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Lenore Tawney (1907-2007)

1 of 6

Untitled, c.1960
linen, feathers, twigs and wire
105" x 8" x 3 1/2", signed

Untitled, 1964
ink on paper
7 3/4" x 4 7/8", signed and dated

Untitled (Arietta), c.1967
mixed media box construction with feathers, wood, and paper
12 1/4" x 7" x 4", signed

A Wreath For Lillian, 1969

collage of various papers, feathers and ink on paper

7 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches, signed and dated

Untitled, 1973
collage including various papers, feathers, quills, thread, ink and watercolor
9 1/2" x 8", signed and dated

Izio, 1984
collage of various printed and cut papers, watercolor, ink and gold leaf on paper
7 1/4" x 8 5/8", signed and dated


Prints & Publications

Artist Information

“Creation is a defiance of ordinary verbal communication. Its origins lie in the ineffable part of one’s own being and are much closer to the silence of the universe, than to its noises and verbalizations. Art is always just beyond language. Each work seems to be called up from a bottomless chaos and despite the magic order it finds in the artist’s creation, retains always the memory of the original chaos to which it is destined to return. The man of deep insight knows that authentic life is not lived arbitrarily but is governed by a secret mesh of invisible images.”[i]

An innovative artist who combined weaving and sculpture at a time when art and craft were thought to be mutually exclusive, Lenore Tawney was born Leonora Gallagher in 1907 in Loraine, Ohio. At age twenty, she left for Chicago, where she worked as a proofreader while taking classes at the Art Institute. In 1941, she married George Tawney, a young psychologist who died of an illness less than two years later. After this sudden loss, Tawney moved to Urbana and took classes at the University of Illinois. She returned to Chicago soon after and from 1946 to 1948 studied at the Chicago Institute of Design with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Marli Ehrman. After her studies, Tawney went to work as an assistant to sculptor Alexander Archipenko in Woodstock, New York, but found the studio atmosphere arduous. She returned to Chicago, bought a second-hand loom, and began weaving.

In the 1950s, Tawney focused almost exclusively on weaving. In 1954, she spent six weeks studying tapestry with Finnish weaver Martta Taipale at the Penland School of Crafts, North Carolina. She rapidly developed “a distinctive open-warp technique that was basically like drawing or painting with individual threads while leaving much of the fabric unwoven and transparent. Although the results found passionate admirers,” Holland Cotter explains, “Tawney’s work was considered heretical by orthodox craft adherents, but too ‘craftsy’ by the orthodox art world.”[ii] Despite this schism, Tawney found success as an artist. In 1957, the Chicago department store Marshall Field commissioned a work from her. “Tawney ended up creating two weavings—one that satisfied what she thought the company wanted and one that pleased herself. Marshall Field purchased both pieces.”[iii] Her career on the rise, Tawney left Chicago for New York, where she settled into a loft in a building on the Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan. While the loft lacked hot water, it offered sweeping views of New York Harbor, and the Coenties Slip was home to several artists at the time, including Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, and Agnes Martin, with whom Tawney developed a close friendship.

Calling her works “woven forms,” Tawney took weaving to the level of the monumental, the mythical, and the sculptural—where abstract expressionism had taken painting and sculpture. Unlike traditional tapestries that employed a rectangular format, were wall-mounted, and were often narrative, Tawney’s abstractions were of irregular shapes and “freely suspended in space. Often embellished with shells, beads, and fringes of feathers—and frequently composed of fibers of varying thickness and texture—[they] remained spiritually expressive, sculptural weavings.”[iv] In 1962, these woven forms were featured in a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the following year, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (later the American Craft Museum and now the Museum of Arts and Design) used her phrase for the title of a traveling exhibition, that included work by Tawney, Dorian Zachai, Claire Zeisler, Sheila Hicks, and Alice Adams.


In the mid-1960s, Tawney began to experiment with a variety of media. In addition to woven forms, she created assemblages, as well as postcard-sized collages that she actually mailed to friends and family. For Tawney, mailing the postcards became an essential part of the collage-making process because the postmark functioned as an important collage element, “it was a concrete, when-and-where record of a journey successfully made.”[v] So vital was the postage stamp, that Tawney would even mail works she intended to keep for herself.

Lenore Tawney made her last loom work in 1976, but she continued to create sculptures from fiber. In the late 1970s, she began working on her Cloud series, comprised of cascading strands of knotted blue linen thread. In the 1990s, she moved to a more intimate scale with her Shrine series. Comprised of precise “webs of thread holding small natural objects such as shells, bones, and twigs, encased in Plexiglas boxes,” [vi] the exacting works synthesized Tawney’s passion for woven sculpture and her interest in the religious and meditative practices of East and South Asia, as well as of indigenous American cultures. Commenting on the striking convergence in these works of the mundane and the monumental, one critic lauded them as “cat’s cradles elevated to the level of the awesome.”[vii]

In 1990, Tawney was the subject of a traveling retrospective organized by the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design). She continued to work and exhibit in group and solo shows until her death in 2007. She was recently included in major survey exhibitions that examined and showcased the importance of women artists working in fiber including Fiber: Sculpture 1960s-Present at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA, traveling to the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA (2015) and Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today at the Museum of Arts & Design, New York, NY, traveling to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (2015). Currently, Tawney is featured in a number of notable museum exhibitions including Between Land and Sea: Artists of the Coenties Slip at the Menil Collection in Houston, TX; Beyond Craft at the Tate Modern in London, England; Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY; and Thread Lines at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, KY. Her work is also presently on view in the exhibition The Time Is Nat Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Major institutions with work by Tawney in their permanent collections include the Allentown Art Museum (Allentown, PA); Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL); Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY); Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, OH); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (New York, NY); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Minneapolis Museum of Art (Minneapolis, MN); Museum of Arts and Design (New York, NY); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia, PA); Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA); and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery (Washington, DC).

[i] Lenore Tawney, “Scraps of Memory: Findings from Lenore Tawney's Notes: Poetry,” Browngrotta Arts, accessed November 2012

[ii] Holland Cotter, “Lenore Tawney: Postcard to the World,” Lenore Tawney: Signs on the Wind—Postcard Collages (Rohnert Park, CA: Pomegranate Communications, 2002), 7

[iii] Liz Sonneborn, “Lenore Tawney,” in Sonneborn and Carol Kortz, eds., A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts (Infibase Publishing, 2002), 213

[iv] “Lenore Tawney,” Smithsonian American Art Museum,, accessed November 2012

[v] Cotter, 9

[vi] Sonneborn, 214

[vii] Ibid