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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Claire Falkenstein

Claire Falkenstein's Copper fountain, 1965. Long Beach, CA
When we think of abstract art, we most generally think of the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the New York School, of Pollock, Kandinsky, de Kooning, Hofmann, and quite a few others whose last names aren't quite so familiar. We seldom think of abstract sculpture, much less the artists who have created such works (aside from Picasso and perhaps Henry Moore). Why is that? Abstract, non-representational sculpture grew out of the same mindset as it's painted counterpart, yet it's the pigment on canvas rather than welded metal, cast bronze, fiberglass, and stone which got all the attention both then and now. Most "art appreciators" today could probably name five or ten abstract expressionist painters for every sculptor who worked in that style and manner.
A Claire Falkenstein gallery exhibit: "An Expansive Universe."
Color Space, 1941.
Claire Falkenstein
One such woman sculptor we should think of, one on a par with Louise Nevelson, was the young artist from Coos Bay, Oregon, Claire Falkenstein. I guess I should mention at this point that there were a few Abstract Expressionist of both genders who were primarily painters, but who also "dab-bled" in sculptural work. Claire Falkenstein was quite the opposite. Though, in her early years, she began as a painter, after the mid-1930s when her time with the WPA expired, she became primarily a 3-D artist. Her work included ev-erything from small, abstract jewelry pieces to large-scale sculpture, fountains, gates, glass, and stained glass. In fact, glass in various shapes and forms, came to comprise one of the two most important items in her work. The other, was stovepipe wire.

Falkenstein's sculpture was several years ahead of its time,
much of it preceding the work of Abstract Expressionist
painters on the east coast.
Claire Falkenstein's father managed a lumber mill. Her family moved to the Oakland-Berkley area near San Francisco where she finished high school. The Falkenstein family was ethnically German. Her grandfather came to the United States as a medical student from Frankfurt, after the political upheaval of the mid-1800s. As a child, Falkenstein liked to scavenge items such as shells, rocks, seaweed, and driftwood from area beaches. She later came to use such natural materials to inspire and create her sculptures. Falkenstein attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1930 with a major in art and minors in anthropology and philosophy. Even before graduation she landed her first one-woman exhibition, at a San Francisco gallery. Her art education continued in the early 1930s at Mills College, where she studied under Alexander Archipenko, and László Moholy-Nagy.

Barcelona, 1949, Claire Falkenstein--Painting and
sculpture combined.

Curved lines, open and closed
spaces, consolidated masses,
all became a part of Claire
Falkenstein's trademark style.
Claire Falkenstein was married for twenty-two years to an Irish-American trial lawyer nam-ed Richard McCarthy, whom she met in high school. Around 1950, she decided she wanted to live in Paris. He didn't. They divorced. She spent the next thirteen years of her life there. In Paris, Falken-stein explored what she referred to as "topology," a connection be-tween matter and space, incor-porating the concept of a continu-ous void in nature. She became associated with the freeform philosophy of L'Art Informel, the French counterpart to American Abstract Expressionism. Econom-ic necessity drove Falkenstein to use inexpensive, nontraditional materials for her work, including wooden logs, stovepipe wire, and lead bars. It's amazing what you can do with stovepipe wire. Applied in innovative ways, Falkenstein discovered its similarity to lines in drawing. She continued to use it even after she was able to afford other materials. Eventually, the large, airy forms created from this material became part of her individual style.

The New Gates of Paradise, Venice, Italy, Claire Falkenstein.
One of her most well-known pieces is The New Gates of Paradise, was constructed of metal webbing with chunks of glass. Located on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy, it was commissioned in 1960 by her friend, Peggy Guggenheim. The gates are each 12 feet by 4 feet (3.7 m × 1.2 m). They marked the first time she used a never-ending screen with repeating modules attached in various directions, giving the impression that it could continue forever.

Sculptured glass designed by Claire Falkenstein for Vetrerie Salviati, Murano on the occasion of Biennale Vetro in 1972.
Some years later, in the early 1970s, Falkenstein returned to Venice to work with Vetrerie Salviati, of Murano Glassworks in creating several limited-edition pieces of glass sculpture (above). Most editions were comprised of nine items and today sell for over $6,000 each. The left item (above) is in opaline glass with hot application of amber glass. The piece on the right is a sculptured vase recalling a female torso, also from about 1973. The main body consists of opalescent hand-blown glass, with applied handles requiring glass applications in the same color.

St. Basil Church, 1969, Claire Falkenstein, A.C. Martin Architects.
In 1963, Falkenstein moved to the Venice district of Los Angeles, where she had built an oceanfront home/studio. She received many high-profile commissions for large public art pieces, including sculptures, fountains, and screens. My favorite, and to my way of thinking, the most outstanding work from her whole career came in 1969 when Falkenstein created the doors, gates, and stained-glass windows for St. Basil Catholic Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles (above). Years later, Falkenstein recalled, "When I presented my ideas for the windows and the doors, Cardinal McIntire asked me, 'Are you religious?' I said, 'Oh yes. I'm very religious.' He didn't ask me what religion. If he had, I would have said 'nature,' because through nature I came to the never-ending screen'."

Claire Falkenstein, all
wrapped up in her work.


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