Fiber Arts Pioneer, Collage and Assemblage Artist
I am writing about women artists I admire.
My recent post Blue Again was a tribute to the artist Louise Bourgeois. The first image in the post showed a massive steel sculpture of a spider (titled Maman) photographed against a brilliant blue sky, outdoors at the Guggenheim Museum in the Basque City of Bilbao in northern Spain. The post includes additional images with drawings and soft sculptures, made with recycled cloth that Louise Bourgeois cut into pieces and sewed piece by piece to build up volume. I think of the soft sculpture as 3D collage.
This post is about the artist Lenore Tawney (American, 1907-2007)
Lenore Tawney is widely credited as the pioneering spirit whose open-warp weaving redefined and helped shape the field of fiber art during the second half of the twentieth century. This post will include images of her large woven, open loom weavings and sculpture as well as her other media: drawing in pen and ink, drawing as weaving, mixed media assemblage with wood, wire and thread, collage and postcards that she began during the 1960s and continued to create throughout her long life.
The image above shows Lenore Tawney in her studio, at an industrial space located in the Coenties Slip area in lower Manhattan in New York City. The photo is dated 1958. Photo credit: David Attie. Tawney made huge fiber sculpture in this space, but, in this image, it looks like Lenore Tawney is working small. She is sitting on the floor, weaving with an improvised, open weave loom.
After 1977, Tawney created her “Cloud Series” with hand-knotted, shimmering linen threads woven into a linen superstructure and hung from the ceiling. The image above shows Tawney standing on a scaffold with a very large work titled Cloud Series VI. The size is 16’x32’x8’ and is dated 1981. This huge open weave installation was a commission and installed at the Frank J. Lausche State Office Building in Cleveland, OH. For the viewer, the experience is air and space. Imagine walking into a room with a fiber installation cascading down from the ceiling above you. Imagine that the installation is made with thousands of individually knotted shimmering linen threads. Photo: The Lenore Tawney Foundation. Read the chronology of her career at the Lenore Tawney Foundation website.
The image above is titled Little River Wall Hanging. It’s dated 1968 and was made with linen and wool. It’s 164 inches tall by 22 ½ inches wide. Little River Wall Hanging is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2017 it was included in the large group exhibition titled Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction (April 15-August 13, 2017) at the MoMA. The exhibition included 100 works by 50 women artists created between the end of World War II and the start of the Feminist movement. All the works – including paintings, sculpture, photographs, drawings, prints, textiles and ceramics were drawn entirely from MoMA’s collection. I wrote a review of the exhibition. Read it here.
Drawings with Pen and Ink, Linen, Thread, Paper and Wire
The image above is titled Wings of the Wind. It’s pen and ink on graph paper, 17×22 inches, and dated 1964. Lenore Tawney created many, many drawings in pen and ink and other media. I learned Lenore Tawney drew inspiration not only from the ancient weavers of Peru, but was also inspired by her study of 19thcentury patterns made on a Jacquard loom.The weaver in her appreciated the jacquard loom’s ability to produce complex compound patterns, and the artist in her was fascinated by its intricate cord system. In the 1960s she began a series of India ink drawings that “hover above the graph paper with a vibrating energy.” Read more at the American Craft Council website.
The image above is titled Waters Above the Firmament, 1976, 156 ½ x 145 ¼ inches, collection: the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s made with linen, warp-faced/weft-ribbed plain weave with discontinuous wefts, and includes 18th/19thcentury manuscript pages cut into strips, attached and painted with acrylic paint. The top and bottom are braided, knotted and cut warp fringe. This work is a large circle set into a square – a simple design, but the upper half of the circle, where the warps are made of paper and fabric and coated in blue paint, give it incredible weight. Tawney wove the circle with slits that open at regular half-inch intervals that emphasized a third dimension.
In the 1990s, Lenore Tawney reinterpreted her ink drawings into 3D works, using linen thread. The image above is titled Drawing in Air XVII, 1998, Linen and Plexiglas. The size for this work is 48x48x24 inches.
In the 1960s Tawney began to work with paper and found objects and created assemblage. The image above is untitled (Arietta), c 1967. It’s a mixed media box construction with feathers, wood and paper, 12 ¼ x 7 x 4 inches. Photo: courtesy the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York
Lenore Tawney’s assemblages often included an amazing assortment of birds and feathers, some literal, some with a talismanic presence. Often, actual eggs appear as actual objects.
The image above is titled Even Thread Had a Speech, dated 1966, and made with wood, paper collage and string, 9×7 ½ x 2 ¾ inches, collection: Whitney Museum of American Art, gift of the Lenore Tawney Foundation. The threads, in straight lines, weave through the open-sided box construction and appear beyond the edges.
In the mid-1960s, Tawney began to create postcard-sized collages that she mailed to friends and family. For Tawney, mailing the postcards became an essential part of the collage-making process, and the cancelled postmark functioned as an important collage element that showed a record of a journey successfully made.
The image above shows the cover of a monograph about Lenore Tawney’s small collages titled Signs on the Wind, published by Pomegranate Communications Inc., Petaluma, CA, 2002. I own the book and recommend it for the wonderful essay by the art critic Holland Cotter and over 80 full-size images of her postcard collages, dated 1961-1990. Each image is a unique collage that will inspire admiration and creativity.
The image above is a collage postcard that’s included in the book. The postcard is addressed to Miss Tender at the shop Tender Buttons, 236 E 77, NY 28, NY. Tender Buttons was a repeat recipient of many of Tawney’s postcards that are reproduced in the book. This postcard shows a 1966 cancellation date stamp, and is embellished with neat, evenly spaced ruled lines in pen and ink . The design is both horizontal and vertical. The image is a circle in a square. Tawney created the circle with vertical lines in pen and ink. The circle is superimposed over the shape of a square made by the lines in the collage. The text collage, written in French, extends beyond the top and bottom edge. There’s a 4 cent postage stamp with the image of President Abraham Lincoln. This collage drawing echoes the art of weaving with taut, parallel straight lines. It’s amazing that Tawney trusted that the postcard collage would arrive undamaged, and it did. Tawney mailed the postcards to family and friends – and she even sent one to herself, addressed in her late mother’s maiden name. The postcard collages were made mostly with papers, including photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine ads, charts, Tantric symbols, musical scores, her own drawings, and notes and manuscript pages with foreign text. The postcards are rich and dynamic with a range of themes from childhood to female sexuality, even spirituality – and can be read as treatises or as Valentines. We are lucky people saved them.
In the book essay, Holland Cotter says, “The attraction of the postcard collages is not their inscrutability but their accessibility, their fleet wit, their conceptual ingenuity, and their stimulating metaphoric play.”
I wanted to create a thread to connect two artists I admire: Louise Bourgeois (American, born in France, 1911-2010), and Lenore Tawney (American, 1907-2007). One thread is drawing. Both artists had a background in drawing and sculpture. Both artists used drawing to explore subjects throughout their lives.
Louise Bourgeois studied sculpture but used drawing to tell the stories of her life. FYI: Bourgeois started drawing while still a child. She worked at her family’s tapestry restoration business in France and drew in the missing parts in the damaged antique tapestries so they could be restored.
Lenore Tawney studied sculpture and drawing and then discovered tapestry weaving. Tawney created the “open warp” weaving technique, with fluid forms of textured yarns contrasting against transparent grounds of exposed warps, like a drawing floating in space. Tawney used the transparency as a sculptural negative space. Her approach was controversial at the time. She said: “All I did was weave the design and leave the rest of the warp unwoven. Why not? “
If you can, purchase the book Lenore Tawney: Signs on the Wind. Get it for the Cotter essay with images of her weavings, and for the full-size images of the postcard collages. Holland Cotter wrote: “Tawney’s work was considered heretical by orthodox craft adherents, but too “crafsy by the orthodox art world. Despite this arts/craft divide, Tawney found success as an artist.
I am glad her colleagues and friends saved the collage postcards.