Biography

Over the course of five decades, American artist Lenore Tawney (b.1907, Lorain, Ohio, US; d.2007, New York, US) developed a multi-faceted practice that included monumental sculptural installations, box-like assemblages, intricate collages and graphic drawings. Tawney’s primary material was linen thread, both a component found in nearly all of her three-dimensional compositions and the basis of her creative process.

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The artist’s practice was defined early on by its ability to challenge boundaries. Her initial studies at the Chicago Institute of Design in the 1940s, where she took classes with László Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Archipenko, introduced her to the interdisciplinary approach of the Bauhaus. A description of Tawney’s first solo show at the Chicago Public Library in 1955 described ‘[works] where design, drawing, and sculpture can all be put to use.’

Tawney’s career as an artist began when she was 50 years old; it continued up until her death, aged 100. Her work evolved after she relocated to New York from Chicago in 1957, initially renting a studio at Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan. She became part of the now legendary artistic community that included Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin, with whom Tawney developed a close and long-standing friendship. The only text Martin ever published about another artist was for Tawney’s first New York exhibition at the Staten Island Museum in 1961.

The artist’s breakthrough came with her revolutionary ‘woven forms’ of the early 1960s, which transcended the limitations of textiles by leaving much of the fabric unwoven and transparent. Her novel technique of leaving thread open – allowing it to move up and down within the composition, having not been beaten into a fixed weave – generated a malleable quality. Tawney intended for these irregularly shaped, elongated objects to be hung in space, turning the typically flat, rectangular structure of textile pieces into sculptural objects. Her interest in physical presence culminated in the sublime ‘Cloud Sculptures’, an important transition in her practice at the end of the 1970s. These hugely influential works consist of thousands of individual threads descending at regular intervals from elevated canvas panels.

Throughout her career, Tawney was inspired by states of existence and natural phenomena. She practiced meditation throughout her life which, combined with her interest in Indian spiritualism and Zen Buddhism, was hugely influential on her approach to making. ‘You first have to be in touch with yourself inside very deeply in order to do something,’ she noted, ‘to discover this place is our aim.’ The artist’s studio also played a critical role in her evolution, acting as a sacred environment that allowed for stillness and contemplation. ‘I want to be under the leaf’, she commented, to be quiet until I find my true self.’ Her source materials helped to create an iconography that centred around geometric compositions (squared circles; circles divided by crosses) and referred to elemental forces such as water, fire and light. ‘I sometimes think of my work as breath,’ Tawney reflected, alluding to the life cycles with which her work engaged.

Although Tawney’s most productive periods were bookended by the emergence of minimalism and feminist art, she largely refrained from identifying with movements, committed instead to following her own personal trajectory and innermost thoughts. As she herself concluded: ‘the biggest problem is thinking about an audience, that’s the one thing you have to lose’.

Tawney has had solo exhibitions at John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, US (2019); University of the Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US (2013); Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, US (2012); Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, Vermont, US (2003); browngrotta arts, Wilton, Connecticut, US (2000); Donahue / Sosinski Art, New York, US Tenri Gallery, New York, US (1998); and Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania, US (1997); Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii, US (1 996); Schick Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, US (1996); and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (1996).

Her work has been included in group shows at Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (2021); Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, US (2021); Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, US (2021); R & Company, New York, US (2021); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, US (2019); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, US (2019); MFA, Boston, Massachusetts, US (2019); The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, US (2019); Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany (2019); SESC Pompéia, São Paulo, Brazil (2018); Tate Modern, London, UK (2018); The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, US (2017); and MoMA, New York, US (2017).

Tawney’s work is held in numerous museum collections including LACMA, Los Angeles, US; The Menil Collection, Houston, US; the Met, New York, US; MoMA, New York, US; Philadelphia Museum of Art, US; Tate Modern, London, UK; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, US.

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Works

Untitled, 1961

Rayon and wool
160 x 56.8 cm (63 x 22 3/8 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Inquisition, 1961

Linen
350.5 x 71.1 cm (138 x 28 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Untitled, 1965

Indian ink on graph paper in Perspex frame
Unframed: 29 x 45.6 cm (11 3/8 x 18 in); framed: 31 x 47.4 x 2.6 cm (12 1/4 x 18 5/8 x 1 1/8 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Untitled, 1964

Indian ink on graph paper
Unframed: 27.8 x 21.6 cm (11 x 8 1/2 in); framed: 29.3 x 23 cm (11 1/2 x 9 1/8 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Crystal Threads, c.1965

Paper, crystal and linen thread
10.2 x 30.5 x 8.9 cm (4 x 12 x 3 1/2 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Untitled, 1966

Linen in Perspex frame
Unframed: 25.5 x 25.5 cm (10 1/8 x 10 1/8 in); framed: 41 x 39 x 5.8 cm (16 1/8 x 15 3/8 x 2 1/4 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Untitled, c.1968

Mixed media
Unframed: 21.6 x 27.9 cm (8 1/2 x 11 in); framed: 28.9 x 31.4 x 6.3 cm (11 3/8 x 12 3/8 x 2 1/2 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Epitalamio II, 1969

Collage and ink drawing
Unframed: 10.2 x 12.7 x 0.3 cm (4 x 5 x 1/8 in); framed: 42.8 x 39 x 4 cm (16 7/8 x 15 3/8 x 1 5/8 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Path II, 1965–71

Linen
188 x 76.2 x 3 cm (74 x 30 x 1/4 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Union of Water and Fire, 1974

Linen
100 x 93 cm (39 3/8 x 36 5/8 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Shining in Vacant Space, 1975

Mixed media
Framed: 29.2 x 23.2 x 2.5 cm (11 1/2 x 9 1/8 x 1 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Easter Breakfast, 1982

Mixed media
8.3 x 18.4 x 19.7 cm (3 1/4 x 7 1/4 x 7 3/4 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

And Whom Is My Dearest One, 1988

Mixed media
18.4 x 23.5 x 11.4 cm (7 1/4 x 9 1/4 x 4 1/2 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Cloud Labyrinth, 1983

Natural canvas and natural linen
487 x 731 x 548 cm (191 3/4 x 287 3/4 x 215 3/4 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Dark Cloudburst, 1990

Linen, canvas and acrylic
Unframed: 46 x 86 x 3.8 cm (18 1/8 x 33 7/8 x 1 1/2 in); framed: 106 x 66.2 x 7.3 cm (41 3/4 x 26 1/8 x 2 7/8 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

Drawing in Air III, 1997

Waxed linen and Perspex
27.2 x 18 x 18 cm (10 3/4 x 7 1/8 x 7 1/8 in); plinth size: 124 x 18 x 18 cm (48 7/8 x 7 1/8 x 7 1/8 in)
Courtesy: © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

  • Untitled, 1961
  • Inquisition, 1961
  • Untitled, 1965
  • Untitled, 1964
  • Crystal Threads, c.1965
  • Untitled, 1966
  • Untitled, c.1968
  • Epitalamio II, 1969
  • Path II, 1965–71
  • Union of Water and Fire, 1974
  • Shining in Vacant Space, 1975
  • Easter Breakfast, 1982
  • And Whom Is My Dearest One, 1988
  • Cloud Labyrinth, 1983
  • Dark Cloudburst, 1990
  • Drawing in Air III, 1997

Press

Top 10 Exhibitions of 2020

Lynne Cook, Artforum

December 2020

Lenore Tawney Offered a Radical Vision of What Weaving Could Be

Christina Bryan Rosenberger, Art in America

May 2020

Lenore Tawney: Lost (and Found)

Shira Wolfe, Artland Magazine

April 2020

Review: Lenore Tawney, John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Michelle Grabner, Artforum

January 2020

The Transcendent, Spiritual Fiber Art of Lenore Tawney

Debra Brehmer, Hyperallergic

December 2019

The Women Weavers of the Bauhaus

Alexxa Gotthardt, Artsy

September 2019

New Bauhaus and Amerindian Impulses

Mona Schieren, bauhaus imaginista

November 2018

Artists Get a Second Chance at Frieze London

Nina Siegal, The New York Times

October 2018

Giving Art History the Slip

Stephanie Barron, Art in America

April 2017

The Great Divide: A Survey of Women in Art and Craft

Alissa Guzman, Hyperallergic

September 2015

A New History of Fiber Artists

Greg Cook, WBUR

October 2014

Lenore Tawney: Wholly Unlooked For

Jack Livingston and Peter Boyce, The Journal of Modern Craft

July 2013

Lenore Tawney: Spiritual Revolutionary

Sigrid Wortmann Weltge, American Craft Council

March 2008

Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective

Kathleen Nugen Magan, Katherine Kuh, Paul J Smith, Woman’s Art Journal

June 1995

Crafts: Lenore Tawney

Patricia Malarcher, The New York Times

October 1982

American Women Artists: Lenore Tawney

Eleanor Munro, Originals

January 1979

Fabric of Surrealism

Vivien Raynor, The New York Times

July 1978

Books

Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe

University of Chicago Press

2019

Lenore Tawney: Wholly Unlooked For

Maryland Institute, The University of the Arts

2013

Lenore Tawney: Drawings in Air

Kathleen Mangan

2007

Lenore Tawney: Signs on the Wind

Pomegranate

2002

Lenore Tawney: Celebrating Five Decades of Work

browngrotta arts

2000

Lenore Tawney

Stedelijk Museum

1996

Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective

Rizzoli, New York

1990

Lenore Tawney: An Exhibition of Weaving, Collage, Assemblage

Fullerton Art Gallery California

1975

News

Lenore Tawney

in ‘Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019’, Whitney Museum, New York

Lygia Clark, Sheila Hicks & Lenore Tawney

in ‘Women in Abstraction’, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Lenore Tawney

in ‘Craft Front & Center’, Museum of Arts and Design, New York

Sheila Hicks & Lenore Tawney

in ‘Objects: USA 2020’, R & Company, New York

Ana Mendieta & Lenore Tawney

in ‘Never Done: 100 Years of Women in Politics and Beyond’, The Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York

Sheila Hicks & Lenore Tawney

in ‘Crafting America’, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville

Lenore Tawney

in ‘Stories from Storage’, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Lenore Tawney, Bound Man, 1957. Collection of Museum of Arts & Design, New York. © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation⁣⁣⁣

Lenore Tawney

in ‘Off the Wall: American Art to Wear’, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe

John Michael Kohler Arts Centre, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Sheila Hicks & Lenore Tawney

in ‘Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus’, The Art Institute of Chicago