January 3, 2010
Lenore Tawney, an artist whose monumental sculptural weavings redefined the possibilities of both sculpture and weaving in the second half of the 20th century and helped create the genre of fiber art, died Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 100.
Her death was confirmed by Kathleen Nugent Mangan, her assistant and a friend who was the curator of a retrospective of her work in 1990.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when art and crafts were viewed in America as mutually exclusive disciplines, Ms. Tawney united them decisively and controversially. Trained as a sculptor and as a weaver, she combined several different techniques — plain weave, gauze weave, slit tapestry and open-warp weaving — to invent large, abstract and free-standing, or rather free-hanging, sculptural forms.
Traditionalists on both sides of the art-craft divide found fault, but she persisted in work that came to assume a grand architectural scale. Her “Waters Above the Firmament” (1976), the last work she made on the loom, was 12 feet by 12 feet. The 1983 “Cloud Sculpture,” a suspended environment made of thousands of knotted blue threads, was three times as large, an ethereal Niagara.
Lenore Agnes Gallagher was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1907. She moved to Chicago in 1927 and worked as a court proofreader while taking evening classes at the Art Institute. At the city’s Institute of Design she studied sculpture with Alexander Archipenko, drawing with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and weaving with Marli Ehrman. Later she studied tapestry with the Finnish weaver Martta Taipale at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.
In 1941, in Chicago, she married George Tawney, a psychologist. (Ms. Tawney leaves no immediate survivors.) After his sudden death a year and a half later, she began to travel, first to Mexico, then to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Back in Chicago in 1957, she packed a few possessions into a car and drove to New York City. “I left Chicago,” she later wrote, “to seek a barer life, closer to reality, without all the things that clutter and fill our lives. The truest thing in my life was my work. I wanted my life to be as true. I almost gave up my life for my work, seeking a life of the spirit.”
She settled in Lower Manhattan as one of a handful of artists who, seeking space, quiet and a chance to work apart from the New York art world, lived on Coenties Slip, near the South Street Seaport. Her neighbors in the late 1950s included the artists Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin. She and the slightly younger Ms. Martin were close friends and influenced each other’s work.
Beginning in the 1950s, Ms. Tawney executed several large-scale commissions in Chicago, New York and Santa Rosa, Calif. None of them remain on view.
In the 1960s, in addition to small-scale weavings influenced by American Indian, Peruvian and African art, she began producing enigmatic assemblage boxes and collages, including postcard collages, which she sent to friends.
Many of the postcard collages she made over the years had fragile objects attached to their surfaces: seashells, feathers, tiny bones of birds and the like. But she did not consider a piece finished until it had traveled though the mail, and she never enclosed it in an envelope when she did. She would take the postcard to the post office to be hand-stamped and leave it with the clerk.
Ms. Tawney said that over decades of sending art this way, no piece was ever lost. Every piece arrived at its destination intact, she said, its fragile attachments unharmed as if it had been carried every step of the way by loving hands.
In 1990 she was given a career retrospective at the American Craft Museum, now known as the Museum of Arts and Design. Her work has entered the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
At one point Ms. Tawney made repeated trips to India to study meditation. She considered much of her repetitive and labor-intensive work — the thousands of knotted threads in “Cloud Sculpture,” for example — a form of meditation.
“I’m not just patiently doing it,” she said of such work. “It’s done with devotion.”
By HOLLAND COTTER
Lenore Tawney, an Innovator in Weaving, Dies at 100
NY TIMES OBIT from 11/24/2007