Claire Falkenstein: Unfettered Topology

Jessica Holmes

In Untitled (Point as Set), by esteemed 20th century sculptor Claire Falkenstein, a complex network of welded copper tubes encase, but do not entirely contain, brightly colored shards of glass that glint at intervals through the metal’s open construction. Originating from her Point as Set series, the sculpture is indicative of the artist’s theory for that group of works, which she once described as being related to “the language of mathematics and thus to the under-surface relations in nature." Indeed, a close reading of the object might alternately reveal the three-dimensional manifestation of a complex arithmetical theorem, or the mysterious elegance of a knotty tumbleweed.

The New Gates of Paradise designed by Claire Falkenstein for Peggy Guggenheim's museum-palace.

Like the charged sculptures for which she became known, Falkenstein herself was a dynamic force. Born in Oregon in 1908, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, she began her career at the University of California at Berkeley, when she was given her first commercial gallery show while still a college student. Throughout her life Falkenstein pursued her work with unrelenting focus, leaving California and her husband behind in 1950 to move to Paris, a city that had long compelled her as an artist. She also had studios in Rome, Milan, Venice, and New York before finally returning to California and settling in the Los Angeles area in the 1960s. Though she knew, and was friendly with, a wide variety of artists both personally and professionally—from Clyfford Still to Karel Appel to Richard Diebenkorn—she refused to subscribe to a singular school of thought when it came to her own practice, preferring instead to remain fiercely independent. Falkenstein’s autonomy is evident in her output, which is so distinctive that it cannot easily be compared with that of her peers.

Instead she adhered to, and insisted upon, her own artistic vocabulary. The spherical form was a constant motif in her body of work, as was the sophisticated, crisscrossing structural network. Near the end of her life, Falkenstein referred to the “topological structure” of her sculpture, noting that “The surface becomes the interior…with the lattice, the wonderful thing is, not only do you have the motion, (the moving of the interior to the exterior; the exterior to the interior), but you also have the vision. It's transparent.”

The artist’s description perfectly encapsulates the enigmatic Untitled (Point as Set). The dense tangle of copper and glass is imbued with an almost kinetic energy, conveying a feeling of movement though it sits stationary, and there is a tension to the work that seems to reflect Falkenstein’s own lifelong restlessness. At the same time, the transparency to which she refers is also apparent. One can easily become lost in examining the webbed structure, peering through its orifices in search of the splashes of deep red and blue that hint below its depths. With its juxtaposition of both disquiet and vulnerability, Untitled harnesses a potent vitality, like a diminutive but powerful eruption frozen in a moment of time.



Claire Falkenstein

As an artist of singular innovation and energy, Claire Falkenstein explored a range of mediums but became known for her expansive wire structures that often included found glass and wood. Born in 1908 in Coos Bay, Oregon, Falkenstein grew up in Berkeley, California and attended the University of California in 1930, studying sculpture, philosophy and anthropology. She continued her studies in sculpture at Mills College in Oakland and while there, studied under the avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko.

Falkenstein's first major body of work emerged in the early 1940s, with her Set Structures, which her made of wooden elements that could be disassembled. In 1947, she began teaching at the California School of Fine Arts and in 1950 she re-located to Paris; this move would prove pivotal to Falkenstein's work, as she encountered influential artists of the European avant-garde, as well as Peggy Guggenheim, who would become a major supporter of Falkenstein's work. During this time, jewelry became a main focus for Falkenstein; Working out of a tiny studio and with not much money, Falkenstein created works inspired by the free-form abstraction popular among Paris’ vanguard with castoff and nontraditional materials. A significant breakthrough for Falkenstein came in 1961, when Guggenheim commissioned her to design the gates at the Palazzo Venier de Leoni in Venice—a work regarded as one of the finest of her prodigious career and one that illustrates Falkenstein’s inimitable ability to create forms that exist beyond the physical space they inhabit.

Falkenstein eventually returned to the United States in 1963, settling in Venice, California, where she lived until her death in 1997. She created enduring large-scale public works during this time, most notably, the doors, gates and windows at the St. Basil Catholic Church in Los Angeles. At the later end of her life, she had turned her focus to painting. Her works are held in such prestigious collections as the Pompidou Centre, Paris, the Tate, London and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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