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.