Lenore Tawney

The Queen


Lenore Tawney 1907–2007
Linen and bamboo
Object: 4064 × 762 × 10 mm
Presented by the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation (Tate Americas Foundation) 2016
On long term loan


The Queen 1962 is a large hanging sculpture, just over four metres high, made from woven and knotted linen thread in a natural colour, suspended from bamboo rods. It features an intricate knotted and braided arrangement at the top, below which a narrower section widens out towards the middle of the piece, before then tapering gently off towards the floor. The knots recall the nautical knots on the tugboats that Tawney watched from her riverfront studio in Lower Manhattan, New York and the braids perhaps reflect her fascination with ancient Egyptian headdresses. The construction of the work is more complex than in the related work, The King I 1962 (Tate L03873), made in the same year, which has a simpler structure but incorporates black linen threads alongside the natural colour of The Queen. The works’ titles are suggestive of companion pieces, but they can be displayed together or separately. A third work dating from 1962, Lekythos 1962 (Tate L03875) is also in Tate’s collection.

Tawney was a pioneer of ‘fiber [sic.] art’ in the United States. Having practiced initially as a sculptor, she turned to weaving in 1954 when she studied tapestry with the Finnish weaver Marta Taiple at the Penland School of Crafts. In 1957 Tawney occupied a studio in Lower Manhattan’s Coenties Slip where she became part of a community of artists including Robert Indiana (born 1928) and Ellsworth Kelly (1923–2015). In particular, she developed a close friendship with the abstract painter Agnes Martin (1912–2004), and it was Martin who named the series of works that includes this sculpture, choosing allusive titles such as: The King, The Queen, The Bride, The River, The Foundation, The Veil, The Arc, etc.

1961 and 1962 were very productive years for Tawney as she prepared intensely for her solo exhibition at the Staten Island Museum, where The King I and The Queen were likely 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’. In a statement written for the Staten Island Museum exhibition catalogue, Agnes 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 The King and The Queen were also exhibited with other pieces 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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Display caption

Tawney created her large, free-hanging works using ‘open-warp’ weaving techniques. This leaves some of the warp threads uncovered, creating vertical slits. The finished work is not densely woven like a traditional textile. It is transparent and hangs away from the wall. The Queen is from a group of weavings that Tawney first exhibited at the Staten Island Museum, New York, in 1962. The weavings were named by the artist Agnes Martin, who wrote a statement for the exhibition’s leaflet.

Gallery label, February 2020

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