View of “In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney,” 2019–20. Hanging, top right: In Utero, 1985.

View of “In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney,” 2019–20. Hanging, top right: In Utero, 1985.

Lenore Tawney

View of “In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney,” 2019–20. Hanging, top right: In Utero, 1985.

IN 1957, at the age of fifty, Lenore Tawney (1907–2007) left Chicago and moved to 27 Coenties Slip in New York to begin creating the second half of her pioneering oeuvre. Prior to her move, she had studied with Alexander Archipenko, László Moholy-Nagy, Emerson Woelffer, and Marli Ehrman at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and with Finnish textile artist Martta Taipale in North Carolina. These experiences shaped her early career as a weaver skilled enough to develop a diaphanous, nonhorizontal, drawing-like technique dubbed “open-warp.” In the catalogue for her current show at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, critic and craft-and-design historian Glenn Adamson sums up the significance of Tawney’s truly novel, even radical, contribution: “The reader might well wonder why—after millennia of textile production—she was the first to adopt such an apparently simple technical innovation. The answer is that . . . because they had not been beaten into a fixed weave, the wefts could slide up and down within the composition, or even slither out of the tapestry altogether.” This made the works quite fragile—but instability and mutability were desirable characteristics for an artist undertaking ongoing explorations of complex geometries and line work.

“Mirror of the Universe” is the umbrella title for a series of four exhibitions that have opened in phases since August and are now simultaneously on view; together, they celebrate Tawney’s contributions to twentieth-century studio craft and examine her far-reaching legacies. “In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney,” curated by Karen Patterson, features more than 120 works theatrically displayed in a voluminous gallery complete with colossal loom-based weavings and a studio tableau featuring arrangements of Tawney’s personal collections. The following gallery is dedicated to Cloud Labyrinth, 1983, an architecturally ambitious installation made of hanging threads that constitutes its own titular exhibition, organized by Laura Bickford. “Even Thread [Has] a Speech,” curated by Shannon R. Stratton, samples the practices of eight contemporary artists, including Sheila Pepe, Michael Milano, and Indira Allegra, who mine the conceptual underpinnings of weaving and translate its repetitive forms into performance, sound, and painting. This dynamic and multifaceted gathering spills into an intimate and concise presentation of artifacts and primary-source material curated by Mary Savig, “Ephemeral and Eternal: The Archive of Lenore Tawney.” These conjoining exhibitions reinforce John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s ongoing curatorial commitment to emphasizing the interconnectedness of artmaking, display, and the live-work environment, with significant attention to the presentation of artists’ personal collections and studio ephemera.

Lenore Tawney, Jupiter, 1959, silk, wool, wood, 53 × 41".

Framing the entrance to the multipart exhibition are enclosed glass shelves lined with turtle shells, animal bones, shoe forms, a bevy of ceramic pots by Tawney’s friend Toshiko Takaezu, pre-Columbian relics, eggshells, wax fruit, fishing lures, Italian glass, and sundry decorative tchotchkes. Behind this display is the staged, composite interpretation of Tawney’s many studios, with white wooden floor planks, furniture, and work by the artist and her acquaintances. Suspended from the ceiling between a spool rack outfitted with brightly colored thread and a dining table with a basket of paintbrushes on it is In Utero, 1985. In this hanging sculpture, a found rustic wooden child’s chair with a straw seat, similar to the iconic subject of van Gogh’s painting Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888, is encapsulated in a soft geometric bubble of fleshy, translucent fabric. Like a beacon, it floats in a protective membrane, either muse or guardian.

The real treasures of the exhibition are the many enormous weavings that populate the same expansive gallery as the studio environment. The Megalithic Doorway, 1963, is an antenna-like vertical composition that stretches seventeen feet from top to bottom. The open textile comprises black- and cream-colored linen threads, woven in adjacent bands in the lower half, and intersecting, overlapping, and commingling toward the top. The directional thrust of the form’s elongated, symmetrical shape can be attributed to the wooden rod that bisects the work’s lateral midpoint. A short, frumpy fringe adorns the textile’s top and bottom edges. An investigation of the possibilities of material and composition, the piece also hints at a politics of form as it negotiates positive and negative, part and whole.

View of “In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney,” 2019–20. From left: Waterfall, 1974; Waters Above the Firmament, 1976; In Fields of Light, 1975.

The dense and imposing orange monochrome In Fields of Light, 1975, is installed as a literal and figurative backdrop to the open structure of The Megalithic Doorway. This tightly woven field reveals Tawney’s mastery of intricate geometries. A circle subtly emerges from repetitive linear bands, offering a regiment of slits through which light can penetrate. Evoking the phenomenological qualities of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, it explores the physics of light and space through the language of materiality, representing a conceptual leap from the pictorial literalness of the sphere depicted in Jupiter, 1959. The exhibition’s structure is similar to The Megalithic Doorway’s in that collages and drawings punctuate its interstitial spaces, illuminating the ideas that inform Tawney’s splendid and distinct weavings.

Tawney’s principled deployments of form, materiality, and compositional study, and her interdisciplinary leanings, can be attributed to her Bauhaus schooling, but she was also rigorously responsive to her contemporaries. She came into maturity between the height of postwar abstraction and the feminist movement of the late 1960s. At a time when painting had abandoned picture making to better emphasize its material and performative conditions, Tawney identified the potential of her marginalized medium to develop and explore the same regenerative abstract qualities. With their generous solicitation of formal and material scrutiny, her works align with the transcendent engagements of Agnes Martin, Fred Sandback, and Robert Mangold. (For a time, Tawney lived in the same building as Martin, with whom she had a relationship.) In concert with Magdalena Abakanowicz’s bounded wholes of woven sisal, Shelia Hicks’s bold, rhythmic color patterns, and Claire Zeisler’s symmetries, Tawney’s efforts brought fiber’s expressive and organic vocabularies into conversation with post-Minimalist exigencies—and left things open, ripe for other readings. 

The four exhibitions comprising “Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe” are on view throughout the winter.

Michelle Grabner is an artist who lives and works in Wisconsin. She is the Crown Family Professor of Art at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.