhibition at the Staten Island Museum, in New York City, in 1961, was an innovation in terms of revealing the possibilities of weaving as a non-utilitarian artwork.
Tawney was one of the first fiber artists to take her weavings from the wall and hang them in space. In 1978, she began her “Cloud Series,” with hundreds of separate white “cloud” threads of linen of different lengths hanging from a blue canvas “sky.” In that same year, Tawney had exhibitions at the Hadler Gallery, New York City, and the Brookfield Craft Center, in Connecticut.
Lenore Tawney is also known for small assemblages* and collages, often in Joseph Cornell-like boxes, using eggs, feathers, bones and other materials, and influenced by Jungian and Eastern philosophies.
The artist traveled, in 1969, to the Far East to Japan and Thailand, with an extended stay in India; visited India again in 1976-1977; and traveled to Taiwan and India in1982.
Tawney was an Artist-in-residence, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, in 1978; Artist-in-residence, Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia, 1982; a guest lecturer on Visual Arts and Fiber at the Banff Center for the Arts, Alberta, Canada, 1983; and a Distinguished Lecturer, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1987.
She was elected a Fellow of the inaugural group of the American Craftsmen’s Council in 1975; received a National Endowment for the Arts Craftsman’s Fellowship Grant in 1979; an Honor Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts, Women’s Caucus for Art, 1983; and the American Craft Council’s Gold Medal, 1987.
Maryette Charlton has made a film about Tawney and her work. Writings about Lenore Tawney include Margo Hoff’s “Lenore Tawney: The Warp is Her Canvas,” in the November-December 1957 Craft Horizons; an article in the Spring 1962 issue of Handweaver and Craftsman, “Lenore Tawney: Her Designs Show Imaginative Departure from Traditional Tapestry Techniques;” Richard Howard’s “Tawney,” in the February 1975 Craft Horizons; Gerrit Henry’s “Cloudworks and Collage,” in Art in America, June 1986; and a 1990 exhibition catalogue published by Rizzoli, Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective, edited by Kathleen Nugent Magnan.
She was commissioned by the United States government to create a large-scale thread sculpture for a federal building in Santa Rosa, California. Her work is in the collections of Western Connecticut State University, Danbury; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; and Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois.
Jules and Nancy Heller, North American Women Artists of the 20th Century
Biography from the Archives of AskART.