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.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Finally Spicing Up
In the penultimate episode, the show’s editors managed to ignite the spark of mindless reality TV.
Guggenheim Museum Union Rallies at VIP Opening
The museum’s commitment to diversity in exhibitions rings hollow to workers who say they are not receiving a fair wage.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
Quieter Artworks Stand Out At a New York Photo Fair
At this year’s Association of International Photography Art Dealers show, the best works offer glimpses into the personal lives of photographers and their subjects.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.