Topology: Objects and Space

Works from the Collection of Louis Leithold

Throughout her career, Claire Falkenstein explored an interest in mathematics, cosmology and molecular structure that manifested in her artistic output. Concerned with the properties of three-dimensional objects and how they interact with the space around them, Falkenstein adopted the mathematical principle of Topology in her sculptural practice. By definition, the term describes “the study of geometric properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures”. In practice, Falkenstein utilized the principle by developing a sculptural element deemed the “Never Ending Screen”, a complex network of lines (drawn, or rendered three-dimensionally) which appear to spread and continuously flow throughout space. Like nerve cells, or a topological network, the results are infinite.

The cover for Louis Leithold's 1978 work featuring a sculpture by Claire Falkenstein.

Given her interest in various mathematical and scientific fields, it is fitting that Falkenstein would associate with prominent intellectuals. One such individual, Louis Leithold, authored The Calculus, a benchmark textbook responsible for changing the teaching methods for calculus around the world. A fellow Californian, Leithold held multiple university positions throughout his career, although he is probably best known for his lively methods as an AP Calculus teacher at Malibu High School. In 1978, Leithold published Essentials of Calculus for Business and Economics. For the cover, he selected a sculpture by Falkenstein that illustrated her topographical explorations—a mass of twisting planes, folding and flowing through space. Although not much is known that speaks to the extent of their relationship, Leithold was a patron of Falkenstein and commissioned the artist to create multiple artworks for his home, including a Never Ending Screen. The works presented here come from Leithold’s collection and represent a dynamic intersection of mathematics and sculpture, objects and space.

Claire Falkenstein 1908–1997

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.