Claire Falkenstein, American (1908 - 1997)

 

 Claire Falkenstein is internationally recognized for her innovative Abstract Expressionist sculptures, made of thorny thickets of welded metal fused with melted glass. Beginning in the early 1930s, she invented abstract forms that reflected the new scientific and philosophical concepts of the twentieth century.

She grew up in a tiny isolated community on Coos Bay in Oregon. The town had one industry the lumber mill in which her father was a manager. Falkenstein recalled her initiation into a life of art:

"The only art in Coos Bay was the funny papers, with one exception. The wealthy owner of the mill, L. J. Simpson, was a collector. He built a mansion called Shore Acres, above the ocean, which he made into a work of art. From six years old to the age of twelve, we used to go there as guests. I was stimulated because I saw a real honest-to-God oil painting. It was a mythological painting of somebody chasing somebody else. . . I remember looking at it coming down the stairway. There was a bronze tiger on the piano and wonderful oriental rugs . . . ."

As a child, Falkenstein would ride her horse in the dark on the beach to see the sun come up and spend time looking at the shells, rocks, seaweed, and driftwood, and these nature forms inspired her sculpture.

At the University of California, Berkeley, Falkenstein majored in art and minored in philosophy and anthropology, but was unmotivated until her junior year. The academic art classes were tedious, but one teacher, George Lusk, had studied with Andre LHote in Paris and was an independent and a modernist. Falkenstein said that Lusk:

"opened up my own interior for me to be myself. It was in a life class. The model was there, but I could do anything with it. Those figure drawings were an absolute volcano they exploded the figure into a freedom that I felt somehow using the figure as a total environment."

Even before she graduated from Berkeley in 1930, she had a one-woman show at the East-West Gallery in San Francisco.

From 1930 to 1939, while teaching to support her, Falkenstein created nonobjective, textured ceramic sculptures from ribbons of clay bent into interwoven Mobius strips. These forms, undulating in hollow and round curves, show her early interest in scientific concepts. From their dates they would appear to be some of the early nonobjective sculptures in America.

Between 1940 and 1944, she produced a series of wood pieces called "exploded volumes," made of interlocking parts that could be moved and separated into different combinations by the viewer: "This concept of the importance of the interval the spaces between has always been important to me".

Falkenstein learned to weld at an industrial welding shop, and after winning recognition for her wire sculpture and jewelry, was hired to teach at the California School of Fine Arts. At that time, the school was a hotbed of innovation, with Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, and other Abstract Expressionists on the faculty. She became a close friend of Still and was greatly influenced by his ideas.

Falkenstein went to Paris in 1950 and met Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti, and many other European artists. She also associated with a talented group of Americans, including Sam Francis and Paul Jenkins. The Americans came under the protective wing of a mentor, Michel Tapie, an art connoisseur and intellectual who promoted their work and their ideas. He also discussed with them the relationship between the new art and Einsteinian concepts in physics and mathematics that were replacing the old Newtonian and Euclidean logic.

Falkenstein was working toward an artistic expression she calls "topology" a form that connects matter and space, conveying the idea of the continuous void in nature. The abstractionists in Paris, in the 1950s, like their colleagues in New York, were trying to break away from the rigid geometric forms of cubism into a newer, freer kind of expression. This French counterpart of Americas Abstract Expressionism was called "LArt Informel".

Because she was poor, Falkenstein began to weld with the cheapest material she could find stovepipe wire. Out of this necessity and adversity came open structures, built up into larger and larger forms, with airy openings breathing between them, such as Sun #5 (1954). This was the beginning of the style for which she became famous.

In 1958, Tapie arranged a show at the new Galleria Spazio in Rome. The architect, Luigi Moretti, asked Falkenstein to design a welded stair railing for the gallery. Since the sun came down into the gallery from the street, Moretti suggested that she use colored glass, which would cast colored light on the floor. But Falkenstein had advanced from cubism to topology, and refused to do anything that used flat panes of glass. Instead, she experimented and discovered how to fuse chunks of colored glass with copper tubing by heating them together in a kiln. This type of tubing, bent and welded and hammered flat in places, with pieces of colored glass melting in the interstices, became her uniquely invented medium.

Falkenstein was also commissioned to create welded gates for the sea villa of the Princess Pignatelli. In 1960, Peggy Guggenheim commissioned her to weld gates of metal webbing, accented with chunks of shimmering glass, for her villa-museum on the grand Canal in Venice. Guggenheim dubbed them "The New Gates of Paradise." In these works, for the first time, Falkenstein used the concept of the never-ending screen a single module is repeated, attaching in all directions, to form a continuous field, which looks as if it could go on infinitely. This idea of the moving point is a recurring theme in her work.

After thirteen years abroad, during which she had become well known in Europe, Falkenstein returned to the United States in 1962 and built a modern house-studio on the sea in Venice, California. In the following years, she carried out her most ambitious, large-scale public commissions. These include "Structure" and "Flow #2" (1963-1965), a fountain for California Federal Savings and Loan in Los Angeles, fountains and sculptures for Fresno and Coos Bay shopping malls, a fountain for the San Diego Art Museum, a screen for the Seattle Art Museum, and other works.

In 1960, the artist completed her monumental commission for St. Basils Cathedral on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. In the doors, Falkenstein reiterated her concept of the never-ending screen. The fifteen stained glass windows (some are 144 feet high) are not flat, but rather, move in and out in three dimensions.

"U as a Set," built on the campus of Long Beach State University, is typical of her mature style. Its spiky look suggests brambles or seaweed her work has been described as "frozen thorns." The free, intuitive, ever-growing forms look as if they could expand forever much as Jackson Pollocks paintings suggest that they could continue indefinitely beyond the canvas. They imply in a small model, the infinite continuum of the universe.

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