Lenore Tawney’s Mysterious Moments

 “A Dry Cry from the Desert” (sculpture 1970)
A wooden box—smooth and unfinished—perhaps of pine and still retaining the resinous smell of pitch. At the rear of the box—a drawing of a skeletal hand. In front of this—a three-dimensional skeletal hand—lightly grasping—barely touching—a pure white egg.

 “Time Trembling” (sculpture 1969)
A  small wooden cage. Inside, some scaffolding, a diminutive, wooden trough and a little  ceramic pot positioned opposite one another at either end. The centerpiece here is also a white egg that sits carefully balanced on two crossbars at the middle of the cage.

 I have always thought of these two pieces by the artist Lenore Tawney as deeply related to one another, and even now, it is hard for me to separate them. I imagine them juxtaposing life and death. The egg represents the potential for birth and the skeletal hand indicates the cessation of that potential, but also the desire for it.  They both tell me about a gossamer-thin membrane between the animate and the inanimate.

Perhaps the skeletal hand reaches back in time toward the life it once possessed.  Maybe the egg is waiting. But then why does the artist place it in a cage as if to confine? There is some powerful emotional knowledge here. All this white and cream without any color. The anatomically correct reality and certainty of bare bone. The fragility of the egg. The meaning of the hand. The hand’s potential to grasp wordlessly at numinous light and mysterious moment. These two moment of stasis are carried out, enacted even, by the simple, unadorned presentation.

The piece brings me to the frayed edge of a mystery, the mystery that is life and my knowledge about life. The two pieces bring to mind these lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses”—

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown.


Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Mangan, Kathleen, ed. Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective, American Craft Museum, New York.  New York, Rizzoli International Publications, 1990.