Reviewed by Diane Newbury
John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin
August 18, 2019 — January 19, 2020
I recently visited the Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe exhibit at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Tawney (1907-2007) was a key figure in the post-war Bauhaus movement in North America and through her efforts textiles began to be seen as art. Women who rebel against the limiting given knowledge of their day are powerful sources of inspiration.
Laura Bickford, one of the Arts Center’s Associate Curators who helped plan and produce the four-pronged exhibition, was kind enough to walk me through the exhibits. The Arts Center has a large space divided into halls which can be independently installed, allowing scheduling flexibility. At the time of my visit three of the four Tawney-based exhibition spaces were open; the fourth exhibit containing Tawney’s 1983 Cloud Labyrinth had already ended its run.
The anchor exhibition, titled In Poetry and Silence: The Work and Studio of Lenore Tawney, combined a multiple piece retrospective of the artist’s works over her lifetime, plus an “evocation” of her studio and living space.
Because Tawney had lived and worked in four different studio spaces, the museum chose to “evoke” a compilation of those spaces. Populating this space are the things with which she surrounded herself: her furniture, woven items, her own and others’ artwork, and most interestingly, shelves filled with the eggs, feathers, bones, and rocks she used as inspiration. This mirror of Tawney’s working space faced more than 100 of her art pieces in an open concept which encouraged the viewer to wander and explore. As part of the Arts Center’s mission, the artist-built environment is integral to understanding the artist’s works.
Some of the first of Tawney’s art included three clay sculptures which are rare in any collection because of the artist’s insistence that her early works be destroyed. Although Tawney’s reasoning for this is not explicitly identified, I have heard from artist friends that destroying one’s early works may help break emotional chains that feel restrictive. The reason that these three early works exist today is that the friend who had them was not truthful with her, having saved them instead of allowing their destruction. I enjoyed noting that echoes of these early shapes reappeared in other of her works through the rest of her life.
In a clever homage to Tawney’s Cloud series of works, the Arts Center’s exhibit staff designed a subtle cloud shaped display area for the fiber art portion of the exhibit. It was a pleasure to see many of Tawney’s taller pieces from the early 1960s which have seldom been exhibited due to their height. She wove works such as Declaration and The Megalithic Doorway, each over 200 inches tall, when she was in various New York City lofts with elevated ceilings.
Many of her woven structures are three dimensional, geometric, and evocative without using recognizable imagery. A few of the more traditional loom-based structures include subtle figures which may not be readily visible until the viewer steps back. For example, Night Bird is a heron, but the bird is most easily seen from a short distance. Up close, the intriguing structures, patterns, and materials used to create the bird are lovely in their own right, but blur the avian outline. Particularly in her more gauzy textiles, I saw the inspiration she drew from ancient Andean weaving.
Tawney did not limit herself to yarns and threads; she also created a large number of paper-based works, often smaller in scale than many of her thread-based pieces. Her later work was perhaps of necessity smaller in scale as she was losing her eyesight. What emerges for me is the sense of a woman driven to create, not being locked into one material or genre, but continuing to express her ideas in any way she could.
Just outside of the main exhibit space, the exhibition titled Ephemeral and Eternal: The Archives of Lenore Tawney, lined a large corridor with photos, collage mail art that she mailed to friends and to herself, three-dimensional books, sketches, journals, and even some of her handmade clothing. I found myself drawn to a simple, slightly stained, artist smock that she’d made for herself and worn. It gave me a sense of the woman behind the diverse and often elaborate art, who still wanted to make a utilitarian piece of clothing for daily use. Her collage mail art was delightful; these pieces were only complete for her once mailed and stamped by the post office.
The final exhibition titled Even thread [has] a speech, named after one of Tawney’s assemblage pieces, was appropriately represented by artists working in an eclectic range of media. Encompassing two physical spaces, eight contemporary artists (Indira Allegra, Julia Bland, Jesse Harrod, kg, Judith Leemann, Anne Lindberg, Michael Milano, and Sheila Pepe) shared their work inspired by Lenore Tawney.
Although the Cloud Labyrinth exhibit had already ended, there may be a future opportunity to enjoy this work via video. A dance and musical performance titled Cloud Dance 2.0 featured Tawney’s art piece, was commissioned by the Arts Center, choreographed by Catherine Galasso, and performed by Kristopher K. Q. Pourzai and Meg Weeks. The Arts Center hopes to eventually share a video of this experience online via their website.
When I was asked to visit the Lenore Tawney: Mirror of the Universe exhibit, I admit I was only vaguely familiar with her name. With my focus on pre-Columbian Andean textiles, I’m generally less aware of the more contemporary textile art world. This exhibit was a lovely way to become both familiar and intrigued with Lenore Tawney, the woman, the artist, and her amazing repertoire of work.
Diane Newbury is a museum archaeologist focused on studying collections of pre-Columbian Andean textiles. Diane has been a member of TSA since 2019.