Lenore Tawney



Lenore Tawney 1907–2007
Linen, brass and acrylic
Object: 1270 × 680 × 44 mm
Presented by the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation (Tate Americas Foundation) 2016
On long term loan


Lekythos 1962 is a large hanging sculpture made from knotting and weaving coarse linen threads that are suspended from metal rods. Many vertical threads hang loosely from the top of the work with a number being grouped and woven together to form a more dense central section. Lekythos is the ancient Greek name for a narrow-necked vessel used for storing oil, which the artist may have had in mind when titling the work, considering its narrowing form. She also referred specifically to the work as being like a fountain, with a sense of things flowing. Also in Tate’s collection are two other woven thread sculptures made the same year: The King I 1962 (Tate L03873), which combines natural thread with black thread; and The Queen 1962 (Tate L03874), which has a more complex structure but a simpler colour scheme, being woven entirely of natural coloured thread.

1961 and 1962 were very productive years for Lenore Tawney as she prepared intensely for her solo exhibition at the Staten Island Museum, where these works were probably first exhibited. She began to work off the loom and in three dimensions for the first time, using a special linen yarn which had been made to order in black and natural. Inspired by her study of Peruvian gauze weave, she invented a technique that would allow her to work organically and with tall pieces that were not limited in their upward growth toward the ceiling. Tawney combined three techniques: split tapestry, double wefting and her invention of a new reed or comb that allowed her to shape her weave by spreading the warp and constructing it with a narrower width. She described this body of work as ‘sculptural’. Her friend, the painter Agnes Martin named the series: The King, The Queen, The Bride, The River, The Foundation, The Veil, The Arc, etc. In a statement she wrote for the Staten Island Museum exhibition catalogue, Martin foregrounded the originality of Tawney’s vision:

To see new and original expression in a very old medium, and not just one new form but a complete new form in each piece of work, is wholly unlooked for, and is a wonderful and gratifying experience …With directness and clarity, with what appears to be complete certainty of image, beyond primitive determination or any other aggressiveness, sensitive and accurate down to the last thread, this work flows out without hesitation and with a consistent quality.
(Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney, exhibition catalogue, Staten Island Museum, New York 1961–2.)

In 1963 Lekythos was exhibited, as were The King I and The Queen, in the seminal Woven Forms exhibition at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts and Design), a show which also included works by Alice Adams, Sheila Hicks, Dorian Zachai and Claire Zeisler. The exhibition took Tawney’s name for her group of twenty-two works as its title. In his introduction to the catalogue, curator Paul J. Smith described the ‘sculptural shapes of interlaced threads’ in Tawney’s work. He continued:

In these hangings, not only the created surface but the created shape becomes an expressive formal element. This is the result of a re-evaluation of the weaving process as implemental in varying the shape of the finished object … Form is determined by distortion of the set pattern of the warp and weft while the piece is still on the loom. Thus, the artist’s search for form is reflected in the finished hanging.
(Paul J. Smith in Museum of Contemporary Crafts 1963.)

Further reading
Woven Forms, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, 1963.
Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric, New York 1973.
Kathleen Nugent Mangan (ed.), Lenore Tawney, A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, American Craft Museum, New York 1990.

Ann Coxon
March 2016

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